El Suavecito

E. Eastman

“Those shoes will come out of his allowance for the next thirty-six months,” my stolid father said, in way of congratulation, of my accomplishment at the audition.

“And about those fussy outfits,” he persisted, his eyes locking on mine like a fighter pilot’s on his target. “I meant what I said.”

For the record, there was no allowance, and I never asked for the much-pined-for fussy outfits or the hand-carved castanets, knowing that these accoutrements tumbled into that dangerous territory my father, that morning in the carriage, had warned about; indulgences violating masculine conventions, and while I had considered having his tailor stitch a pair of pants so taut against my flesh—mucho mas cenido, tighter, por favor—potentially injurious to the baby boys, I did not, not wanting to risk the indignity of, during a closet raid in search of imagined contraband, randomly hung clothes, or, god forbid, un-shined shoes, have him find a flamboyant and unauthorized costume.

On lesson Saturdays, I rose early, extending an already extensive toilette, showering with a scented soap saved for special occasions then returning it, after it had dried, to its decorative box in the medicine cabinet. From cheek to jowl I spread a spume of shaving foam, then stripped it away with a bladeless razor, practice for the day, which, given the other witnessed physiological changes of my body, would, my father predicted, arrive in a twinkling. Liberally, in a distribution pattern marrying my father’s bracing face slaps and my mother’s dainty pulse-point dabs, I doused myself with my favorite cologne, then, slipping into clothes chosen the night before and placed in donning order on the hastily-made bed, I repeatedly rehearsed the choreography of the previous week, already practiced tirelessly in a back room of the basement on a piece of plywood supplied by Francisco, the Portrero, until bubbled toe blisters threatened to burst.

Though my mother had escorted me to the audition, I was now trusted to make the walk myself, traversing palm-lined, imperial boulevards, past the Hotel Alphonse XIII, where I learned to use a fingerbowl, and the Hotel Reina Christina, where, quarantined with chicken pox, waiters in white gloves rolled my tablecloth-covered carts to the door and no further—repeat, no further. Slipping into the lush gardens of the Alcazar, I crisscrossed the paths and terraces and pavilions in the stippled shade of exotic trees to emerge into the Plaza del Triunfo, and then to the cathedral, entering the Puerta del Perdon—the door of pardon—pausing in the Patio de los Naranjos, where in Moorish times worshippers, before praying, washed their hands and feet in the fountain beneath the orange trees; a dash to the sacristy for a genuflection at the high altar of the patron saint, then the final sprint to his studio in the barrio Santa Cruz.

If my lesson were the first of the day and I arrived early enough, I might spy El Cojo, his heavy and rounded body swaying with his weakened gait, flocked by children screaming his name, following him inside, then scampering out moments later, his shooing arms the only visible part of him beyond the curtain; if the lessons had started, the children, grasping the bars of the iron-grilled windows, jockeyed for a peep; and if the student were well known, adults towered over the children.

Once inside, I stood by the door or sat on the bench along the wall, waiting to be called.

After greeting me, he asked for the shoes and plunged his thick hand into their hollow forms, ascertaining, in the arches, in the baldness of the toes, or the exhausted edges of the heels, the extent of my effort. He was always pleased.

El Cojo taught the tacaneo, the footwork, with a vocabulary of hand gestures—the heel of his hand the heel of the boot, a clutch of fingers the toe—a litany, a tattoo of taps and knocks, smacks and clonks keeping tempo, the cuff of a cupped palm, faint as a whispered prayer, or as fierce as thunder. If my feet could not duplicate this manual pantomime, he would, with an indulgent, slightly exaggerated smile, protractedly and tediously repeat the sequence of hand sounds. If that failed, after several attempts, exasperated, sighing heavily, thwacking his thigh, spitting expletives, he hoisted himself up with a grunt, breathing hard, and lay bare the choreography. Luckily, it did not happen often, for it mortified me. El Cojo had a biting sense of humor and was quick to criticize dancers whom he felt were not meeting his standards, ridiculing them, imitating them with wild gestures, contorted and unflattering facial expressions, calling them unkind names.

The dance he had been building for me began with a pose evocative of a bullfighter’s formal stance: one turned-out leg slightly in front of the other, chest erect, head, with a downward gaze, rotated to the left, hands clasped, cradling the right hip. When he signaled for the musica—my music—to start, there would be a few introductory chords and when it was time, he clapped once, softly and said, anda. Throbbing, my fingers uncoiled, trembling to life, lentatmente, slowly, como una mariposa saliendo el capullo, like a butterfly freeing its cocoon, my arms ascending ardently, wrists articulating languidly, my heels drumming a muted, deliberate beat, cultivating complexity and volume as I embarked across the floor. As I danced, he danced, his arms and facial expressions illustrating the refinements he wished me to make. At the end of the section he would have me repeat it, without the guitar, just to the beat of his handclapping, but this time, with mas emocion, and then, again, because ultimately his emphasis was the emotional aspect of flamenco rather than the technique that enhanced it: the arch of the brow, the hunch of the shoulders, the pitch of the pelvis, conveying delight, doubt or despair, and when he performed—which was rare—he put so much of his personal feeling into each movement that it was difficult not to assimilate the emotional content into my own dancing. In time, with a legion of Saturdays behind me, I danced with an abandonment I never knew myself capable, and with each session I did not stop dancing—I had not succeeded—until his face loosened with the full weight of his satisfaction.

At the end of the session, he would introduce me to the ensuing student and assembled guests as Suavecito, the smooth one, serving both as title and term of endearment. Standing next to his chair as he planned our next appointment, his arm heavy about my waist—a thick, inquisitive hand tenderly clasping the rim of my hip—I sensed, beneath the crush of fingers and flesh, an instinctual muscular response hinting of an intimacy beyond the platonic constraints of this tutelage.

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