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Feeling the rhythm of flamenco-speak in Jerez de la Frontera

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

For years, my flamenco teacher regaled us with stories about a small city in southern Spain, Jerez de la Frontera. "Student recitals in the suburbs of Vancouver are fine, but you're a real flamenca only if you've danced the bulerias with the gitanos [the Gypsies] of Jerez." So I fly to Seville, take a train to Jerez and ride a bus to the ancient city centre.

On those cobbled streets, fancy footwork matters little. What those-in-the-know are looking for is compas, or rhythm, the beat. Another thing they look for is flamenco-speak, the act of saying something with your dance, giving the truth. Otherwise, "No me dice nada," they say. "It don't say nothin'." They demand aire, arte, gracia and orgullo. Words that are difficult to translate, but it's something like attitude, pride, heart and cheekiness combined.

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The challenge is, most of this rarefied dancing goes on behind closed doors, and it's elusive for an outsider.

So I keep my eyes out, ears tuned, hoping to run into a spontaneous party, or juerga, in the street, and there shall I be, front and centre, strutting my stuff as though I was to the barrio born. In the meantime, I wait.

Now, waiting in Jerez isn't bad. Its ancient architecture (Baroque, Gothic, Moorish) is lovingly preserved. The dancing Cartesian horses are astonishingly delightful. They prance about, moonwalk and shimmy to classical Spanish music. The riders are outfitted in black Cordoba hats and jaunty red riding jackets. As I watch them, the occasional "Oh!" escapes my mouth. Jerez means sherry, and there's plenty of it in the bodegas that line the pedestrian esplanades. As I sit in the sun, balmy even in winter, tasting the local specialty, a pregnant woman comes by, begging. I give her a coin, but then on closer attention, I see no pregnancy at all; I've been tricked by a prosthetic belly. The tourists are indignant. Then along comes a scruffy guitarist, in want of a shower. I hear a British accent caution, "Don't encourage him, Henry." So the guitarist passes the Brits by. But I request a fandango. And he plays it, real good, for free. It's first class flamenco. He sings with the requisite raspy voice, aged on cigarettes and liquor, and it's the best cante I have ever heard. He draws out the melismas, the Whitney-Houston-style "ay yai, yais." This is what you get in Jerez. Flamenco puro.

In other Spanish cities, you might find expensive dinner shows with the hypersexualized Bugs Bunny flamenco that impresarios peddle to tourists. In Jerez, it's the teenager on the bus tapping the rhythms on the railings. A solitary old man singing in a narrow alley. Flamenco CD's wafting out of taxicabs. Dance classes in dark, smelly, crowded studios where dust gets kicked up from particle-board floors. It's fantastic.

Another thing I love about Jerez is the shopping. There are silk shawls, hand-embroidered and edged with metre-long fringes, flounced skirts, flowery dresses and, most prized of all, the shoes. Solid flamenco shoes in acid lime, turquoise or burnt orange. The heels are studded with nail heads for extra percussive volume. They are hammered in by hand, the way the gitanos have always made them.

I ask the receptionist at my hotel, "Can you point me in the direction of the barrio Santiago?"

The streets are quiet, except for some feral cats picking at last night's fish. I hear the plangent wails of flamenco song. I follow the music through a winding, narrow alley to a small pub. The window shutters are flipped open to the street. I stand on the sidewall, watching, listening, trying to photograph this in my mind to tell the folks back home. Then an old man notices me and waves me inside. He fetches a stool to add to the cluster seated around an L-shaped bar. He places a glass of wine before me, offers me some of their olives and small bits of Iberian ham. It's hard to gauge the ages of this group, with all the nicks and burns and broken teeth. Some are rapping their knuckles on the counter: flamenco percussion.

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For the most part, they ignore me, except the old man, who is happy to see I'm doing the palmas, the hand claps, in time to the beat.

Then, a woman, tall and thin in a well-worn tracksuit, looks me over. I'm guessing she might resent my intrusion. But she asks me, "Can you dance the bulerias?"

Now's my chance. Finally, to dance with the gitanos of Jerez. The apotheosis of flamenco accomplishment. But I lie. "No, I don't know how." Because I realize, this belongs to them. It's their cultural treasure. Its roots lie in the poverty and strife amid the arid hills of Andalusia. It's their gift to me. If I dance it now, I would feel like a thief. I shake my head, and they carry on.

I sip my wine, and watch.

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