What I Did for Love

What I Did for Love

Felipe Mato, an instructor at Taller Flamenco, teaches Karen Pitkethly a new dance

If you were a kid who danced, and who, like me, had seen A Chorus Line on a half-dozen occasions by the time you were 15, you will recognize “What I Did for Love” as the title of a song from the musical. Moreover, you know that while the lyrics read like any other icky-sticky love song— kiss today goodbye; won’t forget, can’t regret, what I did for love, etc.—the character Diana isn’t talking about a man. She’s waving goodbye to her soon-to-be-over career as a dancer.

In a broader sense, of course, she’s talking about novel-writing traded in for copy-writing, acting careers passionately pursued until parenthood, musical talent that is sufficient for the possessor to join a band, go on tour, and even make a sort of living, but not to lift him to greatness. Diana shows a remarkable lack of bitterness. She’ll never regret all those years spent rehearsing high kicks while not turning a buck on Wall Street. Could the rest of us, in her dancing shoes, say the same? Or is making it halfway more likely to turn us into a pack of Salieris, quietly going nutso over the genius of some buffoon?

I’m thinking about all these things this week in Seville because for the first time in a long time, I’m around dancers.

A Seville cafe in the early evening

I meet Karen Pitkethly in the dressing room at Taller Flamenco. She’s a dancer with pale Scottish skin and long, luxurious black hair who happens to be from my hometown, Vancouver, British Columbia, where she teaches and performs. She’s nearing the end of a two-month visit to Seville, and after Christmas she plans to take a running gig as part of the entertainment lineup on a cruise ship. This week, Karen has a private lesson every morning with Felipe, who teaches my group class. He’s teaching her a new piece of choreography that she hopes to be able to perform.

Karen studied ballet and other kinds of dance growing up. “And then I discovered flamenco,” she tells me, in a way that makes it clear there has been no turning back. That was around 12 years ago, when she was 18.

I also studied ballet for about 10 years, between the ages of 6 and 16. Later, in my 20s, I worked as an exotic dancer. (A subject I wrote about at length in my book Bare.) When I first started taking flamenco, I thought maybe this peculiar background would be just right, since flamenco combines the cold, hard precision of ballet with the sensuality of a good striptease, mixed with a mournfulness and ferocity that are all its own.

Now I’m not so sure. In class this week, I have all the precision and sensuality of a malfunctioning android.

Felipe starts our Tuesday class by asking to see the sequence he taught us the day before. I’m grateful for having practiced. As soon as he has confirmed we haven’t forgotten it, though, he starts adding on, and I become utterly lost. Then he tells us to work on it ourselves and steps out of the room.

Some time to practice would be great, except that I don’t actually know the step yet, and so I can’t. I try to watch what my classmates Pepe and Yang are doing, but their feet move too quickly.

Felipe comes back and sees that I don’t have it. “It’s OK,” he says. “Today you have yesterday’s, tomorrow you’ll have today’s.”

In fact, I have the second sequence down by the end of class, and even a third sequence. Toward the end, we’re running through all three together, over and over. Yang, who had the whole thing down cold, forgets part of it. It just disappears from her feet, there one minute and gone the next. Felipe regards her the way you would a guitar string that has suddenly become untuned: A surprising glitch, but nothing serious. “What we have here is a case of amnesia,” he announces, and goes over to walk her through it. I’m not sure she understands his comment. Our classes are taught in Spanish, and while Yang takes a language class every afternoon, she hasn’t been at it for long.

Felipe’s words are often critical, but they come out in a tone of gentle ribbing. He’s a small, wiry man with a mop of dark hair and a tendency to have a 5 o’clock shadow by noon. He sometimes lifts his shirt absentmindedly, showing us his silver bellybutton ring and a sunburst tattoo below his ribcage.

Felipe does not allow us to get carried away with flights of sloppy enthusiasm. Take Pepe, my classmate. When he gets a step committed to memory, he sometimes starts doing it faster and faster, over and over, like they do on stage. Felipe tells him to slow down and bring it under control.

Or take my arms. Arm work in flamenco operates at a different tempo from the footwork, functioning as a sort of melody to the beat of the feet. Whereas the feet make precise, discreet moves, the arms and hands should be in continuous flowing motion. Sometimes, when I think I have the footwork down, I try to throw in a few arm movements. Felipe urges me to just keep my hands on my hips.

Later I have coffee with Karen, the dancer from Vancouver, and Stephanie, who was a student of hers there and is now in a full-time, yearlong dance program at Seville’s Cristina Heeren Flamenco Foundation. “Flamenco doesn’t get any easier as you get better,” Stephanie informs me. “It gets harder and harder.” We’re sitting in a cafe on El Duque Plaza, near the city center. If you judge a city by its cafes, and I do, Seville ranks with the best. They are plentiful, unhurried, and heavily used by locals, and the quality of coffee is invariably high.

Karen asks me if I know a friend of hers who went to my ballet school in Vancouver, the Goh Ballet Academy. This woman, she goes on to tell me, has just been forced out of Ballet British Columbia at the age of 28.

This is a typical trajectory for a professional ballet dancer who is not at the top of her field. “She got a job as a secretary in an office,” Karen said. “But she shouldn’t be in an office. She’s never done anything but dance in her life.” I think of girls I knew who at 16 were deciding to drop out of school to dance full-time.

Karen is talking about her upcoming job cruising around the Mediterranean. She adds, jokingly, that in fact she should probably be settling down and having kids like some of her friends. It’s the sort of comment many 30-year-olds would make, but because she is a dancer it has an added edge. As a banker or a lawyer or a writer, you can expect, or at least hope, for your greatest professional success to come in middle age; as a dancer that’s less likely to happen. Once you say goodbye to performing, it may be for good.

But when Karen says cheerfully, “I’m just happy I can do this for a living,” I’m reminded that of course it’s fantastic to pursue a love for a living. Whenever you’re not mired in thoughts of being a financial failure on the one hand or a creative failure on the other, it’s great.

I say that I’m grateful I studied ballet, even though it doesn’t interest me much anymore. Karen replies with enthusiasm, “I thank ballet for everything.” I assume she means “everything” related to learning to dance. But I sometimes feel that generally, in life, I thank ballet for everything. It taught me self-discipline, for instance. I blame ballet for some things, too, like being perfectionist in a way that is unpleasant to both myself and others.

It also taught me a lesson I think is crucial. Some kids get it from music and others get it from sports, but a lot never seem to get it at all: Being very, very good at something is very, very hard. The upside of knowing you may never have the talent to pull something off is that if you do pull it off, you know it’s no illusion. You have a realistic picture of where you stand, with all the pain and pleasure that involves. So I guess you could say—cue the schmaltz—I won’t forget, can’t regret, what I did for love.