At 8:30 p.m., the floor show at the Red Maple begins. In the swank, Lost in Translation kind of restaurant on North Charles Street, the dancer wipes sweat from her forehead; not perspiration or glow but sweat. Is she looking straight ahead or straight through us? Will she ever smile?
There is staccato clapping and deep singing and guitar strumming and much heel stomping. It is sort of Riverdance-like, but unbound. Belly dancing, but covered. The closest comparison, though, is not to another dance but to a bullfight. Someone could get hurt.
But, for all the underlying tragedy of the music and the implied fury of the accelerating rhythms, the visceral dance ends without bloodshed.
Flamenco is an art form that was performed by Gypsies in southern Spain during the 15th century and peaked in the late 19th century. It is enjoying a bit of an upswing in Baltimore these days. The flamenco-seasoned guitar work of Manuel Barrueco was featured over the weekend in "The Art of Picasso," the first in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's series of "Explorer" concerts. In addition to regular Tuesday-night performances at Red Maple since April, flamenco occasionally turns up at Tapas Teatro, another restaurant on North Charles Street, and is taught in a few local dance studios.
For its enthusiasts, though, flamenco isn't so much trendy as essential.
"Flamenco is very earthy. You pound into the ground, digging in your heels," says Tamara Sol, the dancer at the Red Maple floor show. "For me, it's a way to release myself."
Sol, 27, who teaches dancing at the Red Maple and elsewhere, is Spanish, on her mother's side. She has danced flamenco since she was 10. In the real world, she is a Johns Hopkins University graduate student, studying molecular biology. (Sol is actually her middle name; her last name, Flys, didn't strike her as flamenco-ish.) She spent her childhood summers in Spain, where she took lessons in classic flamenco and began performing in public at 15. She started teaching the dance in Baltimore more than two years ago.
"I think its popularity has definitely grown. I had two people in my first class; all of a sudden I have nine," Sol says of an adult class she teaches in Hampden. And the number of students in her class at the Peabody Preparatory has doubled to 25. "People see us at places like Red Maple and say, 'Oooh, we want to learn that.'"
Sol's performance at Red Maple traces flamenco's origins. It emerged as an improvisational dance featuring cante hondo, or deep singing; toque de palmas, or rhythmic clapping; then acoustic guitar and dancing.
The music often conveys tragedy, as in the petenera, the story of a girl who brings disaster to herself and village. But flamenco can also be joyous, heel-stomping music. The rhythm motors on a 12-beat count, with counter-time clapping for additional acceleration. The clapping alone represents what the Spanish call duende - a creative inner force.
The guitarist, singer and dancer trade off on lead. The dancer, wearing red, waits her turn before entering the song.
Sol performs accompanied by Jose Oretea, 24, from Prince George's County, who looks and sounds plenty flamenco. "I am the singer," he says. Cante hondo.
Ricardo Marlow, 30, treks up from Washington to play the six-string flamenco guitar, with obvious duende.
For her second set, Sol changes into a pink and gold dress, suggesting a mood switch. She entreats three of her students - tonight's ringers - to dance sevillanas, partnered flamenco dancing named for the Spanish city of Seville. (Her students sometimes dance at Tapas Teatro.) Again, the guitarist, singer and dancer improvise within an established rhythm and verse structure. At one point, Sol arches her back and holds the position. There is a sneak of a smile.
The set ends with a loud flourish, as if a lover has been vanquished or won. The artists get off their feet, wipe their brows and order something to eat. The Red Maple crowd, which had performed its own toque de palmas, clears out. Tonight's music was fun - despite the serious expressions on the artists' faces.
"You forget what you look like - you make your face cry," says Oretea, the singer. "Life is difficult sometimes. It's a blues way of singing."
There's more to it. Flamenco is not like a song, says Marlow, the guitarist. The words are, more or less, made up on the spot. "It's a rhythmic improvisation. It's like haiku."
Flamenco, Sol says, is about attitude.
On Sunday nights, the flamenco scene shifts to Hampden.
Teresa Zent, a lawyer who just moved to Baltimore, found Sol's class near The Avenue while Googling for a local flamenco class. The search field proved skimpy.
A check of dance events in a couple of local publications turned up no flamenco. Sure, Washington, has its annual flamenco festivals (next one: Feb. 4 at the George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium), but Baltimore remains flamenco-challenged.
But Zent was able to feed her flamenco fix in Sol's class in a Hampden dance studio.
"It will keep you from going senile. It's hard. It's hard," Zent says.
Zent and eight other dancers had changed into their 2-inch-heeled shoes and black, swooshing skirts. The swooshing is key. Dave DeRenzis, however, was not wearing a skirt. DeRenzis, a 55-year-old Hubble telescope engineer, is the lone male regular in Sol's class, which she started two years ago. He likes the company he keeps. "Most of the women in flamenco are beautiful," he says. "That's a side benefit."
But flamenco requires sacrifice, too. DeRenzis was aware that he was missing the Carolina-Seattle NFC Championship game, but the dance must go on.
"My life would be much less full if I didn't do this," he says. A few years ago, he went to a flamenco festival in Washington and got hooked on the Gypsy dance. "You have to put your soul in flamenco. I love that feeling," he says.
In front of the omnipresent mirrors, the class went through a 90-minute workout of crisp clapping ("I tell them to find that sweet spot on their palms," Sol says), twisting ("Keep hips forward"), shoulder shrugs, spinning, arm raising ("Elbows out. Don't be shy"), and digging in those heels. Now, put all this together in one choreographed dance, Sol instructs. Oh, and always stay in the 12-count beat.
"I'm too old to get this, probably," DeRenzis says.
Might have been the triplets that set the man back. Sol, who stresses technique, led her students in sets of rapid-fire tapping on the off and on beats.
"I used to think I was coordinated, but I'm freaked out by this technique," says accountant Deletta Scopel. "It's the walking and chewing gum at the same time thing."
Another thing about flamenco, another student says, is its artistic paradox.
"It's a Gypsy dance," says Laura Pallandre, 27. "You have to be pretty - but you have to be a bit ugly, too."
Ugly in that poor, miserable, angry, ancient kind of Gypsy way, says her friend Emily Sciarillo, also 27. Both work at the Daily Grind in Fells Point, where they probably don't attempt triplets.
By 8:30, Tamara Sol has put her class through the paces. The dancers seemed to walk and chew gum just fine. They all found their sweet clapping spots. A few pulled off the triplets. There was sweat and beauty and a complete failure to achieve even a bit of ugly. Souls looked full. All that was missing were the castanets. And as Dave DeRenzis said, it was just 8:30.
"Still 40 minutes left in the game," he said.
Football and flamenco.
Kick up your heels
Red Maple, 930 N. Charles St., features flamenco dancing at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesdays. 410-547-0149.
Tapas Teatro, 1711 N. Charles St., features occasional flamenco dancing. 410-332-0110.
Instructor Tamara Sol, who performs at Red Maple, offers a continuous flamenco class at 7 p.m. Sundays at the Experimental Movement Concepts studio at 3618 Falls Road, Hampden, and two classes -- from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. -- Mondays at the Peabody Preparatory, 21 E. Mount Vernon Place, 410-659-8100, ext. 1130.
For more information, contact Sol at email@example.com.
For more information on Maryland, Virginia and Washington flamenco events, studios and instructors, visit www.dcflamenco.com.