How many times has that little voice sounded in your head, suggesting that you ‘just do it’? Nellie Bennett followed that voice. Working as a shopgirl in a department store she decided to take up flamenco and follow a romantic dream of heading to Spain, dancing flamenco and living a passionate life filled with smoky bars and gorgeous gypsy men.
On a hot summer’s day, fair-skinned, red-haired Nellie takes her first flamenco class in a bohemian suburb of Sydney. After much foot stamping, she hears the trills of a flamenco guitarist tuning his guitar and she is hooked. She realises that this is what she wants for the soundtrack of her life. For Nellie there is nothing more beautiful than to ‘twist and twirl and stamp my feet to the sound of flamenco guitar’. The voice in her head whispers, Well, why don’t you?
The vague dream becomes a purpose. Working long hours at her day job, escaping at night to her flamenco classes, Nellie works towards making her dream a reality. She packs her suede shoes and a set of castanets and heads to Seville for six weeks to learn flamenco.
Walking through the streets of Seville on her way to her first class at dance school, Nellie realises that flamenco is not a ‘thing to do’ but a way of life that pulses with the beat of one’s heart. It is el duende, the spirit of flamenco, that Frederico Garcia Lorca wrote is ‘a power not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought … duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet …’
But as always with duende there is a dark side to following one’s dreams. Nellie’s idea of ‘drinking red wine and dancing flamenco in little bars until dawn’ is juxtaposed with her non-existent Spanish language skills, her vegan diet and an overwhelming self-doubt – maybe following her dream is a big mistake and she isn’t really the intrepid traveller she thought she was going to be. Starving and homesick, Nellie wanders into a tablao, a flamenco theatre, and watches a solo flamenco dancer performing. It is a moment that changes her life – this is how she wants to live, ‘without being afraid of life, of passion, or falling off the stage’.
Nellie takes a breath and jumps into an advanced dance class where she falls in love with the flamenco life and with Enrique, her stern but sultry dance teacher. But this is just the beginning. When her six weeks in Seville are up, Nellie decides to continue her dance training in Madrid. And she does run away with the gypsies, finds love with a tall, dark, handsome Basque chef, and discovers a Spain that promises to trample your soul, feed your stomach and lift your spirits in a heartbeat.
This is a simple yet beautifully told memoir that is anchored by an honesty and self-awareness that carries you along on the dreams-can-come true adventure. Sparkling with humour and enthusiasm, Only in Spain threatens to make you grab your best swirly skirt, book that ticket and jump on a direct flight to Spain.
Nellie Bennett, Only in Spain, Allen & Unwin, 2012, PB, 304pp, $27.99
Jody Lee is a freelance book editor who trained as a dancer and recently spent three months living in Spain.
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