"Flamenco is the song, the music, the whole way of life of the southern Spaniard, in particular, the Spanish gypsy," Teodoro Morca explained.
Morca, however, is not a Spanish gypsy. He was born in Los Angeles of Hungarian parentage, raised as an Orthodox Jew and trained in gymnastics.
As a teenager, Morca attended a concert by a little-known flamenco dancer named Ana Maria, and was struck by one of those cataclysmic revelations that can give a life both direction and a goal.
Now, at 44, Morca has danced with Jose Greco, Pilar Lopez and many of the world's other famous flamenco troupes.And for the past few years he has traveled the college circuit with his own small company, demonstrating for today's young audiences the power and tradition of the art form that captured him.
With Morca at the University of Maryland this week is his guitarist, also a gypsy only of sorts - Gary Hayes, a Navy child who grew up all over the world and found his future when he landed in the San Francisco Bay area and heard a flamenco record. Only Isabel Morca, Teodoro's wife and dancing partner, fits any typical notion of the flamenco dancer: She's of Sephardic Jewish extraction, but also is American-born.
The nature of flamenco is elusive, so for this audience of 15 or so students at Maryland's dance studio, Morca proceeds analytically:
"European dance emphasizes leg work. Oriental dance works primarily from the waist up. Flamenco uses both halves of the body in a kind of coordinated isolation," he tells them. "It's the only folk dance that is completely individual. There's no communal form. No group choreography."
Morca, a gifted and articulate teacher, separates flamenco from what it isn't, sets it in place alongside other major dance forms, and graphs all the coordinates until his students know the exact location.
But once he has brought them to the door of the ineffable, he is reluctantly forced to abandon them there: Like all mystical experience, "duende," the flamenco equivalent of soul, defies definition, even speech.
To experience flamenco, he suggests, you must "become one with what you are doing," and enter a state of being from which no one ever emerges talking in complete sentences.
It is better to watch him dance, or even just watch him move. He finally "explains" duende best through the ardor of his bearing, which makes clear an absolute devotion to the discipline. Though some of the technical brilliance may have begun to fade, Morca is clearly a superb performer who would be a fine dancer in any idiom.
At first, his dancing revives all the usual images - the arched body, the arms winding like snakes, the castanet chattering and conversing at the ends of the arms like the teeth of some strange and talkative animal. But this is a far cry from the floor show of your average bodega.
Morca dances with a fluency and lyricism that defies the conception of flamenco as all thunder and flying sparks. The movements of his arms in particular are remarkably balletic. The footwork could hardly be described as mere stomping, since Morca floats over his feet rather like a ballet dancer in a bourree.
His students see it in his lecture-demonstrations - the splendid musicality, the kinetic imagination and the ability to transfix and transfigure.
And when Morca ended his Tuesday night program at Tawes Theater with a passage of a cappella footwork and "palmadas" that went on for several minutes, no one in that packed and silent hall seemed to be breathing.
Since flamenco is not just the dancing, but an improvisational union of song, dance, and music, Morca devotes a good deal of time on campus to explanation of the "compas," or rhythms.
"There is no written music in flamenco, but there are set rhythmic structures not unlike ragas in Indian music." Each has its our name, mood, and intricate pattern of beats.
A "solea" is 'the longest and the most lyrical of the compassas." The "allegrea" is identical in pattern but the tempo, rhythm and the mood are lighter and quicker.
Morca performs a measure of each, and, indeed, they are remarkably different, although your average apprentice would probably be hard put to reproduce the distinction with such eloquence and clarity.
"Everything is in the individual interpretation," he explains, "the feeling."
And sometimes, when demonstration fails, Morca switches to anecdote: the day when, walking through the streets of Seville, he followed the sound of "palmas" (rhythmic clapping) to a small band fo extemporaneous performers.
A cab driver, passing the scene, stopped his car, got out of it, did a few turns, and then climbed back in and drove off again, he recalls.
Morca, whose small company is funded under the dance touring program of the National Endowment for the Arts, has a considerable reputation among aficionados of flamenco. He also has received a choreographic grant from the endowment for his own original pieces, choreographed to the music of Baroque composers. Steeped as he is in the history and tradition of duende, his own works are anything but orthodox.
They have the look and feel of modern dance compositions done in a Spanish idiom. Except for the fact that flamenco, being without a vocabulary of drops and leaps, happens all on one visual level, these works would be reminiscent of Jose Limon's "The Moor's Pavane" or Doris Humphrey's "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias," dances which used Spanish inflections in modern dance. Morca reverses the process by borrowing from ballet and modern tradition.
Although purists may scream at the thought of doing flamenco to Bach, let them.You don't have to be a Spanish gypsy to understand the language of Morca's dances. They speak to the gypsy in all of us.