Edwin Aparicio remembers his reaction when his high school dance teacher told him that he might be too short to make it in ballet, so why not try flamenco?

"I don't want to stomp around the stage with somebody screaming in the background," he recalls thinking. "Little did I know that I'd get an award 20 years later for doing that."

The award — a medal with a blue ribbon — was granted by King Felipe VI of Spain and pinned on Aparicio's chest Monday night by Spanish Ambassador to the United States Ramón Gil-Casares during a ceremony at the diplomatic residence in Washington. It's called the Cross of the Order of Civil Merit, and it recognizes "extraordinary service by Spanish and foreign citizens for the benefit of Spain."

Not bad for a kid from El Salvador by way of Mount Pleasant.

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Spain is as proud as it can be of flamenco, its native, Andalusian art form blending staccato dance steps, song and guitar music. Although Aparicio, 39, is not the first foreigner to be so honored, it's a little bit like the White House saluting a singer from Seville for his prowess in Mississippi Delta blues.

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"Edwin Aparicio is one of the most sought-after flamenco performers, teachers and choreographers in the United States and all through Latin America," Gil-Casares said.

Earning acceptance and respect in the flamenco community wasn't easy, but Aparicio has been crossing boundaries and juggling identities his whole life. He grew up in San Miguel, like so many Salvadoran immigrants to Washington. The civil war was raging in the mid-1980s, and children were being recruited by both sides, when he escaped to the District at age 11.

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He took up ballet and modern dance to keep busy and away from trouble in the neighborhood streets. At 16, he made his way to the youth program at GALA Hispanic Theatre. When he switched to flamenco, "I fell in love with the intricacy of this rich and old culture," he said.

"To me, flamenco signified a voice. I was an introverted kid. It allowed me to express myself without using any words. Some [flamenco] stories tell about pain and loss. I related to that. And some stories are happy. I related to that. It spoke to me in a whole range of emotions. As a kid from a war-torn country, this art form allowed me to find my voice, and I found it."

He got a job as a secretary at the Maggio & Kattar law firm, whose partners supported his flamenco dream and gave him leaves of absence to study in Madrid. He took classes at the renowned Amor de Dios school, studying with flamenco masters, such as La Tati and Tomás de Madrid.

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Over the years, he has continued to perform and study in Spain and elsewhere abroad, but he rooted his artistic career in Washington. Plácido Domingo cast him in an operetta at the Kennedy Center. He performed in Jaleo and other restaurants created by Spanish chef José Andrés. He formed his own flamenco company and started teaching the dance at the Washington School of Ballet and elsewhere.

"I wanted to reach out to the home base where I started," Aparicio said. "I wanted to put D.C. on the map as being one of the flamenco hubs in the U.S."

His loyalty to home also meant returning to GALA, which had helped launch him, and which continues to nurture young talent from the neighborhood. A decade ago, he co-founded an annual fall flamenco festival at GALA, and each year he creates an original flamenco program for the festival.

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In 2013, the show was called "One + One," co-directed with Aleksey Kulikov and inspired by their romantic and artistic partnership. After being together for more than a dozen years, Aparicio and Kulikov had gotten married earlier that year.

"That production was a little bit like our child," Aparicio said.

Now, he's in the early stages of developing a flamenco piece called "Salvador," or "Savior," that will tell the story of his journey and how flamenco has been a kind of salvation to him.

"My identity pulls me every which way," he said. "I'm the ambassador of three 'nations.'"

At the actual Spanish ambassador's residence Monday night, with exquisite tapestries and royal portraits on the walls, Aparicio was surrounded by supporters from over the years — former members of the law firm where he was a secretary, old teachers and mentors, friends and family.

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Hugo and Rebecca Medrano, co-founders of GALA, were there to accept a parallel award from Spain, the Panel of Honor, to recognize GALA's 40 years of presenting classical and contemporary works of Spanish and Latin American theater. The theater just received 14 nominations for Helen Hayes Awards, including nine for a production of "Yerma" by Federico García Lorca.

After thanking his friends and loved ones, Aparicio said: "I say thank you to this art that is both so old and incredibly alive. … To flamenco, a constant source of inspiration, whose intensity simply cannot be contained by the boundaries of the Iberian Peninsula. To this art form that has the power of becoming the very basis of identity of a gay Salvadoran immigrant in the United States."

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