One year ago, at my studio's holiday party, after a very public announcement that my guest artist David Romero would be choreographing and directing our tenth anniversary show to premier in 2020, I had a near nervous breakdown.
Within a couple weeks I canceled all my classes, left social media, canceled events, promotional photo shoots, and disconnected in the most abrupt way. The simple public explanation I gave was that I was dealing with an injury and needed time to heal. That was true. But it wasn't the whole truth.
I had taken such pains for years to brand myself as THE one behind Studio Mangiameli: owner, teacher, dancer, producer, director. This was literally who I was! And now, after that fateful announcement about an exciting unprecedented collaboration, I was suddenly willing to dismantle it all. Why?
Something was driving me to this inevitable transition. Something, in fact, had been driving me to this decision for a long time. The complicated, nuanced, gnawing truth would take some time for me to be able to articulate. As it turns out, it took a pandemic.
The shut down hit and even through one of the worst years in history, I decided to return to the studio because as long as I made some adjustments, I told myself, I could do this. I wasn't done. People had expectations of me. My foot injury could be worked around. So I taught less classes and worked privately with one of my mentors. I pivoted to all-online classes and, for the most part, it worked. My teaching was more focused. My dancing was better than it had been for a long time. My injury however, was making itself heard and on occasion, keeping me up at night as I waded through a swamp of questions and doubts... what was all of this for??
Flamenco has been at the center of my life for so long that it is sometimes difficult to remember the time when it wasn't. But as some of you know, I actually began my career as an actor in Chicago, and later, in New York City. My life followed a pretty familiar pattern for theater actors... some small successes, some big failures, the relentless stress of holding down three jobs to pay the rent. Sometimes, though, as I sat on my fire escape at night from the 3rd floor of a pre-war building on 109th St and watched the city spin past, I started to think I just might make this acting thing work...
And then 9/11 happened. And all of a sudden, my life in New York -- the fragility of it, the stress of it -- was thrown into question.
This was the beginning of a difficult period for me; a period of doubt and fear, searching and loss and more searching. Until I found...Flamenco.
When I was fifteen years old I found a photograph in a magazine of a flamenco dancer. It was so striking I decided to draw it and make a piece of artwork out of it. I still have it, framed and hanging on a wall in my studio. The seed was planted so many years ago and somehow, after September 11th, the picture of that Spanish dancer came back to my consciousness and I was off to the races...
It started with several trips to Seville where I would rent an apartment and take classes during the day. I was mostly alone which suited me just fine. Students came from everywhere to study: the UK, France, Japan, Italy; the mix of talent, personalities and ambition could feel overwhelming at times and as a true introvert, socializing was more exhausting than energizing. So I stuck to my solo nighttime rituals of wandering around the city and ducking into a bar that looked interesting, or stumbling upon a peña or other informal flamenco performance. I also had a couple favorite tv shows I couldn't miss (Se Llama Copla - oh the dresses, those dresses!!- and reruns of old Joselito movies among them) and in the morning I looked forward to tostada with aceite, cafe con leche and hours of classes.
Years later, upon returning from one of my trips, my very pregnant teacher at the time asked me to take over her Sunday classes. Surely I had lots of dance material from my recent trip and teaching might help process it all. That made sense to me. And so it began....
I didn't open my studio until a few years later but once I did, there was no turning back: planning classes, choreographies, scheduling guest artists, end-of-year shows, keeping up with my continued education, marketing, collecting class fees, promotions, photo shoots, in-studio performance series... it was constant. It was everyday and it was all me. And my dog Henry.
Flamenco took hold in a way that nothing else had before. It spoke to me from a very soulful place, and I would go on to spend almost twenty years of my life studying it, teaching it, performing it, singing it, questioning it, blogging about it, and being completely consumed by it. It was gratifying and unlike anything else I'd ever experienced. It gave me a new context for expressing emotion and it put me in touch with a strength and resilience that I didn't know I possessed.
So all this would lead you to believe that I can't possibly live without flamenco, right? And yet, for the last couple years, I've kept hearing a voice telling me to move on. The injury was just a way to bring my attention to something I already knew.
The truth is we all seek validation from others in everything we do. I had something to prove with my studio and for years it kept me hungry and fulfilled. But then, my daughter Rose was born. And that hunger started to fade. The inspiration wavered.
Much like a couple on the verge of a break up who doubles down and gets married, I kept manufacturing ways to feel vital: more workshops, launching my OFFSTAGE performance series, participating in neighborhood events. But something felt wrong, like only part of me was invested. To be the flamenco artist I wanted to be required nothing less than the total commitment I used to have -- but didn't have any more.
Did this mean I was losing myself? Did this mean all that hard work was for nothing? Did this mean, even, that maybe I'd never really been the artist I imagined myself to be? If I could walk away like this, was it ever really real?
Yes. It was. I imagined the studio and it became a reality. Whatever I had in me that brought that about can't be taken away. It changed the course of my life and brought me to this moment. It was real. All too real. And consequently, it was terrifying to let it go, because I feared it could mean a return to the time when I didn't know who I was without the studio.
But ironically, when I look back at my body of work, it's obvious that I've been preoccupied with the reoccurring themes of identity and reinvention since the start... Some of you reading this may have performed in these shows, or have been in the audience:
Through The Mirror (2012) centered around a singular question that was posed to several of my dance students: "When you look in the mirror, what do you see?"
Tides (2014), I asked my students to reveal an experience or event that changed the course of their life. There were losses, births and moves across oceans. Stories centered around the one true certainty of life: things change.
Love Song (2016) inspired by the poetry of T.S Eliot featured an aging and injured dancer who weaves her way in and out of various dance pieces representing stages in her life.
And finally, Rose Of Damascus (2018) By far my most ambitious production featuring a script written by my husband, Benjamin Lumpkin. The story featured father and daughter Syrian refugees looking for a better life in Spain, land of their ancestors. The show ended with a list of the various countries where the many dancers on stage were born and ended with a simple statement: "Life is bigger than borders." Immigrants, like myself, are marked by one of the most difficult transitions anyone can make: leaving behind all that is known and familiar to find something better.
So there it was, all along: identity, reinvention, what it means to live an authentic life.
I've come to believe that life is about being able to manage transitions, and if we don't recognize or accept transitions then we're destined to live pretty unhappy lives.
I hope my students, peers and mentors can come to understand that I'm not turning my back on them on a capricious whim. This choice was hard fought. But we should all give ourselves permission to pause and reflect and acknowledge when something doesn't feel right, even if it means leaving something behind in a way that until recently seemed unconscionable.
Being entirely consumed by this art form was all I wanted for a very long time. And a lot of sacrifices were made to accommodate that lifestyle, but I'm far less willing to make those same sacrifices now.
My daughter marked the begging of something huge and tremendously challenging and rewarding and beautiful and maddening. It's allowed me to think about the possibilities that I could never afford myself before, because the studio was relentless in its demands for my complete attention.
Despite what I thought at the time, I see now that finding Flamenco was never about finding my identity. It was about finding a way to search for it.
I'm excited to explore what's next. I want to know how else and where else I can apply my creativity. There's plenty of that left and it's crying out to be heard. I've taken many leaps of faith in my life and never, have I regretted a single one.
So I close the doors to the studio one last time. For the first time in almost twenty years, I have to wonder what to say when someone asks "so, what do you do?" There are no easy answers to this question any more. But that doesn't frighten me like it used to.