Juan Sanchez, the legendary “El Estampio”
During the initial stay in Madrid that spring and summer of 1953, I studied on a daily basis with the legendary master, El Estampio. Dolores Fernandez and José had taken classes from him primarily on the famous Zapateado which had 8 variations or groups.
I stopped in one day at his studio on Olivar 15. I had the recommendations of Dolores and José Fernandez and Roberto Jimenez. Roberto according to my understanding had once been a student of Oscar Tarriba along with Manolo Vargas. All were from Mexico.
As I climbed the stairs to the top floor, I heard the sounds of heelwork and guitar playing. The maestro came out and I introduced myself. I said I would like to study and I even danced a few steps for him and I guess he was momentarily taken aback by my brashness in confronting him without any notice.
He was a spare figure, hardly more than an inch or two taller than I. Bone thin, but wiry and very alert. He explained that the price was to be paid each week. It was very inexpensive and I said I wanted to have the guitar as well. This would be a small fee extra, but he seemed to imply that it was not necessary at first. Nevertheless we set a time and I began the next day at 9 a.m., his first class of the day.
My lessons began with Alegrias. It was in a woman’s style and I mentally noted that it matched the form I had seen danced by La Argentinita and Pilar Lopez. I was able to pick up the steps fairly easily as I did have some experience with this style and I think Juan was pleased. In fact, he invited me to sit by him the rest of the morning to watch the other pupils in their lessons. One such dancer was José Odaeta, a basque who danced very well and did the male version of the Alegrias. He was friendly and helped translate to English if I had trouble communicating. Above all, he did not mind me watching. One day he persuaded El Estampio to do a Sevillana with him and it was a delight to see both of them doing the copla together. José was very tall, and with the maestro so tiny in comparison, they made an odd couple! The particular steps in that copla were very special and they wanted to display them for me.
The other dance I learned was the famous Zapateado and while I watched José go though the groups I felt I could learn this. It was a dynamic work with infinite variety in that style. There are some who say it is the “book” meaning a sort of vocabulary of material to use in other forms of flamenco dance.
The astonishing thing about Juan’s instruction was his ability to make clear and accurate the various steps though he wore only soft house slippers! I am not the only one who has marveled at this. He articulated every nuance with his feet so well that the serious student could capture the shape of each phrase. He often cautioned his pupils that the heelwork should be “very clean” and this was advice that everyone should take in any form of musical expression. Every beat must be heard as rhythmic drumming which is basic to all music. The percussive lead is followed by the guitarist. Even without music, the heel patterns are musical and the shadings all important.
After watching it for several weeks being worked on by José Odeata, I felt familiar with it. I told the Maestro that I thought I could do it and he replied in Spanish that one cannot learn to be a bullfighter by watching. A metaphor, surely, so one must learn. After completing the study of Alegrias for women, Juan began showing me the opening passages of the Zapateado. All was intricate and demanded tremendous concentration. There were six groups or variations in the main part of the dance and then the Campanas in the middle which consisted of some melodies in the same rhythm but with distinct movement patterns. The final passages were an exciting display of slaps on the thigh and boots. I was able to learn it and somehow retain the entire six variations in my mind throughout the rest of my stay in Spain and the trip back to the states.
El Estampio’s guitarist, Manolo Bonet was excellent, an older man with a crippled foot. Occasionally his step-son, Emilio, would substitute for Manolo. I was able to contact Emilio Bonet years later when he came to the states on a tour with a Spanish dance company.
Juan and Manolo would argue from time to time during the classes over some point in the dance. This happened almost every day. I am not sure what the disagreement was but it seems they had different opinions about how the steps should be accompanied or some phrasing in the steps themselves. But we all learned, by repetition and watching others struggle with the complexity of patterns.
One day, Juan addressed me as “ gachi’, and Manolo became angry at Juan for using a word that was actually the gypsy language meaning girl or gal. I think he was just being playful to break the monotony of continuous explanation and demonstrating.
I was lucky. These were El Estampio’s last years and he died four years later. Somehow the Zapateado went out of style. And once it was no longer played or danced, it was inevitable that it be forgotten. I never stopped performing it.
I was gratified that the press wrote in high praise of my rendition of this dance in performance and in recent years I received requests from Spain and Mexico and other parts of the United States for the steps. I don’t know why it has been so neglected.
This work is considered a master piece. It was reputed to be the creation by collaboration between Juan Sanchez and another dancer of his era, Antonio Bilbao.
While studying in Estampio’s studio, I was able to contact someone with whom I had a connection in Los Angeles. This connection was the Heredia family, who were essentially gypsies from Spain. The father was definitely “Gitano”. There were eleven children. One of them, a daughter, Sarita, lived in Olivar 15. Some how I made contact with her. When she knew who I was, she embraced me. She had been studying with Juan Sanchez for two years, and she was really a guitarist who could play, dance and sing all at the same time! My association with the Heredias is the subject of another story.