Smart people Square Dance.

Written by

Andrew Millar


July 14, 2008

I have a lecture I deliver to design students every now and then. The subject is ‘How we think creatively’. Which is kind of funny because I do the same lecture over and over again. Which, in itself, isn’t very creative. The moral of the lecture is that our brains act in the same way as our muscles, that is to say, if we don’t exercise them, they atrophy.

So, I’d end the lecture with 10 exercises to keep your brain active.

One is to do something you’ve never done before each day.

And another is to learn Square Dancing.

Before you think I’ve taken leave of reality let me explain. The brain exists in two halves that think and act very differently. And the more we integrate and co-ordinate the activity of the two sides to one thought or action, the stronger our minds will be. So any exercise that asks us to interpret a command to produce a movement will be good exercise. (This is different to repetitive actions that actually shut down the areas of reason and intellect.) Square dancing or line dancing are good exercise because you have to think and move to someone else’s call. Table tennis, badminton, squash and horse riding are equally as powerful: to say nothing of their benefits to your cardio system.

But the best brain exercise of all is learning to play a musical instrument – and not just because you can do it sitting down.

And so, to practice what I preach, I went with guitar case and a bag of bad habits to learn the style of the Flamenco.

Adelaide, like most cities of the world, is dotted with old church halls filled with culturally based performing groups: Caledonian sword dance groups, or Irish dancers, Morris dancers, Greek bouzouki bands, Mariachi, Japanese Sodo drummers and so on. And it was into one of these chilly, dusty halls I walked.

The walls in the dimly lit, makeshift corridor were covered with a history of playbills for visiting Flamenco troupes, photos from past performances, of girls in black ruffled skirts and men in bolero jackets and an eclectic collection anything else that related to this fiery music form. Through a glass door I could see young dancers practicing the solid time steps that are the basis of Flamenco. What I couldn’t see was anyone who fitted my idea of the person who I had found to be a mentor. Eventually a short strong man with a short clipped white beard with a very cheeky smile emerged from a warm room to one side. He was dressed all in black with a Greek fisherman’s hat in control of his white hair.

““Aloysius will be here shortly”,” he kindly offered. “You are new.”.”

“I am. And I am running late myself. “I should have been here 30 years ago”,” I replied.

““When I teach, I say, it’s never too late. After you are dead, then… THEN you are too late”.” he replied. He fiddled with a padlock on a side door. “”Here, come and look at my paintings while you wait.”” And he led me into a side room, its walls covered with layers of painted canvases turned towards the wall.

“”I teach Flamenco singing. And I paint.”” He began to turn canvases around – portraits with vibrant colours, strong lines and deep shadows. Though the themes differed, they all reflected the ‘Cante Hondo’… the deep philosophical character of Gypsy Flamenco. Goya and el Greco meets Dali. It was a massive body of work.

“”I am Gypsy.”” He didn’t pronounce the ‘g’. ““I come from Algeciras in southern Spain.””

“”Ah. Andalusia”,” I offered.

He nodded. ““I was a Bullfighter. They called me ‘el Gitanillo de Algeciras’. But I was badly injured so I came to Australia with Flamenco company in 1964. I stayed to enjoy the new landscape and freedom of this country.””

The paintings were arranged in groups around the room –- piles ready for various exhibitions in Adelaide, Spain and Japan. “”Don Dunstan commissioned me to paint his portrait before he died”.” And he swung a huge canvas around. The painting of the dying politician was obviously done by an honest artist inspired by the human spirit.

My ‘Professor’ appeared at the door, tall and a little gangly; guitar case, bag and small amplifier hanging of his shoulders; all in great danger of falling to the floor at any moment. He was a little scruffy and a little awkward. He looked like a true musician.

The Artist offered his studio, “”Have your lesson in here, amongst my paintings. It might inspire. And when you’re done, join us after when I sing with a dance class.””

And after a humbling hour with a young guy who had more to offer the music world with just the little finger of his left hand that I can ever hope to, I joined the Artist and the Professor while they provided the rhythmic ‘compass’ for a dance class.

I left an hour later, The Artist wailing the historic laments of his people, and the Professor strumming to the heel steps of girls lost in euphoric, endorphin trances.

I had done something new. I had tried to coordinate command and movement.

And I felt smarter for it.

Andrew Millar

(“The Canvas as a Mirror’ Salvador Loreto is exhibiting at the Adelaide Town Hall during SALA Week 2008.)