I can’t describe the sound in the Flamingo Las Vegas Theatre as those feet moved. All I know is that it took over from every other sense: the visual pulse of color on the stage; the cozy feel of the lush, velvety booth; the lingering taste of an acceptable Merlot on my tongue. If consciousness is capable of closing the doors on all the stimulation that buffets our existence, even data of which our bodies are not fully aware, then this was one of those rarified moments. All available mind power, even from the auxiliary circuits, was channeled to a single, relentless focal point: those feet.
And I wasn’t alone. Together, the audience was collectively pulled into a vacuum. There didn’t even seem to be much air in there. Everybody was holding their breath—spellbound, astounded. A man in the balcony section couldn’t stand it, breached the point of no return, and yelped. The cry sliced through the atmosphere like a machete, but it didn’t rupture the focus. Most people probably didn’t even hear it—the spectator’s outburst was as inconsequential as a rock in the sand. All that mattered were those electrifying feet.
One pair of feet had come a long way, from the arid mountains of Andalusia, Spain, via California, to The Strip. The other pair was trained in a non-descript block on the anonymous concrete grid of Southern Cal. One wore Flamenco boots, made of firm leather with a box toe and two-inch heel; the other was shod in Irish dancing shoes, with a rounded toe and low heel, and stitched in soft leather. The Spanish feet claim expertise in the Boda, Tango, Zapateado and their precursor, Bolero. The prowess of the Irish feet is in the jigs, reel and hornpipe.
Just as bone fragments from the leg of a dinosaur can lead to reconstruction of the entire beast, those feet conduct us to whole nations, societies, histories. Contrasts abound: Irish/Spanish, Northern Europe/Southern Europe, fair/dark, farmers/herders, cold/hot, moist/dry, Celtic/Iberian, and so on. In fact, the ready host of cultural oppositions is the reason the feet were hired to star in the “Battle of the Dance” production.
The brainchild of entrepreneur Andrei Gelabert and entertainment director Jack Rein, the “Battle of the Dance” is visiting Las Vegas for five weeks from its home in Anaheim, California. Despite its juvenile name and irrelevant narrative frame—involving the ill-fated demise of the Spanish Armada in the North Atlantic—the production is nothing short of astounding. Spanish flamenco and related Spanish dance forms alternate with Irish stepdancing numbers in a tightly choreographed back and forth between dance troupes that builds to a riveting dialogue between two pairs of exceptional feet.
The Irish feet click, stamp, and jump while the upper body remains oddly stiff. The Spanish feet tap and stamp while the body holds tight and the arms flow, the back arches, and the head remains erect. The Irish feet were more perky, often lifting off the stage—precisely executing small rigid jumps—while the Spanish feet were more passionate, more fully in contact with the ground, making up in dexterity what the Irish gained in flight.
During the final number of the performance, the only sound was the percussive variability of expressive accents within a 12-beat bar as the feet discharged energy that threatened to defy physical limits. Although it seemed impossible, the tempo still accelerated and the feet entered a realm of accomplishment that few ever witness, and far fewer attain. We were frozen, all of us, while the feet funneled the latent energy in the theatre into an electrifying circumference of light on stage. And then it happened: the men synced, each using a radically different step, each in the idiom of his own dance tradition, but using the same cadence.
Yes, of course, behind that sonal synch is a foundational similarity: both Iberian and Celtic cultures were influenced by Arabic musical and dance traditions. But what happened on the stage at the Flamingo Theatre can’t be explained through these or other historic correlations, such as both dancers training in ballet, or both dance forms evolving from popular traditions among the lower classes.
What happened on that Las Vegas stage testifies to the point at which love of dance transcends decades of practice, precise technical know-how, and sheer athletic strength.
It is the point at which the artist’s soul is free.
Kyle Hatfield and Javier Valverde Hidalgo perform at the Flamingo Las Vegas through January 15, 2012.