Initially I started performing because I like to learn more. Seemed like it was the only way do your dancing,”

By Yanshu Li

– In BarLola –

The dim lights from the edge of the ceiling dampened the diner’s chattiness. The two sets of chandeliers in the middle of the rooftop helped not much of clarifying the color of the ceramic floor.

A Sunday evening in a Spanish restaurant named BarLola, David Auerbach was welcomed to a table next to an open area where a 2 square meter wooden board laid on the floor. Is this small area going to be where Lauren performs in? Auerbach said to himself and sat down.

Lauren O'Donnell, the founder of FlamencoBosotn was giving a performance in BarLola in a Sunday evening. [Photo by Yanshu Li]
Lauren O’Donnell, the founder of FlamencoBosotn was giving a performance in BarLola in a Sunday evening. [Photo by Yanshu Li]
The round plant-patterned plates and metal-framed mirrors were hanging on the while-paint brick wall. The candle cups were on the red tables, not lit. There were three chairs beside the wooden board against the wall, above of which hang a carpet, writing TORREMOLINOS, a city’s name in the southern Spain.

It was his first time to see Lauren O’Donnell perform in the restaurant.

Shortly after Auerbach ordered, Lauren O’Donnell came in; carrying a large red bag on her shoulder she looked spirited. They hugged and began to chat. The guitarist came in with a guitar case, starting to set the microphones on the tripods.

It’s 15 minutes past 8 p.m., the show was running a little late.

“I’d better go to change my monkey suit,” O’Donnell said to Auerbach, smiling disappeared at the entrance.

Auerbech was holding a wine glass, waiting for the show. The guitarist was toning in the middle of the appetizing conviviality.

O’Donnell showed up again.  With a navy blue Polka dot top under a black crop vest, the long black Bohemian skirt with ruffles covered her black leather shoes that softly shimmered in gloom.  Her past-shoulder hair pushed back and tightened up as a low ponytail. She sat on the middle chair.

Diners’ voices mixed with the smell of the food in the air. While the guitarist planed to break the monotony with his moving fingers, O’Donnell lifting her hands and clapped to make accompanied tempo. The room shifted the attention.

The sounds of her clapping were not of applauding, but of when the air compressed and escaped the concave of palms while hands hit each other – a lower volume of popping champagne.

As the music gradually speeded up, her back straightened, her head was up. Her arms rose, driven her body move onward to the center of the wooden board.  All light coming from the top casted a firm outline of her chin, neck and chest.

The music was Soleá, meaning solitude. O’Donnell interpreted it as sad and serious. She stretched her arms, and rotated her wrists to make fingers to bloom in the air. Slowly she spun her body for half a circle and lifted the skirt to show the footwork.

The finger snap, handclap, lap slap and the foot tap, the different qualities of sounds followed one after another, creating a percussive wave in the room.

Some diners stop eating to look at how she moved.

She was looking at the direction of audience. If the audiences were paying attention, it gave her energy while she looked at them.

A while after the continuous motion the rhythm changed. The guitarist picked several notes that softly lead to the end. The room quieted down as well. With her left arm hiding in behind, O’Donnell waved the right arm and stopped in the middle of the air. Her hand made a grabbing gesture and paused.

“Olé,” the audience burst into applauses and shouts.

“Flawless,” Auerbach said. “Isn’t she amazing. She dances, and she is a professor at Harvard Medical School!”

– To Seville and Back –

O’Donnell is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She dances in BarLoLa on Sundays, also teaches dance classes on Thursdays at Green Street Studio in Cambridge. She wasn’t a flamenco dancer until 26 years old.

In 2002, when she was working on her master degree thesis on semi-automatic medical image segmentation at M.I.T., she felt stressed and needed an outlet. Introduced by her friend in New York, who was working for Omayra Amaya, O’Donnell found flamenco dance.

She was mesmerized.

“That was amazing. I was like ‘what is this?’ And I thought I was too old to learn it,” O’Donnell said.

Started learning gymnastic since 3, and switched to ballet from 13 to 18, O’Donnell was no stranger to body coordination, which was very helpful for the new domain of dancing. She learnt a year with Amaya.

In 2007, she finished her Ph.D. at M.I.T.  She has already been learning flamenco for a while, also has been to Spain to learn every summer since 2002, but she felt not committed enough.

“I woke up one morning, and I was something 31. And I woke up and I thought what if I lie on my deathbed and I never learnt to (flamenco) dance, I would be so sad,” O’Donnell said.

Something she was not sure chemicalized between her life and the dance. She decided to move to Spain and to study seriously.

“I wanted to do it so badly,” she said. “It seemed silly not to do it.”

The whole year of 2008, O’Donnell immersed herself in a city called Seville in Southern Spain. She danced 4 hours a day at the beginning, and gradually six hours a day till the end of the year. She took as many classes as she could remember the choreography. She pushed her limitation.

“It was actually maybe harder than getting a Ph.D. in M.I.T.” O’Donnell said. “I was there working really hard, dancing five hours a day, being frustrated with my dancing, and realizing I wasn’t that good, figuring out what I do to get better at it.”

After one year of commitment, O’Donnell went back home and started to perform.

“Initially I started performing because I like to learn more. Seemed like it was the only way do your dancing,” she said.

Her friends came to ask her to teach the dance. Both ways, for O’Donnell, tightened her with the dance. She founded FlamencoBoston, a community that gives performances and classes.

“I just kind of grow from there,” she said. “It’s not like I had a super plan. I just tired to work out to be what I wanted.”

Red, orange, pinkish, black…O’Donnell has 8 pairs of dancing shoes for now. The oldest one pair was tailor-made in Seville, 2005. She uses raven red lip liner when she performs. Sometimes she wears a small jacket, because it makes her feel cool. She still goes to Spain every summer to learn flamenco. “Being in the moment” as she puts, O’Donnell loves flamenco.

“It’s more like a feeling connected with my body and the music, connected with the floor,” O’Donnell said, “I call it sensation.”

Michelle Ha, a Ph.D. at Harvard Law School, has been learning flamenco for six months now. She was captivated and discovered that she had to “feel” the dance when in the action.

“Lauren makes sure we practice that in class a lot so we can develop that ‘feel’,” Ha said. “She also likes to remind us that because of this, you can be at the ‘beginner’ level for the first five years of learning and beyond.”

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Lauren O’Donnell, the founder of FlamencoBoston was teaching a beginner technique class in the studio. [Photo by Yanshu Li]
No stopping point for learning so is true to Adam Hosein, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. He took beginner technique class every Thursday at 7p.m. His black suede dancing shoes looked serious as his studying look.

After one session, Hosein spilled an anonymous cup of water while packing up. A little embarrassed he felt, he lowered his body to pick the cup up.

O’Donnell bantered, “You are a failure as a human being.”

Hosein smiled.

Everyone was relaxed after the class. Especially O’Donnell, she said she usually felt happier, much when she saw the students improved.

Students paid in cash, usually $20 for an individual class. One-hour rent of the studio is $30.

“In a millions year I would be able to think I could teach. Even having a business,” O’Donnell said.

The business was not lucrative but went beyond her expectation. Although there were people who were interested in the dance, they showed up and ‘gosh this is hard’, and disappeared.

“It’s a cool business,” Hosein said, walking out of the studio.

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