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The Devil Made Him Do It

After touring from Java to Spain, septuagenarian flamenco dancer Edo Sie found stomping grounds in Chicago.

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In the alley next to the Edgewater branch of the Chicago Public Library is a red door that opens onto a small enclosed garden, where another red door and a flight of creaky stairs lead to a tai chi school. On Fridays and Sundays it's also a flamenco dance school, with classes taught by 76-year-old Edo Sie, a wisp of a man who's almost always dressed head to toe in black when he teaches. One Sunday not long ago four students, who ranged from beginner to advanced, watched as Sie demonstrated a move, spinning twice clockwise, then abruptly reversing direction and spinning counterclockwise. The students tried it, but they were all at least a little clumsy. "The change must be--a blind man must be able to see it," Sie said gently. "We must meditate on the duende within us." Duende, he explains, "is a spirit, a devil, a force that enters from above. You must depart to let the duende in."

Sie--who also dances with, coaches, and choreographs for the Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, a company in residence at Northeastern Illinois University--has been dancing most of his life. He was born in Java in 1929, and when he was nine his Chinese father and Dutch mother had him take lessons in modern and Balinese dancing. The teachers were strict. Right after he started, his modern-dance teacher put him through an hour and a half of what she called arm dancing. "I thought my arms were falling off my body," he says. The teacher asked if something was wrong. He said his arms hurt. "She looked at me and she said, 'You forget that you have arms, and you do it.'" Obediently, he raised his arms again, and he says they began to sway as if independent of his will. "I'll never forget the force. Only afterwards I understood that's what they say--'When the duende enters you must be out.'"

During the war, when Java was occupied by the Japanese, Sie and his older brother and younger sister performed modern and Balinese dances before audiences in their home, often accompanying themselves on traditional instruments. When the war ended, the three toured Europe in a show called "Dances From Bali." "We were in all these countries," says Sie, "and it's very strange--the moment you get out of an airplane it's as if you feel the essence of a country." They all loved Spain. "This is a country that we would like to live and die." After the tour ended they flew back to Spain.

In Madrid Sie discovered the same spirit he'd felt when he was arm dancing. He was sitting in a bar when he heard an old man at a corner table pounding his fingers fast on the tabletop. The man then began to sing in an eerie, high-pitched cry. Sie was transfixed. "He was singing flamenco, but he was not there," he says. "It was like this--he wasn't singing for anybody. He was just singing. It was incredible."

Sie never went back to Java. He began taking private lessons in Spanish dance with Antonio Marin, who'd lost a leg in an accident at the start of a promising career. Sie saw parallels between flamenco and Balinese dance. "In Balinese dancing the musician follows the dancer," he says. "In flamenco it's the same. In Balinese dancing, before the dancer dances there are ceremonies, rites. They burn incense, they fall into a trance. When the duende comes into the dancer it is similar."

Sie also studied classical ballet in France, Italy, and England, but he kept coming back to flamenco and to Marin. Eventually he owed Marin 1,800 pesetas, a lot of money in the 50s. He stopped going to classes and visited Marin again only after landing a tour contract. "I went to him and said, 'Maestro, I've been contracted. I'm going to leave Madrid.' 'Are you? Felicidades, hombre! May you continue always very well!'" After the tour Sie took Marin the 1,800 pesetas. "He looked at it and said, 'What is this?' I said, 'It's the money that I owe you.'" Marin took half and returned the rest to Sie.

Sie went on to dance with some of the most respected Spanish companies and dancers in the world, including Jose Greco and Rafael de Cordoba. In 1963, when he was 34, he married another flamenco dancer, Azucena Vega, and they formed a company that toured Europe and the U.S.--they once were on a bill in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra, and they were at Carnegie Hall in a joint concert with Charles Mingus. In 1980 Libby Komaiko, founder of the Ensemble Espanol, brought Sie to Chicago to teach, and he's split his time ever since between this city and Madrid, where his son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren live.

After an hour of nonstop dancing during the Sunday class in Edgewater the students were growing tired, but Sie demonstrated every move perfectly, seemingly without effort. He kept pushing them, refining each motion, from simple heel stomps to complex twirls to languid sweeps the beginners didn't yet know how to follow. One woman had sweat pouring down her face. Sie gave them exactly ten seconds to get a drink of water.

Then he pushed them even harder, mapping out a dance that combined everything they'd worked on. He showed them how to start on a spot with a burst of tapping that grows in intensity, then whirl to another spot and stamp hard before spinning off again in another direction. He demonstrated once, twice. The students clearly found it difficult--one of them missed a step and stopped. "It happens to all of us," Sie said.

Asked if he ever considers retirement, Sie laughed. "That is a word that doesn't enter my vocabulary," he said. "We leave this world dancing and we continue in the next one. I know who I will dance with in the next one." He laughed again. "The devil, of course."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.

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