One day, a nice Jewish girl named Madeleine Perlman walked into a Manhattan flamenco class on a whim; now, over a decade later, she is fully bilingual, has a home in Seville, and performs under the stage name of La Magdalena. I met her one rainy morning at a café in Tribeca to discuss her beliefs, what it’s like to be Jewish in contemporary Spain, and the connection between flamenco and duende, its mythical spirit.
You’re an accomplished flamenco dancer, you teach and perform as La Magdalena, and you live in Spain much of every year. But you’re Madeleine Perlman, from Westchester, a daughter of Jewish parents. Was your family religious?
Not at all. The structured connection I had to being Jewish was that I was forced to go to Hebrew school.
Why do you think they made you go?
I think my parents always had a plan to make sure that I was connected somehow, that I had access to my background. But I have a feeling it was just sort of based on their guilt, you know, at not being very connected. So I went to Hebrew school for like two years, when I was around eight and nine, every Wednesday. My teacher’s name was Mischa. He was this short, very hairy man with an accent. I remember the school being in the rec room of someone’s house. I always felt Jewish, but other than going to my Orthodox aunt’s house on Long Island for Passover and Rosh Hashanah, being Jewish was never a big part of our family life.
When I was in boarding school, my parents must have picked me up for some trip, and we had on All Things Considered in the car. On one segment, they were talking about Klezmer music. And I remember asking, why don’t we ever go to services and why don’t we ever go hear Jewish music? I was just kind of pushing their buttons, because I knew we didn’t do any of this for a specific reason but I’d never known the reason. My dad was driving, and he turned around for a second and said, “Well, Madeleine, I consider myself agnostic.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “You know, there’s probably something out there but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t really need to know.” Then my mom turned around, and in her typical, bitter way said, “And I’m atheist and know there’s nothing out there.” I remember sitting back and thinking, “O-kay.” I always thought we were Jewish, you know, so it was this weird revelation, weird because it’d never been brought up. It seems like something you’d bring up with your kids, but my parents, typically, just never really covered the issues.
But clearly they had some sense of being Jews if they dragged you to Long Island for the holidays and sent you to Hebrew school.
Right—I think they made the effort, as much as they could. We lit the candles during Hanukkah but I don’t think we ever talked about what it meant. It was all about the rituals, but the meaning was just the fact that they were rituals. A lot of rituals are like that. You get connected to the acts, not necessarily what’s behind them. I was curious about what was behind them.
So a story about music inspired you to ask your parents why they weren’t observant. In fact, the way you told me the story practically conflated listening to that music with being religious. Do you feel a connection between the two? Has flamenco given you the rituals with meaning that you felt were absent growing up?
It definitely gave me grounding and structure. And you know, in flamenco you don’t get paid attention to as a performer unless you look the part, and looking the part means shedding fear. That has been a huge battle for me. In fact, when I think about it, I chose this performance art that is so expressive, and you have to be so—how would you say it—shameless. I mean, the whole thing about flamenco is duende: the spirit. It comes out when someone’s reaching this moment, this peak, and there’s a symbiotic thing happening with the singer, the guitar, the dance, the dancers. When people talk about duende, they mean a power taking you over. Though I’m skeptical of there being powers that take over someone.
You’ve never felt anything like that?
Well, I have. Once. It wasn’t documented because the guitarist had a problem with being on film. It was a fundraiser I’d produced with the help of my students to bring in a singer from Seville. My girls were dancing with me, so with all the chaos of organizing—the PR, costume dilemmas, group choreographies—I’d completely forgotten to plan what I’d do as the featured performer. My family was sitting front and center. I chose to perform a number I can dance with my eyes closed, but I had no concept of how I’d do it on this stage, and with these particular musicians. I remember having to completely abandon the notion of choreography. Once I stopped thinking about steps, and began to simply accompany the cante, I was free to express myself more fluidly and confidently. It was total synergy: Once the musicians sensed my competence they followed me. I was free to do whatever I wanted. That energy that came over me, over us, comes close to what people mean when they say duende. Usually—behind the scenes anyway—flamenco can be a push and pull of egos.
How did you get into flamenco?
When I was in college I went away for a summer to Salamanca, near Portugal. I had a horrendous situation with the family I was boarding with. I’d been planning on sitting down at the table and talking about my life, and hearing about theirs, but I was very isolated. The family’s apartment was dark and ominous. I would go through their photo albums, and I saw pictures of Semana Santa, Holy Week. They were really scary pictures: Parades of people holding up a huge mannequin of Christ, wearing these cone hats, which as an American I associated with the KKK. I had no idea what any of it meant. I got creeped out. But I kept looking at those albums.
Their little girl was a nightmare and she’d follow me around the house. I’d walk into a room and turn a light on and she’d come up behind me and turn it off. It was extremely lonely, and soon after I arrived I got a sinus infection. I had a 104