We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Watching him strum his shiny orange flamenco guitar inside Alexandria’s Las Tapas restaurant on Halloween night, you can’t tell that 25-year-old musician Richard Marlow is a total nerd. Sitting onstage atop a wooden box, Marlow wears a black cape that brushes against the floor behind him, a black cloth mask that’s bundled around his head beneath the brim of his black hat, a black shirt, black pants, black leather boots, and a close-cut black goatee. He looks like Bono dressed in a Zorro costume.

But it’s not the razor-sharp Halloween garb that makes Marlow seem like suavity personified—it’s his right hand. He’s coolly pealing out chords to an alegrias—a particularly uppity form of flamenco song—at such a high velocity that his strumming hand is visible only as a blur of flesh. The song isn’t moving at a breakneck tempo, but Marlow can divide a single beat into a flurry of chords. Without any apparent effort, he’ll strike one chord a half-dozen times in the course of a second.

And Marlow isn’t even the front man tonight. In the traditional hierarchy of flamenco music, the guitarist follows a dancer’s lead, who in turn follows a singer’s lead. The guitarist is third chair, backup for the backup. There’s no singer here, but Marlow’s eyes are fixed on dancer Anna Menendez, who’s stomping her black high-heeled shoes against the stage as if to imitate a rain of machine-gun fire. Defying her heavy-sounding feet, Menendez floats across the stage in a rhythmically perfect fit of rage. She snatches up the hem of her blue dress, twists her slender hands around the joints of her wrists like a witch casting a spell, and ends in a staccato flailing of arms that aligns perfectly with Marlow’s final choked chord.

Sitting down at my table after the set, Marlow sheds the cool skin of a professional performer to reveal his true self: a soft-spoken guitar geek, a guy who practiced his instrument for four hours a day in college and has invested a good deal of cash in instructional videos. He’s feverishly lacquering his fingernails with pungent-smelling enamel from a small plastic bottle. “Essentially, it’s Super Glue,” Marlow tells me without lifting his eyes from his fingers. “A lot of players use fake nails. I use this every time I play so I don’t have to.”

Marlow, who began his study of flamenco after hearing a Paco de Lucia record at summer camp a decade ago, has had no choice but to take his playing seriously. He is, by his own definition, an “outsider.” Since its genesis in Andalusia around the turn of the 18th century, flamenco, which draws on ancient Islamic, Jewish, and Christian as well as Gypsy musical traditions, has survived almost solely by folk transmission, passed on from generation to generation in a process that begins at birth. The result is that, even today, most of the world’s authentic flamenco musicians form a tight circuit that frames the Iberian Peninsula south of Madrid.

A full-blooded gringo from Sterling, Va., Marlow was an ocean away. And rhythmically, he was on a different planet. “When you go to the parties in Spain, all the children are clapping flamenco in perfect rhythm. Everybody knows how it feels—it’s ingrained in the people. But none of the outsiders get the rhythm, because they’re thinking about it all the time,” says Marlow, who’s visited Spain twice in the last two years to attend flamenco guitar workshops. “So the only way for it not to be just an intellectual game is that it has to be really ingrained. The only way to do that is play it millions of times, all day long.”

In order to learn flamenco, Marlow did something very un-flamenco: He taught himself. While studying classical guitar at James Madison University, Marlow learned songs off de Lucia and Sabicas records. Flamenco guitarists always play fingerstyle, but Marlow couldn’t cop the fast, clean licks without the aid of a pick. At least not until he secured tickets for a front-row seat to a 1995 de Lucia concert at D.C.’s Warner Theatre.

“When I saw Paco up close, saw what his hands were doing, I was able to get on the right track,” says Marlow. At that concert, he met a flamenco aficionado who introduced him to D.C. guitarist Michael Perez. Perez advised Marlow to seek out flamenco dance classes to sit in on as a supplement to his record collection and how-to videos. After graduating from James Madison in 1997, Marlow moved to Reston, where he began to play guitar for flamenco dance instructor Joana del Rio’s classes.

“I would accompany her class, just playing two or three chords over and over,” Marlow says. “But the dancers changed tempo so that subdividing the beat into triplets and sixteenth notes, all things I already knew how to do as a musician, became more complicated when I tried to make it work with a dancer.” Marlow easily found work accompanying dancers at area flamenco shows—he was one of the only guys around who could play the music. Now he’s afraid to leave town because substitute players are so hard to find.

D.C.’s flamenco scene isn’t exactly like southern Spain’s. You can’t import the centuries-old, semi-cultic folk music of another country without doing some damage to the goods in the process. In 1962, when the Spanish-born guitarist Torcuato Zamora followed his American girlfriend to Washington, he wound up making a career out of introducing flamenco to the city, teaching guitar and performing in now-defunct Spanish restaurants like El Bodegon. Flamenco guitarist Paco de Malaga and his wife, flamenco dancer Ana Martinez, settled in D.C. a decade later, after years of globe-trotting, to give lessons and perform at the Tio Pepe restaurant.

Among Spaniards Zamora, de Malaga, and Martinez, as well as guitarist Carlos Ramos (who died more than 10 years ago) and singer Manolo Leiva, D.C. flamenco retained much of its Iberian exclusivity. “When I first came here, I found people who were really flamencos, people who did nothing but dance and sing and play guitar,” says flamenco dancer Natalia Monteleon, who started taking lessons with Martinez when she moved to D.C. from New Orleans 25 years ago. “They didn’t even speak English.”

Today, Monteleon is one of nearly a dozen Americans in the area who are leading flamenco dance classes themselves after studying with Spaniards for years. “We Spaniards are losing our roots,” Zamora says after a Saturday-night show at Catalan West on F Street NW. “The Americans are taking over,” he laughs.

“A lot of the people learning today aren’t touching the roots of real flamenco because they’ve come up in a nonflamenco environment,” Monteleon says. “The scene is no longer dominated by Spanish gods and goddesses.”

Lamentations over the threatened purity of flamenco music are hardly new to the genre. In 1922, the famed Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca helped to organize a two-day flamenco song contest in order to focus on the music’s native Andalusian quality and de-emphasize foreign influences. The festival replaced the term “flamenco” with cante jondo—”deep song”—in order to distinguish the traditional genre from pseudo-flamenco pop music.

“Flamenco was embroiled in the argument of authenticity way before Americans got onto the scene,” says Gerard Moreno, an Alexandria guitarist who is pursuing an ethnomusicology doctorate at the University of Maryland. “The argument is endemic to the music, and that reactionary element keeps flamenco a true art form.”

Most local American performers acknowledge that they’re less than authentic flamencos. “Here, I could get away with saying I’m a flamenco player, but put me in a roomful of Spanish Gypsies, and I’m not gonna even open my mouth and say I play guitar,” says Perez, who learned to play largely by studying sheet music from songbooks in the Library of Congress. “I strive to be true to the music—but I’m not going to get upset about not being a Gypsy.”

Marlow cherishes his gringo blood. “If I was born in Spain, I couldn’t have gone to college and found a job playing flamenco guitar—it’s too competitive,” he says. “There are a lot of young people in Spain who are really good and really struggling. Here it’s a lot easier, because there’s not a lot of people doing it.”

Which means there aren’t as many people listening, either. On the first Thursday in November, Perez is strumming a solea on his guitar while a dancer in a frilly black dress riddled with white polka dots stomps on two broad wooden boards laid out on the carpet inside Andalucia, a Rockville restaurant. The yelling of the waiter, who’s trying to convince a couple that they did indeed order a tapa of fried calamari, rivals Perez’s guitar, and a phone is ringing somewhere behind the bar. A traditional Spanish audience might accompany the performers with complicated clapping patterns and sporadic shouts of “Ole!”—or merely with the noises that accompany drunken merrymaking. Here, the diners munch on their dinners and politely endure both the flamenco spectacle and the distracting background noise.

“I tell people that I play middle-class American flamenco,” Perez says after the show. “We’re talking about restaurant flamenco, where we’re appealing to the lowest common denominator. The audience has no idea of what’s going on. They clap, and then the music stops, and they say, ‘Oops, what do I do?’”

“Sometimes people are into it. Sometimes they’re just talking and you feel like nobody’s watching and you play louder,” says Marlow. “But there’s a group of us on stage so, at the very least, we’re playing for each other.” The most attentive flamenco audiences around D.C. are often local dancers or guitar players looking to support their performer brethren. But Marlow says that the number of area flamenco aficionados is growing. “The first night I played at Las Tapas [two years ago], there was nobody here. They didn’t even want to pay us,” Marlow says. “Now the place is packed every Thursday. They had to build a stage because it got too crowded and people couldn’t see us.”

Even when they do like what they’re hearing, audiences in D.C. often can’t distinguish flamenco from its Latin relatives. During Marlow’s set at Las Tapas, I overhear a young couple discussing the performance: “Do you like the Gipsy Kings?” the man asks. “I’ve heard of them. Have you ever seen them?” his date replies. “Twice!” he boasts, portraying himself as a flamenco aficionado. The problem is that the Gipsy Kings are a troupe of French guitarists who play Cuban rumba.

“I think the reason flamenco is doing so well right now is the Gipsy Kings, who aren’t even flamenco,” says Monteleon. “Flamenco music has been popularized by people who aren’t really great flamencos.”

Marlow—frequently accompanied by Perez—often sees his biggest audiences when he’s playing Gipsy Kings-style rumba and Latin-jazz numbers on weekend nights inside Bambule, an upscale restaurant and bar in Friendship Heights. Marlow and Perez perch themselves on stools near the door to entertain the dapper young crowd, who tote martini glasses and wait for the DJ to arrive with Gipsy Kings and Ricky Martin albums. On a recent Friday night, the duet scored their grandest applause with a Latin-tinged rendition of “Purple Haze.”

But playing for less-flamenco-savvy audiences has its advantages, too. “In Washington, when you make a mistake, the audience is not going to break the guitar over your head,” says Zamora, who performed in Spain for seven years.

But D.C. flamenco audiences don’t seem to notice that flamenco’s oldest and most important component is missing from the local scene: singing, or cante. Dependent on a Spanish-Romany lexicon, the vocal aspect of flamenco is chantlike and often painfully guttural, expressing the darkest of human emotions: jealousy, hate, rejection, even the death wish.

“Flamenco singing is more Eastern than Western—it’s the link to the Moors,” says Moreno, who sang for over a year at Las Tapas until a recent falling-out with the management. “Western singing tries to make a clear tone which is precise and pleasing to the ear. Flamenco singing has no intentions of even trying to be pleasing. It’s trying to convey an emotion, to the point that it will sound harsh or ugly. It’s beautiful, but it’s not pretty.”

De Malaga says that non-Spaniards shouldn’t even attempt flamenco singing: “The only flamenco singer in the area is Manolo Leiva, and anybody else singing it around here is destroying it. [Flamenco singing] is very difficult, and it takes years and years to learn. I don’t agree with Americans trying to do it. It’s insulting.”

Despite his opposition to American flamenco singing, the red- and white-tiled basement of de Malaga’s brick house in Arlington is the crossroads where the old flamenco school meets the new: It’s where his wife teaches her mostly American dance students. Just before a Halloween-night rehearsal, a half-dozen women, ranging from teenaged to middle-aged, are pulling off their T-shirts and sweat pants to reveal spandex-wrapped bodies.

Enter Martinez. “Vamos! Vamos! Rapido!” Martinez—clad entirely in black with a liberally powdered face and purplish-red lipstick that matches her fingernails—bites off her words like a drill sergeant as the squad of women line up in the neighboring room. De Malaga descends the staircase. “Coge la guitarra! Take your guitar!” Martinez barks as de Malaga cowers into his chair in the corner.

De Malaga plays a 12-beat rhythm that seesaws between two chords as his wife slams her hands against her hips, stares straight into her own eyes in the mirror-lined wall, and stomps out a line of sixteenth notes and triplets so cleanly that it sounds like a melody. Martinez looks at the row of women and orders them to imitate her. It’s a close impersonation, but they fail. She point to her cadets, one by one, and yells “No!” after each attempt. She turns, yells at de Malaga about his playing, and jams a cassette tape of the song into the stereo.

Martinez’s high expectations mirror her faith in the gringos she teaches. “She’s very old-fashioned, very authentic,” says Lori Clark, a freelance dancer who’s worked with the Alexandria Ballet and the Washington Opera. She started taking lessons with Martinez nearly 20 years ago. “Spaniards are very protective about their flamenco, but it’s a technique, and if you could learn that technique, you could dance flamenco.” CP