Since the tide is up that evening, Weldon “Paco” Beardsly and his wife Sarah, both 89, must wade into the cave hidden behind granite boulders facing out over Penobscot Bay. The Beardslys are the last practitioners of Downeast flamenco, an improbable cultural tradition that has endured in obscurity since precolonial times. Weldon says the sea level has risen three feet since his ancestors first utilized this cave. “Another foot and we’ll have to take up water ballet,” he says. 

“Climate change,” Sarah concurs, floating their supplies in on a clam basket suspended in an inner tube. 

Once inside, Weldon lights the kerosene lanterns and sits on a big chunk of driftwood to strip off his rubber waders and yellow slicker. Beneath the rainwear, his plaid shirt and jeans are festooned with rhinestones and embroidered with sea creatures of Sarah’s design. He laces on pointy black boots (his “dance brogans”), twirls on a black cape and dons an ornate black Panama hat woven from local grasses, dangling with shells and old coins. The adornments are both decorative and an effective repellent for the blackflies that plague Maine in early summer. Weldon drops the strap of a handmade twelve-string guitar over his shoulder, clacks his brogans on the stones and twirls to display this transformation into a Downeast flamenco guitarist. 

Sarah, who had modestly stepped behind a rock to remove her oilskins, emerges like a butterfly into the flickering light. She waves fans assembled from the shells of razor clams, and is covered in pink lilacs and purple lupine. These will soon give way, she says, to the black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace of summer. She slips the fans into a belt woven from multicolored nylon rope salvaged from old lobster pots and clacks to Weldon’s beat with mussel shells. The hermosas have always dressed more flamboyantly than the hermosos,” she says, dropping her “r”s in Maine fashion, “and although in daily life Mainers find such behavior unseemly, it’s part of our culture to dress in flowery garb and such.” 

Downeast flamenco dress has developed its own style to adapt to the climate of coastal Maine. Sarah’s floral dress is topped by a knit cardigan, her legs covered in wool stockings, her head topped by the blackfly netting embroidered with seashell patterns. As her staccato dance steps echo off the cave walls, her glasses fog a bit. Her torso gyrates with a Rubenesque sensuality. She dances as if in a trance.

From where did this custom arrive, and how has it endured? Local legend has it that a Spanish galleon bound for Europe struck a reef off Isle au Haut. All the crew perished when the waves broke the ship apart–all, save two Spanish seamen who somehow made it to land. 

The Spaniards made contact with both the indigenous Penobscot Indians and the Breton fishermen who stopped there to trade. They married Native women, but eschewed the Natives’ longhouses, choosing instead to live in the coastal caves that reminded them of their beloved Andalusia. These caves became well-known entertainment spots. Mussels, dried codfish, and mead were served, as was, legend has it, a delicious blueberry wine. Music drifted out of the caves and into the primeval pine forests of the new continent.

As Puritans from Massachusetts settled the coast of Maine, the strange, dancing cave dwellers were kept at a distance. Parents warned their children away from them, going so far as to banish mussels from their diet, a custom that has persisted in Maine until this day. 

A local maxim went: how can you keep the kids down on the clam flats once they’ve been to the caves? As much as the stern Protestant ministers expounded against the sinful sensuality of the cave dwellers, a tiny but steady stream of Anglo men and women married into the group, giving it what seems today a distinctly Yankee flavor. Weldon and Sarah, practicing Presbyterians, eschew the alcoholic beverages of their ancestors. Their drink of choice is Moxie, a bitter-tasting soft drink made from gentian root that many “folks from away” find unpleasant. 

Still, the backwash of faraway events splashed upon the dancing people in the remote caves, in the form of witch hunts, anticolonial sentiment, then anti-Mexican and later anti-Spanish hysteria (“Remember the Maine!”). 

A restless nation kept expanding westward, and as trade with Britain became less important, traffic dropped on the coastal routes that sustained it, rendering the coast of Maine, and this bay in particular, virtual backwaters. 

Television came to this part of Maine in the 1950s, and interest in the tradition waned even further. “I remember when we could get a dozen people in this here cave on a good night,” Weldon says. He stops strumming and stares out into the choppy gray Atlantic. Sarah’s dancing ceases with the music. “Two or three dozen in our parents’ time,” she echoes. Not so many kids stay out here in the williwacks anymore, and you’d be hard-pressed to find that many people around here who still know of this. South of the Piscataqua River, down there in New Hampshire and such, I don’t think anyone’s ever heard of us.”

Sarah recalls the men from Washington DC who came to record them some years back. “What were they called,” she asks Weldon. 

“Ethnomusic something,” he sniffs, and seems insulted to be deemed ethnic in any way. Still, both of them had hoped that recordings of their music in the Smithsonian might revive their culture, or at least preserve it. These hopes were dashed however when, after the recordings were completed, the men drowned when they swamped their rented dory, and the recordings sank to the bottom of the bay.

Sarah sits on a flattened boulder and stares out into the bay. “Now we just do it for ourselves,” she says. “Me and Weldon.” Weldon grabs the six-pack of Moxie and peels a can away to toss to Sarah, who catches it expertly. “Passion!” Weldon winks. They crack open the cans, toast each other, and drink deep. Sarah blushes from an involuntary burp. “Passion,” she grins.


Mark Gallini has published short fiction and journalism in the US and Australia. He has also produced work for public radio and syndication. He co-wrote a feature film, based on his unpublished story that made the Euro/US festival rounds. He lives and works in Philadelphia.