Flamenco finds a youthful following
By Michael Wade Simpson
If ever there was a dance form that represents a melting pot of cultures, it would be flamenco, which began in the Andalusia region of southern Spain. It was there that the confluence of 700 years of Muslim rule, the presence of Jewish and Indian music, and a Gypsy population allowed a dance to develop that came to be seen as the epitome of all things Spanish.
Flamenco, with its brightly colored long dresses and high heels for women, tight pants for men, and the ever-present guitarist sitting nearby, is for soloists. It’s all about intensity, rhythmic footwork, with stomping, grimacing, and sweating all part of the picture.
In Spain, flamenco is taught to children in their grandmothers’ kitchens. It’s considered a career option for men not unlike professional sports, and it’s performed impromptu on the street, in parks, or in tablaos, the bar-cum-theaters found in small towns and urban neighborhoods alike.
In the United States, flamenco artists tour regularly, set up shop in a few major cities, and sometimes find their way onto college faculties. Sometimes they wind up in communities where you might not expect them, putting out their teaching shingles and starting all takers, from kids to adults, with the basics.
Take the example of the internationally successful performer María Benítez, who toured for decades with her company, María Benítez Teatro Flamenco. Benítez also made a home base in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a generation of young dancers has become exposed to the talent and teaching of a major artist. Some have gone on to become performers in their own right.
Emily Grimm, who is 18, was brought to see Benítez performances as a 2-year-old. Her father worked as box office manager for the company’s summer season at a local hotel. An American tablao of sorts, Benitez’ performances eventually became a summer tradition in Santa Fe, and, along with the opera and the chamber festival, a tourist magnet for more than 35 years.
Grimm remembers herself as a tiny girl, standing on a chair night after night, fascinated by Benítez and trying to copy the footwork. Many of the company dancers at that time, who often traveled from Spain to perform with Benítez, became second mothers to Grimm, who traveled from lap to lap in the dressing room.
Grimm began her studies officially at 4, started performing four years later, joined the Flamenco’s Next Generation youth company, and has taught since she was 12. “María always says, ‘Fire and passion,’ before we go onstage,” Grimm says. “If I were to get a tattoo, that’s what it would say.”
Fire and passion. “Flamenco is dynamic,” says Julia Chacón, another Benítez protégé. Chacón grew up in Arizona dreaming of a ballet career before she encountered flamenco by chance at a local studio.
“My mom was late picking me up and it was Arizona hot, so I went back inside and watched a young woman having a private flamenco lesson,” she recalls. After a run-through ended, the dance student began to receive her corrections from the teacher in sign language. Chacón realized the dancer was deaf. “That’s when flamenco broke into my heart,” she says. “I was astounded that the rhythm she was making transcended sound and hearing. The passion and intensity really reached me—how much she expressed without words. She was speaking with her entire soul. I never saw ballet do that. Not like that.”
Flamenco is for kids
When she’s not on tour as a performer, Chacón teaches children’s classes at Benítez’ Institute for Spanish Arts in Santa Fe and at a state-sponsored after-school program in Española, New Mexico, where the students include Hispanic, Russian, Native American, and Sikh children. Part of her touring has included leading lecture-demonstrations at rural schools in North Carolina.
“I try to get kids to love flamenco through emotions and rhythm,” she says. “That’s what it’s about. We work with the expressions ‘sad,’ ‘happy,’ ‘angry,’ ‘proud.’ I teach them basic arms positions and then, right away, try to get them to infuse the positions with feeling.
“Flamenco allows you to be who you are as a dancer, much more than other forms,” Chacón continues. “At its core, it is a solo art form. Every dancer in flamenco will be a soloist. It allows for one to have the body you have and to celebrate it in dance.”
In North Carolina, flamenco proved to be a powerful aid in breaking down cultural divisions. At one school, “when we would teach them some of our terms in Spanish, all the white kids would turn to the Hispanic immigrant kids to see if they understood,” Chacón says. “It seemed like maybe the first time the Hispanic kids felt proud to be able to speak Spanish.”
In New Mexico, by contrast, Mexican folkloric dances are taught to children and performed along with mariachi music at community festivals. Still, flamenco, coming from the mother country, Spain, has a particular interest to Hispanic children and families.
“María always says, ‘Fire and passion,’ before we go onstage. If I were to get a tattoo, that’s what it would say.” —Emily Grimm
“Ballet and flamenco are the most formalized techniques we teach,” says Roger Montoya, a well-known modern dancer formerly with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. When Montoya returned to his home state of New Mexico, he began running the Arts in Schools program in a formerly abandoned building in Española, where up to 300 kids from a 100-mile radius take after-school classes in flamenco as well as hip-hop, yoga, ballet, folklorico, gymnastics, and circus arts four nights a week. Of these students, who are Hispanic, Native American, and white, about 10 take flamenco each term.
“I see the premise of flamenco as its pride, the regal texture, the carriage of the body and use of the foot as a communication device,” Montoya says. “It’s different from Mexican folk dance. Spanish dance is more serious, in both posture and intention.” In an area where the high school dropout rate is alarmingly high, Montoya’s arts program is teaching kids about the interconnectedness of different art forms, about expression, discipline, and beauty.
Montoya’s program has been a great success, he says. “We gentrified this building and there were so many happy families coming out of there that a charter school applied to be housed in the same building, with 200 K-through-5 students studying there every day. And now, this year, a military academy with 400 students will share the building until 3:15 p.m.” Montoya is interested to see how the military academy students and the arts program participants will mix and meld. Everyone is welcome to stay after school and dance.
Flamenco as survival
When Maria Benítez began dancing professionally in Spain in the 1960s, the country was still under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and 10-year-old kids were working instead of going to school. “Bullfighting was a way for the poor Spanish to get out of poverty, and so was flamenco,” she says. “Dance and guitar were a way to make a living.”
Benítez stands firmly by her belief that dancers ought to be able to make a living with their craft, and her youth company, founded in 2001, is a paying proposition. “Yes, there is money involved,” she says, “and they should see that. They should understand accounting, expenses, and revenue because I had to do it.”
During their summer vacations, the eight girls, ages 13 to 18, are kept busy performing in Santa Fe’s central plaza, as well as many times throughout the year at benefits.
The essence of flamenco
For Benítez, the essence of flamenco is the expression of one’s soul, and the way to teach young people how to access soul is to get them performing. “They can stay in the studio forever and not get it, but when you get them onstage, something happens. The soul comes out,” she says. “It is the edge that only comes from performing with a live audience.
“Someone asked me once, ‘Why do you look angry?’ ” Benítez continues. “When you put every ounce of energy into the floor, your face reflects that.” She pauses.
“Flamenco is physicality, it’s earthy, and your face shows that. Your face has to dance just as much as your body.”
And the essentials
Benítez was contracted, years ago, by the National Endowment for the Arts to create a curriculum for teaching flamenco. “Boy, was that hard!” she says. “We start with rhythm, with the basic arm positions. Like ballet.” However, “the most difficult part is the expression, what the face is saying,” she says. “In Spain, they don’t teach expression, they just watch other people dance.”
It’s not all expression, though. Flamenco not only has arm positions, there are soleas, alegrías, farrucas, tangos, soleares, bulerías, tientos, rumbas. These are all musical forms, the songs that go with the guitars, that go with the footwork, that go with the arm positions, that go with the passion and fire.
“Kids love the stomping, the dresses, the bright colors, the flowers,” says Grimm, who is waiting, on Benítez’ advice, until she is in her 20s to finally go to Spain. “Girls love wearing high heels and skirts. They love making noise with their feet—it is a feeling of power. Flamenco is not a quiet dance. They enjoy being loud, the music, the rhythmy feeling in their bodies.
“I think tons of men should dance flamenco,” Grimm adds. “My brother quit when he was 13, and he suddenly thought it was not OK to dance. Male flamenco dancers are fabulous,” she says. “So masculine!”
Sometimes, when you try other dance forms, “you realize where your heart is,” says Grimm. “After trying tap and ballet, I just wanted to dance flamenco. I thought ballet was too light. I want fire and passion. Flamenco gives me a purpose in life.”
For a copy of Benítez’ flamenco curriculum, contact her at email@example.com or 505.470.7828. The program includes basics for beginners up to age 18 but can be adapted for adult learners.