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Flameco Arts 

Passion Afoot

click to enlarge flamenco-9934.jpg

Dance fever: FlamecoArts' Elena Marlowe pounds the boards.

Flamenco dance unleashes the Gypsy soul

By Paula Harris

A GHOSTLY CLOUD of white dust and rosin rises from the well-worn dance floor around my ankles, as my feet, encased in black suede flamenco shoes embedded with tiny nails on the heels and toes, pound out a driving beat that shakes the building.

The FlamencoArts dance studio in Santa Rosa's Lincoln Arts Center is backdrop to today's advanced dance class, but the sounds of flowing guitar music, emotionally charged singing, and rhythmic hand clapping transports me to Andalusia. I can almost smell the orange trees and taste the sherry.

Legendary dancer Carmen Amaya, a fiery vision with her flowing Gypsy curls and amused dark lips, gazes down benignly from a black-and-white poster on the studio wall, like a sacred flamenco deity. We dance students silently pray to her whenever the we lose our beat or when the footwork gets too complicated.

Photographs of José Galván, our imperious maestro from Seville, who annually visits Santa Rosa to perform and teach flamenco dance workshops, decorate another wall. He seems to be urging me to stomp "Más fuerte!"

The guitar music builds and other dance students join the punishing exercise, spellbound by the intense driving compýs (rhythm) of a siguiriya. A wall of open windows and a feeble electric fan on the floor do little to dispel the heat. A dozen sweat-soaked bodies clad in stretchy leotards and full flouncy skirts execute a dance sequence in front of the wall mirror, which masquerades as the audience.

"I think our students are so absorbed by flamenco because it challenges them physically, intellectually, and emotionally," explains Flamenco-Arts teacher and artistic director Elena Marlowe, adding that the art form permits creativity while demanding conformity to its structures and rhythms. "It's a life study that one can never master," she concludes.

The true origins of flamenco have been lost over time, but there are indications that it's a folk form that grew up in Andalusia, thanks to the influences of the various cultures that settled there throughout the centuries--including Moors, Hebrews, and Gypsies.

"Flamenco is a compelling art form with an appeal far beyond its home in southern Spain," says Marlowe. "It speaks to the universal human condition--the themes of its songs are love, loss, death, and exile. Its statement is direct, open, and personal."

The passionate songs and dances can be dramatic, flirty, tragic, jaunty, graceful, powerful, or jokey, or they may be simply festive regional styles often performed with castanets.

Although you can never fully master flamenco, you can certainly become addicted to the rhythms, music, and various aires ("flavors"). One dance student boasts of wearing her sexy flamenco shoes around the house, "mostly for drinking coffee or light dusting," she says. Another is compelled to rap out the different beats as she types or as she chops zucchini. Still another practices dance steps whenever she waits for the green light to cross the street.

Practice pays off. I am surprised by the steely strength in my toned legs and by how I can now, after some years of study, painlessly strike the floor--sans blisters, bunions, or black toenails. Used to dancing en pointe, willowy ballet dancers who take up flamenco are often horrified by the pounding footwork. If ballet was born of the air, then flamenco was surely conceived of the earth. The feet become percussive instruments. Clear, sharp, and delicate like manicured fingernails tapping on fine crystal, or loud and violent like explosives.

For female dancers, the legs are strong and the feet fly, but the upper body is often proud, cool, and composed, with curved arms stretched out while hands and fingers trace the air with elaborate curlicues, accomplished by rotating the wrists and slowly working the hand muscles.

The extra-full skirt is swathed tightly around the hips and flares out in a frothy cascade of tiered ruffles--"Use [your skirt] like a weapon!" instructs one teacher. The flounces can be grabbed savagely in bunched fistfuls, pinched delicately between two fingertips, or elaborately drawn across the body like a bullfighter's cape.

TECHNICAL SKILL is only part of the equation. Flamenco also demands the ability to transmit emotion and surrender to the elusive duende (or demon spirit) of the art form--the readiness to spill your guts.

"It's a way of going back to what is primitive," explains Lola Cascales, a Seville high school teacher and anthropologist, who's currently checking out the Bay Area flamenco scene as fieldwork for her doctorate on this art form. "Modern-day activities are too isolating, but flamenco is a communal effort that requires a guitarist, singer, dancer, and other participants to clap their hands and give shouts of encouragement."

Cascales finds it encouraging that other parts of Europe, the United States, and Japan are currently experiencing a surge of interest in Spain's hot-blooded art form.

"Flamenco will spread out and be further enriched and will develop connotations of each new place," she observes. "[Flamenco] has come out of a mixture, so why shouldn't this continue into the future?"

José Galván & FlamencoArts Co. will perform three shows in the North Bay: Sunday, Aug. 29, at 3 p.m. at the Marin Center, Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael (415/472-3500); Sunday, Sept. 5, at 2:30 p.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre, 476 First St. E., Sonoma (996-9756); and Friday, Sept. 10, at 8 p.m. at the Sebastopol Community Center, 390 Morris St. (823-1511). Tickets for all shows are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. 544-0909.

On Nov. 13, the musicians and dancers of Sangre Brava return for the third annual "Night of Flamenco" (which also features Mediterranean cuisine) at 6 p.m. at the Sebastopol Community Center. Tickets are $16 in advance (from Copperfield's Music) or $18 at the door. 823-1511 or 823-ROSE.

From the August 26-September 1, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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