A follow up to my Learning Flamenco Part I blog, this is an interview with a long time student of flamenco. We discuss her experience navigating this art form, what's changed in the years since she first started, and what we can do to stay motivated.
-Cynthia, where are you from?
I was born and raised in Chicago, as were both of my parents. I crossed the border into Evanston when my daughter was born in 2006. I have been a teacher in Evanston Public Schools since 1991, and I wanted Willa to have an excellent public education.
- What was it about flamenco that appealed to you?
I have been dancing most of my life. I came to flamenco in the mid 1990s when I saw the movie Strictly Ballroom. I knew I had to learn to dance that way. Flamenco appealed to me because of the depth of emotional expression, especially with the cante jondo. Like all people, I have been through dark times in my life. Dancing to the cante jondo allows a person to process the difficult feelings in a way that is beautiful and cathartic .
- Tell us about the Flamenco Arts Center and why and when you decided to open it.
My first flamenco teacher, La Poli, moved to New Mexico. I was looking all around for places to study flamenco here in Chicago. I would go to community classes with Ensemble Espanol at Northeastern. I took classes from Edo Sie and Melody Vasquez at Belle Plaine Studios. Karen Stelling was teaching at the Chicago Cultural Center. I kept thinking about Amor de Dios Studios in Madrid. When I visited it, I was amazed how so many teachers were under one roof. I decided I would try to make a place like that in Chicago for people like me, who wanted to learn from as many people as possible.
- Around the time when we first started taking classes, video and audio technology weren't quite as widespread as they are now. I remember I had a small digital audio recorder for my first trip to Spain, and when I tried to play back what I had recorded in dance class, it just sounded like a herd of buffalo wearing tap shoes. I had no idea what I was listening to! That forced me to really pay attention in class and review everything I learned that day so I wouldn't forget it. I realized my muscle memory was more reliable than a recording. Do you think the availability of video recording has helped or hindered the learning process?
When we are trying to remember difficult choreography, video recording is very useful.
But it is not a substitute for a deep understanding of the rhythm. I was trained to learn combinations by thinking about the soniquete--how the dance is supposed to sound, the accents in the rhythm, etc. When I practice outside of class, I am ultimately thinking of the sounds.
- After so many years of classes, listening to flamenco music, and even learning how to improvise, you are now enrolled in beginner classes in addition to more advanced ones. What is it that you enjoy about going back to the basics? Do you ever feel bored because the classes are too easy?
I have an 11-year-old and we are one-car household, so I also have to work around the family schedules. I signed up for the beginners classes because, at my age, it would be impossible to maintain stamina and speed by dancing just one day per week. I am never bored in the beginner classes. Having grown up with ballet and jazz, we always started with technique. Then we would move out into the center of the floor or across the floor with combinations. Combinations were strung together into choreographies. For me, going back to the foundation of the technique of flamenco is very worthwhile. When you are moving more slowly, you can really concentrate on finishing movements, or making sure your body position is correct, or that your feet are doing what they are supposed to do. Then when you are dancing complex choreography, the body remembers what to do.
- You've been around the flamenco block, so to speak.... what do you see as the reason why many beginner students drop out within the first few months of learning flamenco?
I suspect that beginners may not realize the full depth and breadth of this form. It can be overwhelming to realize that this art form is more than just the beautiful costumes--it is a way of life. It is not just dance--it is also rhythm and song and guitar and sentiment. Commit to the classes and know that the understanding will grow with time. Marinate yourself in flamenco. Watch the beautiful, old Carlos Saura films. Look at videos on YouTube. Listen to music, all different rhythms.