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[whitespace] Flamenco Dancer and Guitarist
Photograph by George Sakkestad

From the Soul:Guitarist Richard Black and dancer Andrea 'La Canela' Black practice a Flamenco routine.

Andalusian Attitude

Local flamenco dancers say there's a lot more to their art than stomping and twirling

By Julia Chiapella

THE LIFE of a flamenco dancer is pretty good: regular trips to Spain, Spanish lessons, and most importantly, a sense of power. For "La Canela"--she got her name, which means "spice," because of her long auburn hair--flamenco connects her to a strong current of female power.

"Stomping your feet feels very powerful," she says. "I have a relationship with gravity. It's purging. It's cleansing. And you do it all in a pulse with other people so you know you're not alone in the world."

The matriarchal lineage of the gypsies gives rise to a powerful dance form, says Gabrielle Laney, a local student of flamenco and editor of the Santa Cruz Arts Journal.

"In flamenco, women dancers are much more empowered; it's a stronger archetype. The attitude is 'Don't mess with me,' while for example in belly dance, the attitude is 'Please like me.'"

And then there's the passion and sensuality of the dance form.

"It lets a woman be sensuous but also strong. I don't see many other dance forms that foster that," says La Canela, also known as Andrea Black, who with her husband Richard "El Quixote" Black, produces flamenco shows at the Crepe Place on the last Friday each month.

Adding to flamenco's allure is an indistinct history replete with Gitanos and Romas. There are many theories as to its origins, none of them exact. It's generally thought that the form that evolved into flamenco existed as far back as the 15th century in the south of Spain. Originally, flamenco was just the cante, or song, augmented by hand clapping and foot stomping, and believed to be a fusion of several cultures, including Gypsy, Moorish or Arab, Jewish and Andalusian.

The Gypsies never had it easy, but they knew how to have fun. They first arrived in southern Spain in 1447 from northern India. As nomads and outcasts (flamenco is believed to be a mispronunciation of the Arabic words felag (peasant) and mengu (fugitive), they were prone to taking the local music and adapting it to suit their own needs. In Andalusia the musical ground was rich, and the Gypsies of Spain brought their anguish and joy to full expression in the songs that were to become flamenco. It's the kind of cultural environment that has historically produced exquisite forms of art; jazz, the blues, German Expressionism, gospel--there's a long tradition of oppression giving rise to great works.

By the end of the 19th century, after a lot of persecution of the Gypsies at the hands of Catholic kings and the Church, flamenco puro settled into the form known and performed today.

"You can imagine a Spanish village where there's five or six hundred inhabitants and they all go to the same bar every night," says Richard Black. "They see the same people every night for years and they create some very exciting music."

This sense of nostalgia helps fuel the passion for flamenco among its participants and fans. The small community where everyone knows each other, is privy to one another's secrets and which provides a strong sense of belonging are a few of flamenco's drawing cards. And little wonder it's become so popular. Our mobile, high-tech society is badly in need of a sense of community.

Flamenco Fellowship

IT'S BUSY at Don Quixote's. The Saturday night crowd at the Felton restaurant is alive with chatter. The room glows with a sultry light. Suddenly, a singer begins his fluid, undulating song and hands being to clap. A guitar picks up the rhythm and a dancer's feet take flight, pounding the stage in time with the cadence of guitar and song. There are cries of "Olé!" and "Eso es!" as guitarist, singer, dancer and audience seem to merge into one beast, all connected by the percussive, mesmerizing rhythms and music, all in a collective trance.

That spellbinding atmosphere is known as duende, or spirit.

"There are moments of magic in flamenco that are very spiritual," says Marcia "La Romera" Sanchez, the producer of the third Friday of the month flamenco shows at Don Quixote's and artistic director of Duende Flamenco. Sanchez has been studying, teaching and performing flamenco for the last 30 years. Duende, she says, "is a magical, transcendent power. We hope to summon it when we do flamenco."

There's no doubt something is being summoned and it looks like it's a growing number of flamenco devotees. With flamenco's worldwide surge in popularity--Germany, Japan and Finland are also jumping on the flamenco bandwagon--Santa Cruz's flamenco teachers are finding their performances and classes swelling with the ranks of aficionados. Here is a dance form whose past is uncertain, whose songs express the deep colors of the human experience and whose participants create a living, breathing community where everyone has the opportunity to express themselves.

When Andrea Black began her dance career as a teenager, she studied modern and jazz. When she began taking flamenco classes she instantly fell in love with the form and was subsequently invited to her teacher's house for dinner, something that, for Black, illustrates the startling contrast between flamenco and other dance forms. "It's community, it's family, it's sharing wine, food and getting together. Nobody in modern dance ever invited me over to their house."

The shows that La Canela and El Quixote give at the Crepe Place seem to provide that kind of community. Richard Black says part of the magic of the Crepe Place shows is their spontaneity. "We don't rehearse at all," he says. "We just wing it. I like the immediacy and wildness from just winging it and following each other."

No doubt this sense of the wild, so lacking in our tame, consumer-driven culture, is another element that is drawing followers to flamenco like dot-commers to cell phones.

Both the Blacks and Sanchez are devotees of flamenco puro, the traditional flamenco of southern Spain that's been performed over the last 100 years. But the popularity of flamenco is also due to what all three flamenco artists describe as the diluting of flamenco.

"There's been a fusion of modern, jazz, everything," says Sanchez, who trained to be a traditional flamenco dancer in Sevilla with the legendary El Ferruco, among others. "That's exciting from an aesthetic standpoint. But you almost have to be an Olympic athlete to do it. In traditional flamenco the moves can be so simple. That's something that's eluding the young flamenco dancers of today. It's losing its expressive quality."

But other flamenco devotees disagree. Gabrielle Laney, who studies with La Romera, is also a zambra dancer--the barefoot flamenco dance that is said to be influenced by the Moors. Laney says she doesn't see the purist attitude in other cultures. "It's very much an American thing. The purists turn up their noses and I find it very obnoxious."

Flamenco Dancer Olé! Marcia "La Romera" Sanchez shows off the 'duende' that makes flamenco so alluring.


Passion and Pain

THAT FLAMENCO itself is an amalgam of several cultures is an interesting sidebar to the purist debate. Had the gypsies never come to Spain and picked up the Andalusian culture, flamenco as we know it today would not exist. Like Sanchez, Andrea and Richard Black perform traditional flamenco. They go to Spain each year to study and dance. Andrea Black says that, in Spain, people cry when they hear some of the songs she and her husband perform because they were songs that their grandfathers used to sing.

"But to sell records," she says, "[record companies] have to do the fashionable fusion stuff." Guitarist Ottmar Liebert is just one example of the popularity of fusion flamenco.

Traditional flamenco, Black says, is not "pretty" in conventional terms. Based on the Moorish "Phyrigian" mode, it's not a distinct scale but rather, as her husband notes, the C scale with the G sharp. Both Richard and Andrea say traditional flamenco music takes some getting used to. "Flamenco expresses the guttural, the base human emotions," says Andrea. "There's more range."

In fact, Richard Black, a tall, lanky guy with red hair and beard who claims to be more readily recognized in Sevilla, Spain, than in Santa Cruz, found flamenco songs downright distasteful when he first heard them. He grew up playing American folk music, and at 18 was attracted to the strumming quality of a simple chord that characterizes flamenco. But the singing was something else.

"I started listening to the singing and wished the caterwauling would stop," Black says with a good-natured chuckle. But the vocals grew on him, and despite the fact that, at that time, no Westerner would ever sing flamenco, he says he didn't know any better. He began singing and eventually performed regularly in Spain.

"I wouldn't say I'm at the top of the charts in Spain, but I am a curiosity. Spaniards will run to see an American doing flamenco."

For Andrea Black, whose Los Flamencos del Pueblo regularly performs around the state, there was never a doubt about the dance form. She was immediately smitten--and terrified, because "I could see what I was going to do for the rest of my life." Sanchez says when she was first introduced to flamenco it was like being "kicked in the heart by a mule." Flamenco, apparently, doesn't fool around.

Chances are, flamenco will survive in a myriad of forms, from the classical wild elegance of the traditional dance to the fluid, less distinct forms, like zambra, that are part of the fusion school. But while the purists hang on to their firm notion of flamenco with increasing alarm at its evolution, there's one thing they can be sure of--the duende is always available and, as Sanchez says, ready to be summoned. "It's that magical deep force in us and flamenco brings that out."

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From the February 28-March 7, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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