Flamenco: Romancing the Dance



In June 1995, the renowned Farruco family traveled from Spain to New Mexico to perform at Eva Encinias’ annual Festival Flamenco Internacional. Drawn to the Pueblo culture, the Farrucos visited Santo Domingo Pueblo on a quiet Sunday afternoon. As they walked casually through the dusty roads of the village, the flamenco artists spontaneously began clapping their hands in rhythm (palmas). Then one or two broke into song (cante). One by one, doors opened and people emerged, drawn by the sounds. The Farrucos were invited into the home of a family that was celebrating its matriarch’s 97th birthday. After sharing a meal, the family and their guests gravitated outdoors where the music began again. This time, Pueblo drummers and singers joined the visitors, who played their guitars and danced. After all these years, people still talk about it.

“It was an incredible interaction between two persecuted people,” reflected Ms. Encinias. “They understood one another.”

Flamenco is difficult to describe because it has many mothers and even today, it continues to evolve (to wit: “flamenco rap”). Strictly speaking, it is comprised of singing, dancing, guitar playing and rhythmic support from hand clapping, footwork and/or percussive instruments or props. Flamenco as an art form did not begin with gypsies in southern Spain, but possibly as far back as the 8th century, drawing from the Arabic, Byzantine, Egyptian, East Indian, Jewish and Moorish cultures. Going further back, the Romans and Greeks were passionate dancers who once occupied Spain – and the Greeks used castanets in some of their dances. The first wave of persecuted gypsies entered Spain in the 15th century.

For centuries, flamenco flourished in the southern Spanish provinces of Andalusia, Extremadura and Murcia. New Mexico’s earliest settlers and soldiers came primarily from Extremadura. So it is no surprise that today New Mexico is a center for the preservation, teaching, institutionalization and experimentation of flamenco. In the U.S., only New York City has as much flamenco activity as New Mexico.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, flamenco in New Mexico has been popularized and shaped by the work of several individuals, including María Benítez, Ms. Encinias, and Lili del Castillo, all three of whom also make it their business to promote and encourage the next generation: dancers like Julia Chacón, who now performs and teaches nationwide, and maintains her own company based in Santa Fe.

Ms. Benítez is New Mexico’s pride. A world-class performer, choreographer and director, she is easily the most widely recognized of New Mexico’s flamenco divas. The daughter of an accomplished Native American mother and Puerto Rican father, she is one of the few flamenco artists in the U.S. who has made a living entirely through performance. Based in Santa Fe, she performed with her own María Benítez Teatro Flamenco for 40 summers in Santa Fe, and on tour worldwide. In 2006, the King of Spain awarded her that nation’s highest honor for artistic achievement, La Cruz de Isabel la Católica – yes, that Queen Isabella.

Ms. Benítez’s work in opera and zarzuela includes stints with The Met, Boston Lyric, Santa Fe Opera and Opera Theater of St. Louis, among others. Between gigs, she also does television and residencies, and teaches at her own Institute for Spanish Arts, for which she created a flamenco curriculum funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Throughout her career, she has brought the best of Spain’s dancers to Santa Fe to inspire, teach and perform, no doubt inspired by the fact that her first lesson in “Spanish dance” took place in a friend’s living room in Taos, because that’s all there really was at the time. Education is everything.

Having studied and toured extensively in Spain, Ms. Benítez knew that Spain is a nation of deep dance roots. Spaniards have invented literally hundreds of dances for all occasions and reasons. Dance is a national passion. Carpets are laid in the town plaza for dancers in Spain. In medieval Spain, there were dance guilds in every major town, and itinerant dance instructors passed on the latest dances. Some of the best international ballet dancers today have Spanish surnames.

So what is the attraction for Americans? Is it just genetics? Not really, because so many flamenco students are non-Hispanic. Ms. Encinias operates the only degree-granting program for flamenco in the country, at the University of New Mexico. Currently, she has 45 students in the undergraduate program, and four in a Master of Fine Arts program.

Because she was immersed in flamenco as a child – her mother, Clarita, taught flamenco for many years in Albuquerque – Ms. Encinias found it easy to begin experimenting with it. When she first attended UNM, she studied modern dance and found it fascinating. “I loved those similarities and contrasts, and was very intrigued by it so I wanted to utilize some of that vocabulary in what was familiar to me,” she recalled.

Later when she joined the faculty at the UNM Dance Department, she was able to explore the connections between modern dance and flamenco and present works at her summer flamenco festival, Festival Flamenco Internacional, now in its 23rd year. This now well-known June gathering of teachers, performers, students and audiences has made it possible for Spain’s freshest, most current flamenco artists to travel to New Mexico every year, and for students from around the nation to study with them. It is a major achievement in establishing New Mexico as a flamenco center and ensuring its future here. Recently, world renowned flamenco dancer Teo Morca – who first came to New Mexico for the Festival – has bought a home in Taos where he will teach.

This is good news for the next generation, which continues to be inspired by the art and by one another.
“It was one of those moments when your life sort of shifts,” recalls rising flamenco star Julia Chacón. “It opened a whole new path for the rest of my life.”

When she was 12, Ms. Chacón was a serious ballet student who began taking Spanish dance classes on the advice of her ballet instructor. One day her mother was late picking her up from class, so she sat by a studio door where a private flamenco lesson was in session.

“I was watching this young dancer who had the most incredible expression and passion. She danced with her entire spirit, playing castanets, doing turns. I saw her teacher in the corner waving her finger back and forth in time to the music.” This struck her as strange. “When the piece was over,” she recalls, “She started giving the student corrections, addressing herself to someone sitting behind me in the lobby, so I turned around to see why she was talking to someone behind me, and the girl’s mother was sitting there translating the comments into sign language. The young dancer was deaf! This particular form of dance was so powerful to her and she said so much with her body. I realized that this dance could transcend hearing! That was the moment when Spanish dance and flamenco hooked me, because I understood that its core was about passion.”

It was enough to inspire her to study with Ms. Encinias at UNM, where she found more surprises. “Eva’s class absolutely kicked my butt. It was tougher than I thought it would be. I was like ‘whoa!’” she laughed, “No dance class had ever smacked me in the face like that.” Undaunted, she threw herself into it and at the end of her first semester, was offered a scholarship. Ms. Chacón joined Ms. Benítez’s junior company during this time, and after earning her degree, made the traditional pilgrimage to Spain for nearly two years of intense training. ON returning to Santa Fe, she joined Ms. Benitez’s professional company and began began building her national and international resume with countless appearances.

Today she directs her own Santa Fe-based company, Inspiración Flamenca. Equally at ease on either continent is the effervescent and talented Lili del Castillo of Albuquerque. Her Belen-based family goes back 350 years in New Mexico, but to look at her and see her dance, one would swear she was born in the heart of Andalusia among the gypsies. In fact, during her years studying flamenco and Spanish classical dance in Spain, she was often mistaken for a gitana (gypsy) – and not in a good way, because Spain’s gypsies are non grata.

In addition to founding and touring her own group, Rincón Flamenco with distinction, Lili’s career includes her work as a choreographer and solo dancer for opera and zarzuela productions for the Houston Grand Opera, Opera Southwest, and companies in Orlando, Atlanta, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Orange County, and others.

No New Mexico aficionado, however, will forget her own riveting flamenco dance drama, Revelaciones, which she produced based on a story about a 16th century Spanish woman who discovers her family’s secret Jewish past and flees to the New World to escape persecution. It was excerpted in a Canadian documentary, Expulsion and Memory, including interviews with Ms. Castillo, Zubin Mehta and Plácido Domingo.

Ms. Castillo lived in Spain with her husband, guitarist Luis Campos, studying and then touring with the Antonio Alonso troupe. The couple connected with legendary flamenco scholar Donn Pohren, who for 45 years studied flamenco where it lived, catalogued the music and wrote the bible on flamenco (The Art of Flamenco, a must read for understanding the spirit of flamenco). Ms. Castillo and Mr. Campos house-sat for Mr. Pohren in Madrid for a time, and had access to his huge library of stories and recordings. They were like kids in a candy shop.

Today, she conducts private teaching at Marshall Performing Arts Center in Albuquerque, and continues to work in opera and zarzuela, including coaching on what she calls “Spanish Culture 101” – the signals women send with fans, the way Spanish people walk and greet one another, and the difference between lower and upper class body language.

It’s all in the movement!

By Mary Montaño, who fell under the spell of flamenco at a young age and will be a famous flamenco artist in her next life. For now, she teaches “NM Arts & Traditions” at the University of New Mexico

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 23

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