Dye-ing to dance (Black hair and Flamenco)

Dye-ing to dance (Black hair and Flamenco)

“Dye-ing to dance”

One of the first Flamenco teaching jobs I had was working in Essex. At that point Essex was not “the only way” and there was a distinct lack of fake tans and hair extensions in the class. For me Essex was just a vague place somewhere outside central London that I didn’t really know.

Essex Dance was based in the large and largely affluent town of Chelmsford and they had the task of promoting dance through the arts in Essex. Why they decided that they wanted to have regular Flamenco dance classes there I really don’t know. However I offered to take the job and it was a game changing job in many ways.

Until then my only teaching experience had been subbing for other teachers and as many of you will know, being a substitute teacher has its good and bad points, but we’ll save this for another blog as my experience of substitute teaching for other Flamenco dance teachers, Flamenco dance schools and general dance schools has enough funny and pithy stories to be a blog all on its own!

So back to the early 90s in Chelmsford…….

Essex Dance had already decided on and advertised the basics of the class. They were to be on a Thursday evening and there were going to be two levels; one for complete beginners and one for students who had already been dancing Flamenco for some time. “Some time” turned out to be a type of blanket phrase that covered everything from one term to several years.

I headed to Essex with a head full of teaching techniques learned from classes in Spain and in London and the total confidence born from the success I’d already had. I walked into a large room, wooden floor, mirrors at the end….. and a large number of expectant looking students. I introduced myself and began the class. I started with a warm up and then began to teach the dance. After around 20 minutes of teaching, I became aware that one of the students had stopped dancing and was just standing in the front row with her arms crossed across her chest. She was a large woman with black hair, dressed in an outfit that could only be described as “Flamenco of the imagination” (corset over long sleeved top, long silk scarf, large skirt with panels of various fabrics and colours and black, high heeled shoes).

She glared. I stopped. The guitarist stopped. The other students stopped. I went up to her and asked her in a clear voice if anything was wrong. She slowly looked me up and down in disgust before raising her voice to carry across the large room;
“I thought we would be taught by someone who knows about Flamenco! You obviously know nothing – you don’t even have black hair! Why would I want to learn Flamenco from someone who doesn’t look Spanish? I’ll come back when they get a proper teacher”

With this she turned and stalked out of the room. In that moment I learnt a most valuable lesson which has stayed with me for the rest of my teaching life. It’s an uncomfortable lesson, one I wish wasn’t true, but for the most part it is.

If you want to teach Flamenco successfully in the UK (particularly outside of London), then you need to think carefully about the way that you present yourself to your students. You need to look like a Flamenco dancer, sound like a Flamenco dancer and make quite sure that your students are left in no doubt that you are going to take them into the Flamenco world. It ought to be enough just to be a really good teacher who knows Flamenco inside out, but sadly it isn’t.

Most people in the UK – and by that I mean the people who aren’t Spanish, who don’t know a lot about Spanish life and culture and know next to nothing about Flamenco, think that all Spanish people have black hair, brown skin and wear red (or red and black) flouncy dresses. Sorry – that’s just the women, the men have black hair, brown skin and wear tight black high trousers.

I do realise that I’ve basically just described those spiky fingered Spanish dolls that you see for sale in Spanish airports and were so beloved in the 1960s. Apparently these are what all Spanish people and particularly Flamenco dancers look like and the rest of us are fakes! Maybe we pay so much attention to this clichéd appearance idea in the UK (as opposed to Spain where talent and content wins out every time over appearance) because so many people here still think that Flamenco is a cabaret turn, a fancy dress game, slightly comedic or rather exotic and we want our dancers to look like the 1960s Spanish dolls.

So why do people in the UK expect Flamenco dancers to look a certain way and why do they judge them to be better and more talented if they do look a certain way? How much pressure is there on professionals and teachers who work here in the UK to “make themselves look Spanish” and why does this only exist outside of Spain? Come to think of it – why don’t people in the UK realise that Spanish people also have brown hair, blonde hair and even red hair? The appearance of a Spanish person depends on what part of Spain your family comes from and who forms part of your genetic make-up.

Flamenco dancers in the UK are selling a product, and YOU are the product, rather than selling knowledge, experience and talent as well as Flamenco dance and music. No-one seems to care if a Flamenco guitarist in the UK has fair hair and a fair complexion, so long as he’s a talented guitarist, so why doesn’t this extend to dancers too?

When I was a young dancer I was one of the dancing dolls in a line-up of identical girls who performed the group numbers and danced behind the soloists. As we all had to look the same everyone dyed their hair and their skin to match each other. I spent years with dark brown hair and slightly orange skin and I was SO glad when I changed to teaching and could have my own hair and skin again. Thanks to my lovely hairdresser I recently became a blonde and I like it! But how do my students feel – do they secretly wish that I had long black hair? Are you thinking of dye-ing to dance?

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“Steps……. More than just a 90s band”

Dance steps. Learning them, practising them, knowing them, understanding them. Anyone who attends dance classes, workshops, short courses or dance holidays of any type (not just Flamenco dance) will know what a massive and important subject this is. And yet, so few people seem to talk about it. Publicity for dance classes make it sound as if all you have to do is attend the class and you will, as if by magic, be able to learn and master all the steps almost all at once.

If any of you have actually been to a dance class then you’ll know that sadly, this just isn’t true. Believe me – all dance teachers wish it was true. All the blood, sweat, tears and frustration that goes into trying every which way to inspire your class and ensure that the end result is a happy, fulfilled class of people who all know the dances they’ve learned inside out is the goal of ALL dance teachers! But the truth is that as long as you’ve got normal people in the classes, all of them will have their own particular problems and difficulties. Basically – if your students are actual genuine people, they’ll all learn in slightly different ways, have different problem areas and need different types of teaching to help them get the best out of the class/workshop/dance holiday. And this is where you’re going to find out if you have a good teacher……..

Are good teachers (dance or otherwise) born or made? Natural talent or learned skills? In my opinion, it’s a bit of both. You can spend as long as you like being trained to teach your chosen subject but if you have no natural capacity for teaching you won’t do as well as those that do. On the other hand, you can be a naturally great and charismatic teacher, but if you’ve never had any teaching training you’ll struggle to overcome some situations which training would have equipped you for. A great dancer does not necessarily make a great teacher……….. but learning the basics of dance teaching will transform your teaching no matter now incredibly talented you are.

If I give away all the secrets of dance teaching in these blogs I’ll have to move far away and change my name. There are too many good teachers out there who have slaved away for years, spending money they really don’t have to get their diplomas and certificates and I don’t fancy being pursued through the streets by an angry horde of dance teachers waving their dance shoes and sweaty leotards at me!

So for this piece we’re just going to concentrate on steps. How do you learn them, how to do practise them and how do you understand them?

Your dance class is the first place where you encounter the steps of any dance. Slowly you build up the steps till your dance choreography becomes longer and longer, and then complete, finished and learned. But you’re only going to be able to make this happen if you leave the class with enough knowledge and understanding of the steps to be able to (drum roll here……..……) PRACTISE THEM – and here’s the kicker, you can’t practise them if you don’t KNOW THEM! So it’s down to your teacher to make sure that you do and this means that your teacher needs to have learnt how to teach the five different ways that dance students learn dance steps.

The five ways of learning are:
Muscle memory. Your body is amazing. If you repeat movements with your body over and over again your body will actually remember what it has to do. There are no short cuts with this type of learning as it involves doing the step sequence over and over again until (as I say to my students); you can dance it while having a conversation about something else. If you’re a muscle memory learner your teacher will need to make sure that you dance each step sequence through many times before moving onto the next and that you do the same the following week and week after. In between you will need to practise the sequences as well. Using muscle memory as your learning tool can be great, but completely replies on you being able to repeat the sequence many times. Muscle memory can only be built up with repetition.

Aural. This is particularly true of any type of percussive dance (like Flamenco) as it relies on your brain’s ability to remember the sound that the steps make. For some people this is a very easy way to remember as they literally hear a tune made up of the sounds of the dance. For others this is not a method they can use as they just don’t remember the sounds of the steps that they’ve made in that way. Flamenco dance teachers in Spain use the aural method more than any other. That is why you’ll hear teachers in Spain (or Spanish teachers in the UK) saying rhythmic sounds out loud as they teach the steps. This means that for the students dancing the same steps over and over, the verbal rhythm pattern that’s spoken by the teacher becomes a short hand form for remembering the steps. For example “dah, dah, dah, dah DAH, di, di y dididi, dah DAH” may not mean very much to any of you reading it – but if your teacher repeats this aural patterning every time she/he teaches and dances that particular steps, it will. Gradually the sound pattern begins to make a tune, which the student remembers. Entire dances are learnt by students in Spain using this method (often with the musicians only joining the class when the dance has been learnt) because their teacher knows that they already have a thorough of Flamenco rhythms and sound patterns, so the shape of Flamenco compás is second nature to them. This often isn’t true of non-Spanish students who haven’t listened to and watched Flamenco all their lives.

Learning through body shaping. How does it feel when you move during your dance? Do you remember when to lift your arms or lower them in a certain place? This isn’t the same as muscle memory as it uses a different part of the brain and is less instinctive and more intellectual. If you take a certain passage of your dance, your teacher can break down for you, explaining where you lift your arms, where you turn etc, but then it’s up to you to remember these instructions. It’s rare that this is the only learning method used by a dance student and normally remembering the shapes that your body makes is used in conjunction with other learning methods. However, it’s another useful tool, especially when practising alone between classes. As the dance develops, try to think about each passage as a whole – how are you using your head, your body’s direction, where are your arms etc. If your arms have gone up – you know for sure that at some point they’ll have to come down!

Intellectually For some people they just cannot learn through muscle memory or through the sounds or shapes they make. There are no short cuts for them and they need to learn the steps, style and shape as if they are learning a language. The intellectual learners are the people who will most benefit from writing down the steps and remember that you don’t have to know dance notation to write down the steps, they can be written in a language which no-one understands but you – providing that YOU understand them when you read them back. Intellectual learners need to be taught in “certainties”. They are not remotely interested or comfortable with improvising or “feeling the music” – they need to know that there are “four steps back and cross the right foot over”. They need to write that down as soon as they understand it, so they can refer to it in class and when they’re practising. Intellectual learners need to know why they are doing what they are doing and exactly how a step relates to that particular note of music. They want to know the exact positioning of their arms and how they have got them there. When they know this their confidence grows, so it’s very important that their teacher understands this and gives them all the clear instruction and explanations that they need.

Musically Some people relate so much to the sound of the music that accompanies their dance that this becomes their learning tool. They relate every step and every movement that they make to the music and they know if they’ve gone wrong straight away, because it doesn’t fit exactly with the music in the way that they remember. Students that remember like this aren’t always particularly musical or musicians; this is just another way that brains understand the marriage of music and dance. However, there are two aspects of this type of learning that it’s worth talking about; one is that there’s no point in only relating your dance to the melody of the music – it’s essential that you also understanding the rhythm of that music as well. Music is shaped by its rhythm structure and never more than in Flamenco. It’s also worth making sure that you understand the sequence of the music in your dance, and this is particularly true if you are dancing to live music (or as I put in a post on Facebook “dancing to live musicians”, which presumably is opposed to departed ones). If your class is taught to recorded music it’s easier to remember the music exactly, in fact you can practise at home with your own recording or the music. But if your class is accompanied by musicians, they may occasionally go wrong; make a mistake in the tune, the length of the phrase or the rhythm. So if your understanding of the steps and the way you remember this is entirely based on what your musicians play in class, make sure you also learn the structure of your dance’s music well, so that even if the musicians make a mistake – you’ll still know what you’re doing.

By now you may be asking yourself if your teacher uses these teaching techniques. Chances are that they do, though if they’re experienced teachers you may not always be aware of what they’re doing. Don’t ever be nervous about asking your teacher to explain a step of a sequence of the choreography that you don’t understand. It may not be appropriate to stop the class to ask then, but you can always contact them between classes, explain your problem and ask if they can fit in time to help you before or after your class. Remember – you will probably not be the only one, so ask your class mates if they’re having a problem with that part of the dance too. Your teacher wants you to know the dance and so will always want to do whatever they can to help you be the best dancer you can be.

As practicing is such an important part of learning, I’ll be coming back to this in a future blog and sharing some practice tips with you. In the meantime, don’t forget another great learning tool, given to us by the modern age – ask your teacher and the other students if you can record or film the class on your phone. Then you can have your steps to go back to, to remember and practise, time and time again!

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“Are you a Flamenco?”

When someone Spanish asks you “are you a Flamenco?” what they mean is, “are you a professional Flamenco dancer or musician, a student of dance or music or someone who neither dances, plays or sings, but you love Flamenco and go to as many shows and events as possible and surround yourself with Flamenco?”.

This wording of this simple question tells us that Flamenco is not just a dance form or a type of music or song, it is a mind-set, a way of being – it’s a social life, almost a lifestyle.

If you live in Andalucia, whether you are Spanish or not, you will be part of the Flamenco lifestyle and social life and indeed, that is one of the big draws for many of the non-Andalucian Flamenco students who go out there for holidays or to live. You can even find the Flamenco lifestyle in other Spanish cities like Barcelona or Madrid and certainly find it in pockets all around the world – wherever there is a large enough number of Spanish people living together in one place. If you live in or around London it’s very easy to be part of that lifestyle too. In addition to the many different classes, there are countless Spanish bars and many different Flamenco theatre shows and events that you can attend and of course there is the many Flamenco clubs or peñas, including the famous Peña de Londres, all of which allow you to enjoy a Flamenco based social life.

But what about the many Flamencos who live in other parts of the UK?

This was a question that we (Camino del Flamenco) wanted to address a few years ago. We knew that if the students who came along to our classes were going to keep on coming, year after year, and if we were going to attract a constant stream of new students we had to give them the ability to also “be Flamencos” – to take part in and attend as many shows and events as possible and develop a social life based around their shared enjoyment of Flamenco.

Camino del Flamenco are based in Oxfordshire and if you don’t know this area it would be tempting to think of it as rolling green fields with a few locals leaning on their fences with a straw in their mouth – or maybe doing a spot of fox hunting before returning to the country pile to berate the servants. But actually, after London, it is the area with the largest Spanish community, with close to 60,000 people of Spanish descent or native Spanish living there, particularly around the city of Oxford.

Over the last few years we’ve developed and tried out lots of different ideas and now, in addition to the performances that we organise for our students throughout the year we also run bi-monthly Spanish Nights. We call them this so that “it does what it says on the tin” and everyone understands what they are booking tickets for. One Saturday night every other month we hire a private performance bar (a completely self-contained room with its own bar, stage and seating) in one of Oxfordshire’s leading arts centres. Each night will be slightly different, but all have the same basic premise – that the audience, sitting at tables around the room to keep everything very social, will have the chance to watch a really good quality Flamenco show, meet other like-minded people, have a laugh and chat and a dance – in fact enjoying a good night out. This will sound very familiar to anyone who attends any Spanish Peña regularly and in fact when we had a performance from a group in Sevilla back in July they remarked on how much like a typical Spanish peña it was!

This whole idea that playing a certain type of music or studying a certain type of dance will also allow you to access a whole social world is not just confined to Flamenco of course – you’ll find similar things with Salsa, Kizomba and Tango. All of which leads us to believe that this is very much a Spanish/South American thing where the social life and the social dancing is part of the culture. But then what about British folk music and even British clogging and Morris-dancing? They have a massive social scene that goes hand in hand with learning to play and dance this folk art. However, even these (and you might be thinking that Morris and Flamenco are a million miles apart and certainly there would be an argument as to which has the better costumes – me, I’m coming down for Flamenco, funnily enough) have one big thing in common – they are the music, song and dance of the people, for the people, by the people and enjoyed by the people.

It starts from the ground up…….and out of the ground in Spain comes passion, a love of life and laughter, a need to be happy and carefree in the face of enormous odds and an energy and capacity for enjoyment rivalled by few around the world.

Here in Oxfordshire most of our students meet this for the first time in our classes, but this type of energy and enjoyment is very seductive and so we do our absolute best to persuade them to come along to our Spanish Nights. We know that we only have to get them into one…..and then they will just keep on coming until they become an essential part and a much looked forward-to part, of their lives.

It isn’t possible to really understand Flamenco, let alone enjoy it or love it, until you have seen it performed live by good professionals (or non-professionals who do it really, really well). Without this, coming along to weekly classes becomes just another dance exercise class and the only thing that students who don’t go to live performances is doing is massively cheating themselves.

In fact I’m going to go further at this point and say that I truthfully believe that EVERYONE should go to see a live Flamenco performance at some point in their lives. They may not necessarily be converted to “Flamenco love”, but until they do so they absolutely cannot even have an opinion on Flamenco.

Let’s end with an advert (why not?) as this seems to be appropriate…….

Our next Spanish Night is on Saturday 1 February and features a group with dancers Magdalena Mannion and Jesus Olmedo, their guitarist and singer Alejandro el Gambimbas. Doors open at 7.30pm and their show begins at 7.50pm. They are performing a 1.5 hour show with a 30 minute interval and from 9.50pm onwards there will be a Spanish/Salsa disco. Tickets are £11 and can be bought directly from The Mill Arts Centre box office: ww.themillartscentre.co.uk or Tel: 01295 279002

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The Crumpled Flamenco Dancer (or one memorable show)

When it comes to blogging there really isn’t much point in NOT using personal stories from the past. I’ve been part of the Flamenco world for almost 30 years. That’s an awful lot of stories……

As I keep explaining to my colleagues, one problem with many of the stories I’d like to tell would result in me being sued or ostracized from the Flamenco community. An awful lot of them seem to involved sex or drugs (or both), unexpected nudity or very bad behaviour.

However, here’s one story that I feel I can tell. I’m going to change the names of the protagonists in order to protect their reputations (and spare their blushes). This story goes back to the early 90s……..and every word is true as far as I remember.

At this point I was dancing nightly in London’s top Flamenco Tablao. How I got to dance there and what it was like I’ll save for another blog as it really requires a story all to itself, or maybe several. One of the many upsides of employment there was that you frequently got offered other dancing jobs as a result – either by members of the audience or other dance companies/guitarists who knew that you would be reliable and good for any gig that they got and they needed dancers for.

One of the other girls who danced with me at the Tablao phoned me to say that a well-known London based guitarist (who I’m going to call Antonio for the purposes of this blog) had called to offer us a job. It was in Surrey on a Sunday night (the night when the Tablao was closed) and the money was excellent so it was a bit of a no-brainer to say yes.

The venue was a large golf and country club that were having their annual member’s dinner and they always provided a high quality cabaret as part of the evening. They wanted two short shows of 20-25 minutes each with a guitarist and two dancers and they wanted it to be excellent quality – “theatre quality” is how they described it.

One of the many things that dancing nightly in a good Tablao gives you a wide repertoire of polished and performance ready dances. Any Tablao dancer will have at least 6 dances in their repertoire, including two solos (one to be a deep and serious dance and the other to be lighter and more flirty – which in Flamenco terms means one Cante Jondo and the other Cante Chico) and a couple of dances which are suitable for beginning and ending shows. The fact that I was dancing with someone I already performed with on a nightly basis meant that we pretty much already had the show mapped out.

We also had matching dresses which we wore in the Tablao show. Francesca (as I’m now going to call the other dancer involved in this story) and I had two sets of matching dresses which had been made for us by a professional Flamenco dressmaker. They were beautiful dresses and in the extreme of Flamenco fashion for that time. I loved my dresses and I had matching flowers and matching shoes, so I changed my shoes when I changed my dresses.

Two shows in Surrey meant taking both dresses, plus matching accessories. We were SO good to go! Antonio picked us up in his car and drove us out to Surrey. The golf club was in a very rural setting – miles from anywhere. However it’s very grand appearance and sweeping lawns was rather offset by its name which appeared in large letters over the door. I have to admit at this point that I’m actually going to use the genuine name of the club, which was called “The Crumpled Horn”

We were shown into a ridiculously large room to use as our changing room. It was their smaller function room and we made a little home in the corner of the large room where they had set up a full length mirror. Antonio wandered about the room tuning his guitar and playing while we did our hair, made up and changed. At 9.00pm a member of staff came to collect us and we walked into the main function room. It was a huge square room, absolutely packed with large round tables. Round each table sat up to 20 members of the club and along one wall of the room was a large, square raised stage. Antonio sat on a chair at the back of the stage and we sat on two chairs, either side of him. As he began to play we felt the audience change their attention to us and we stood up, walked to the centre of the stage and began to dance Sevillanas as partners. We had clear, sharp, perfect castanets and the crowd loved it. 20 minutes (one solo from Francesca, one guitar solo from Antonio and 5 minutes of punchy Bulerias) later and the first show was in the bag.

We went back to our huge changing room and immediately a waiter entered with a tray of canapés and drinks for us to enjoy between shows. Antonio immediately started eating but dancers don’t eat between shows (there’s always that possible vomit element which forbids this) so we had a couple of drinks and then changed into the high impact dresses for the second show. My dress was RED, very red, very frilly, a confection of lovely redness and I had matching shoes. The dress had slightly puffed shoulders and very full sleeves that went down to my wrist where they ended in frilled cuffs – the sort of Red Flamenco Dynasty dress that was high fashion Flamenco at the time.

At 10.00pm we were collected for the second show. As we returned into the main function room I immediately felt the changed atmosphere. In our absence the crowd had continued to drink and were now getting pretty drunk. We sat down and Antonio swung into the second set of our show. Francesca and I began the set with Fandangos de Huelva, again with crisp, rapid castanets. Our dance was followed by another guitar solo by Antonio while Francesca and I played Palmas. My attention wandered slightly from the music and I found myself scanning the crowd. I suddenly noticed that everyone in the crowd was male. Why I hadn’t noticed this before I have no idea – I had just presumed that it would be a mixed crowd of members and their good lady wives.

At 10.12pm I realised that there were no wives, just 400 drunken golfers and us and it was time for my solo………

As Francesca had danced Soleá as her solo in the first half (very profound, deep and slow) I had decided to dance a Tanguillo for my solo – which is very flirty and coquettish. With the wisdom of hindsight I can see now that this was a BAD choice of solo for this particular crowd, but there was no time for a change of plan as Antonio swung into the opening chords and I got up and walked to centre stage to begin my dance.

With the now very drunk audience baying and cat-calling I had no choice but to go for it and dance my very best. Looking back I realise that I was planning to “win them round” with my spectacular talents, so I gave my very best “theatre quality” performance. Two minutes into my dance a man rose from his chair and made his way unsteadily towards the stage – holding out his arms in a manner that suggested zombie attack, rather than appreciative audience member. He stopped in front of me and mouthed “Yurrr bweatifulllll” (at least I think that was what he mouthed) before wiping his mouth with his shirt tail.

I went into the escobilla, he went for me. There was a short but entertaining interval while I danced nimbly around the stage with him in hot pursuit, but this came to an end when he managed to catch me in the llamada. He grabbed at the nearest part of me – which happened to be my shoulder and attempted to pull me towards him and onto his slobbering lips. There was a terrible tearing sound – Antonio stopped playing and there stood Mr Drunk, holding one sleeve of my beautiful dress in his sweaty hand and there stood I with one sleeve of my beautiful dress completely ripped off at the shoulder. The audience was silent, Antonia and Francesca were silent, and in fact there was a moment of complete silence in the room and then…………. “HIJO DE PUTA!” I screamed in his face, grabbed my lost sleeve back and slapped him so hard that he lost his balance and fell backwards off the stage and onto his back, where he lay for a few moments winded, while his arms and legs vibrated like a dying fly.

Antonio immediately shouted “Rumba! “and playing Rumba as if his life depended on it, we all sprang into action and together we all Rumba-d like mad on the stage and then off the stage and through the crowd into the safety of our huge changing room. Once there Antonio turned and shouted “Get changed now!!” and we changed as fast as we possibly could.

While the fast change was taking place Antonio paced the room berating me loudly for my actions. There was a lot of swearing but the main thrust was that no matter what happens you never, ever actually strike your audience. Looking back I can completely see his point and I really do understand why he kept shouting at me “well, this is one job we won’t be offered again!” He then put his guitar away and picked up a large carrier bag which was on one of the chairs. He went to the cupboards, opened them and began to stuff the bag with anything and everything he found in the cupboards – napkins, knives and forks, serving plates and table cloths. He shouted to Francesca and me “come on, get what you can, we’re not getting paid now and we’ll never get asked back – we might as well get something out of this!”

Francesca was completely shocked; she had probably never stolen anything in her entire life and had, until that moment held Antonio in rather high esteem. However, before we could say anything the door opened and a waiter came in and handed me an envelope. He said nothing at all and seemed not to notice Antonio’s bag stuffing. When I opened the envelope it contained a three cheques – all made out to the full amount and an additional £50 in cash. Antonio said the cash was for the travel expenses and took it immediately. It was several days before it occurred to me that it might have been intended for me and for my dress repairs…….

The journey back to London I don’t remember. I worked with Antonio several times after this but we never spoke of this particular show again and I never asked him is the napkins had come in handy. Francesca however mentioned the story often to other dancers and whenever someone would ask her if she knew of a dancer who had ever lost her temper on stage she would smile, look at me and say just three words……

“The Crumpled Horn”

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At the birth of Flamenco laughter

Over the last few days I’ve been helping to put together details of the Flamenco dance holiday that we’re running in Sevilla this October. The dance teacher for Level 2 is Chloé Brúlé. Writing about her dance career for the publicity reminded me of the first time that I saw her dance.

It was 2002 and I was in Sevilla for the Bienal. This is the huge Flamenco festival that is held in Sevilla once every two years (as the name suggests) and in addition to the shows that you can see in all the major theatres of Sevilla, there are also shows in the smaller “salas”, open-air shows on the streets and in the squares and some amazing workshops and classes. Every year the best shows are awarded critics prizes and appearing in an outstanding show really can make a performer’s career.

Some of the most famous names in modern Flamenco made their names got their big break, performing in an award winning Bienal show. Every year there’s a buzz around certain shows before the Bienal even begins – there’s talk that this or that show is going to be amazing, someone knows someone who saw it in rehearsal, heard all the critics are going etc, etc. These are the shows that sell out immediately.

Hard to believe now, but back in 2002 Javier Latorre as a choreographer was still a new and little known animal. In 1989 he shot to national prominence when he won an unprecedented 3 awards at the Concurso Nacional, including the coveted and rarely awarded “Gran Antonio” for the dancer of dancers – the most complete dancer of his generation. His TV appearances and tours on the back of that win had kept him pretty busy, but by the mid-90s he was starting to flex his choreographic muscle with shows for Antonio Canales and UK based Paso Peña. When he choreographed a Flamenco ballet of “Poeta” (the ground-breaking album by Vicente Amigo) for Ballet Nacional de España, people started to talk about his skills and the critics started to see that he could not only dance – but he might also have a future as a choreographer.

Over the next few years he juggled careers as he danced and choreographed and the work that he created was solid, good, but was not setting the dance world alight.

Fast forward to the Bienal 2002……..there was a huge buzz around this radical new work (a new Obra in Spanish) Javier Latorre was going to present. People were desperately hunting for any tickets not already sold. Apparently all the major Flamencos were going to be in the audience, as well as the main critics. I pulled some strings and got a great seat in the centre of the Stalls, 5 rows from the front.

The obra was called “Rinconete y Cortadillo”, which is a short novella by Cervantes (the bloke who wrote Don Quixote”). The novella was famous because it was the first time that anti-heroes (villains) were featured as the main protagonists in a novel. The novel was set in the Sevilla underworld of the 16th century, a world of pick pockets and prostitutes and the protagonists are two young men who fall into that world and somehow, in spite of various misadventures, manage to come up smiling. Not really the sort of thing that you’d expect any choreographer to take on – let alone for the medium of Flamenco!

There was (for Spain) almost a hushed expectancy in the well-dressed audience. Bear in mind at this point that most Flamenco shows in Andalucia are almost a two way experience between the audience and the performers – with the audience making almost as much noise as there is on stage! So this expectant hush was unusual. But the next sound the audience made was even more incredible for a Flamenco show………

There were gales of laughter, really belly laughs. Yes, that was the strange sound coming from the audience that night, a sound so unexpected that the ushers rushed into the auditorium from the corridors to see what was going on. We lucky few (the Maestranza theatre holds about 900) were experiencing Flamenco’s first ever comedy dance production. Hilarious, SO clever and witty, so unexpected and fresh – wonderful, clever, clever musicians, fabulous singers and sublime dancing. I wanted time to stand still and to be able to stay in that magical place for a lot longer than 95 minutes.

Comedy in dance really only works when the artistes involved are incredibly good – masters of their craft. When you’re THAT good, when you know your technique and style inside out, you can use wit and physical comedy with grace and finesse. Who really stood out? Well, everyone – it was a total ensemble piece and it was so obvious that everyone involved had just loved being involved. As the protagonists Daniel Navarro (in his first major leading role) and Nacho Blanco were outstanding, as were Rosario Toledo and Alvaro Paños (brother of Nani Paños) and I can only imagine what the experience was like for Chloé Brúlé, in her first major dancing role. I suppose I’ll get the chance to ask her in October……

At the end of the show there was that magical moment of total silence which you get at the end of the best shows. Total silence and then the applause which crashes out like a rising storm as every person in the theatre rose to their feet. Javier Latorre, the creator and choreographer of the piece was brought out to take his bow and the Ole rang out from every corner of the theatre. I clapped till my hands hurt.

Javier Latorre – iconic choreographer was born and the Flamenco performance bar had been raised once more.

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Dancing Sevillanas with a sexy long haired gypsy man………or not!

On Sunday 28 April (the end of this week) we’re running the first of our Sevillanas dance workshops for this year. I’m happy to say that we’ve got an excellent turn out for this and it was suggested to me that in honour of the workshop my blog this week should be on or about dancing Sevillanas.

One of my colleagues suggested “my life in Sevillanas” where I list some of the most important times of my life which have been marked by me dancing Sevillanas. I thought this was something I could keep on the back burner (not saying I won’t do it, just saying it’s for the future) in case it makes me sound slightly deranged…..I mean who on earth dances Sevillanas at pivotal moments of their life – not even me!

So instead I’m opting to tell you a story. It’s a true story, but I’m going to change a couple of names in order to protect the guilty. Stick with the story to the end and you’ll see that it IS a story about dancing Sevillanas.

This story is just a few years old….maybe 5 years ago, maybe less. We hadn’t been offering dance holidays in Spain for very long and in order to drum up trade, to raise our public profile and get more publicity on a big scale in the UK, we used to occasionally offer free or discounted dance holidays to journalists who would then write an account of their holidays for magazines. To be honest, it wasn’t that WE offered this – it was more than journalists would contact us and ask. Sometimes we said no, but sometimes if it was a national publication with a large circulation (with millions of readers) we would of course say yes.

And so it was that a certain young journo (shall we call her Daphne – yes, I think we will) contacted us to ask about a forthcoming holiday that we were running to the Feria del Caballo in Jerez. Daphne was eager to book for the holiday, stay in the hotel with the rest of the group who she would interview during the holiday for the article, take the daily dance classes and make the most of her Feria experience. Daphne (by the way, in case you haven’t worked it out, this was NOT her name……but it really should have been) was a journalist with a leading women’s monthly magazine, one that we were very keen to get into.  There’s a strong possibility that the last few words were the key to what happened next……blinded by our excitement (greed), we agreed to include Daphne in the holiday for NO CHARGE!

In those days I would frequently fly out to accompany the holidays (something I can’t do any longer, or I’d never be at my desk) and I arrived in Jerez the day before the group was arriving in order to prep everyone that we had a top journo coming and to present in the best possible light at all times.  Next day I went with the driver to meet the group from the plane and made sure that from moment one the charm offensive was switched on to max.  The sun shone, the sky was deep blue, and Jerez looked lovely with the old buildings, – everywhere was signs and preparations for the Feria and everyone was enchanted!

Everyone except Daphne…….she looked out of the coach window and said “is this IT then? I’d imagined something, you know….more Spanish”.  Cue dropping of jaw (from me). What do you say, what could I say, how could I not slap her up and shout you silly cow…..but now I’m starting to rant, so back to the actual story.  I said nothing and thought “she’s tired from the journey; she needs to relax and eat something.  It’ll be fine”.  IT WASN’T.

The hotel that the group was staying in was the most highly rated, charming boutique hotel in Jerez.  We had arranged for Daphne to have their best room (although everyone’s rooms were just lovely) and while everyone else in the group made ooohhhh noises at the hotel, Daphne looked as if she was sucking on a lemon.  She didn’t speak to anyone else in the group once, barely spoke to the charming hotel owner who had come down to the hotel specifically to greet her and stomped (and yes, I do mean stomped) off to her room.

 

I’d arranged that after giving the group a couple of hours to wind down, unpack and generally relax, I’d meet them back at the hotel and from there we would go to eat.  When I arrived the rest of the group were up on the roof terrace, complimentary drinks in hand and already in fine spirits.  No-one had seen Daphne……..at this point I should probably explain that I hadn’t told the rest of the group that Daphne was a journalist, or why she was there, as I didn’t want them to act differently with her. I thought that if they acted naturally she would get a better idea of how much they were really enjoying the holiday.

At the appointed hour we all assembled in the hotel lobby and waited for Daphne. No Daphne appeared.  The hotel called her room.  No answer.  I called her mobile.  No answer. I went to her room.  She wasn’t there. No one in the hotel had seen her leave.  Staff searched the hotel, but no sign of Daphne.  She …………was………. lost

I had LOST my journo!  How had I managed that?  The cold sweat began, coupled with the dawning realisation that I had to keep up the charm offensive for the rest of the group and make sure that they remained oblivious to what was really happening. We were already almost 30 minutes late for our lunch. I dug deep, smiled brightly and took my group off to lunch, leaving the hotel strict instructions to call me the moment Daphne appeared.  We were about 20 yards along the road when we ran into Daphne who seemed very unhappy with my relieved and enthusiastic greeting.  She had apparently “been bored “and had gone for a walk.  She didn’t think it mattered if she turned up for lunch or not and wasn’t sure that she would now join us anyway.  The others in the group, in their happy ignorance, pleaded with her to join them (looking back, I think they thought she was shy) and so off we went.

The restaurant was in a small pedestrian square in one of the oldest parts of Jerez.  We had a large table reserved, under the Jacaranda trees which were in full flower, a sea of purple frothy beauty.  The table was already prepared for us with bottles of chilled white wine, bottles of chilled water, bowls of crusty bread and saucers of olives.  Some of the others in the group thought it was so lovely they almost had tears in their eyes and almost everyone took photos! Except Daphne.

She started out berating the waiter in English.  I explained that none of the waiters spoke English. She huffed and puffed and said very loudly that she didn’t like to use a translator as they never said what she had actually said (too right there, darling).  Her seat had to be moved, she was too much in the sun, she was too much in the shade.  The water was too cold, she didn’t eat bread. She didn’t drink alcohol. She was a vegetarian, was there a vegetarian menu? No, she hadn’t added this onto her booking form in the section marked “are you a vegetarian?” because she had forgotten to.  She sent her first course back un-tasted. She sent her second course back twice for changes.  She devoured her pudding as if she’d never met cream and custard on the same plate together before.  She had a second pudding.  IT WAS A LONG MEAL………..

At this point I’m going to fast forward as by now I can see you are all getting a good picture of what life with Daphne was like.  By the end of the lunch only the die-hards were still attempting friendly conversation with her, the majority of the group had given up and were forming their own friendships and starting to really enjoy themselves.  As for me, since Daphne continually spoke to me as if I was a mixture of her enemy and a lowly servant, I really couldn’t achieve anything worth mentioning.

The Flamenco dance classes started the next day.  The group had 5 classes over the week, all with a local teacher at her dance school.  The rest of the group found the classes challenging and great fun and loved the fact that they were dancing at a local school.  I dropped in to watch the classes on day two, to see how everyone was getting on and to make sure that the teacher was happy too.  As soon as I walked in I noticed Daphne sitting down.  In the break I asked the teacher if everything was alright and she said yes, but that no matter what she did or said, she couldn’t get Daphne to dance.  I was amazed and said “do you mean she comes here every day and just sits there?” and she said yes……..

Everyone else was learning the dances of the Feria, the Sevillanas and the Rumba.  They were going to need them because later that day we went to the Feria del Caballo for the first time.  What can I tell you, how can I describe it (hopefully you’ve been to a large Feria and I won’t have to)? On the day we went it was still relatively quiet, with no more than 40,000 people enjoying several square miles of casetas.  There were beautiful horses parading up and down, beautifully dressed locals, from every corner poured the music of Sevillanas – inviting you to dance, drink and enjoy yourself.  The first day at the Feria everyone was a little bit intimidated and although I know they really wanted to dance too, they just felt a bit too…..English (yes, there were no Welsh, Irish or Scottish in the group on THAT particular holiday, though we do encourage bookings from people of all nationalities), so they just walked about and soaked it all up. 

Daphne also came to life, taking loads of photos.  She particularly liked photographing the horses and the carriages. We found a table outside a particularly attractive caseta and ordered a round of drinks and a selection of tapas.  Daphne went off to take photos.  About 15 minutes later a local came running over to me, asking me to go with him back to the first aid tent – Daphne had been trodden on by a horse.

No bones were broken thank god and far from being tearful, Daphne was ranting about how she was going to sue the organisers of the Feria. Privately I thought “good luck with that one sweetheart” and publicity I had the job of talking her down from the trees.  I did this by distraction technique.  I explained that I was rather concerned that we were 3 days into the holiday and I hadn’t seen her interview any of the group, nor had she spoken to me or to the hotel owner or the dance teacher.  Nor had she asked me any background questions on Jerez or the Feria.  This seemed to cheer her up immensely and she told me that she had changed her mind about the angle of the piece and was going to do it from the point of view of a normal client in our group – so no interviews and only the knowledge she could pick up herself.

We had three more days of the holiday.  Everyone else loved their classes, loved being in Jerez and loved the Feria.  They made new friendships, got drunk, laughed and got sunburnt.  And they danced, and danced, and danced……by the second visit to the Feria I couldn’t stop them dancing.  Sevillanas, Rumba – I got tired and had to leave them to it and by the third day at the Feria they really didn’t need or want me there.  They had discovered a 24 hour party with great food and drink and a place where you could dance till you dropped.  Suddenly a group of women aged 35 – 60 were all young and carefree again.  I loved it.

Daphne never got off her chair in dance class.  Daphne never danced Sevillanas at the Feria.  By day 5 she had stopped contact with the rest of the group altogether.  Daphne barely spoke to me or anyone else at the final meal of the holiday.  Daphne did not seem happy.  I was later told that on the plane going back to the UK she sat separately to the others and at the baggage carousel said happily to them “goodbye, I don’t suppose I will ever see any of you again”.

3 months later I was in Sainsbury’s.  Standing in the magazine aisle, reading that month’s copy of the magazine that Daphne had written the article for.  The first that my poor husband knew that anything was wrong was when, from two aisle away, he heard me make “a strange animal howling noise” and rushed over to find me jumping up and down on the magazine, shouting “Bitch, bitch etc…….” (You can probably imagine the etc part)

Yes folks, Daphne had written her story – a fascinating tale of love, lust and dancing in the hot Andalucian sun.  Something had called her to do this thing and even though she had never been to Spain and didn’t speak Spanish, all on her own she booked this holiday and went unaccompanied to this strange town called Jerez.  There she knew no-one and was completely alone, staying in this quaint little run down hotel.  Somehow she found her way to a local dance teacher who on seeing her dance christened her “La Niña Valiente” (the brave little girl) and admired and encouraged her natural talent.  She was entranced by the strange, almost savage locals, cooking over their open fires in the streets (in her version everyone’s cookers seemed to have packed up) and gazing at her with dark, lustful eyes.  A local man told her that she should go to their Feria, so that everyone would see her dance.  She went and hung around at the edge of the dance floor at first.  Then a tall, dark, gypsy man with long flowing hair approached her and said “are you La Niña Valiente? If you are then you must dance with me” He whirled her out onto the dance floor and there their almost consummated their passion, in the powerful steps and hot glances of the Sevillanas.  She felt like a woman re-born.

Yes, folks that is my sorry tale.  As I promised at the beginning, this story does end with dancing Sevillanas.  At no point did Daphne mention Camino Holidays or Camino del Flamenco and no reader would have been any the wiser about how or why she got there. 

Strange but true……..18 months later I was contacted by someone wanting to book a dance holiday with us.  She said that she’d read a thrilling article in a magazine about how an ordinary woman booked a Flamenco dance holiday to Jerez and how she found love there and it had inspired her to want to do the same.  Did we offer holidays like this?   I said……..yes!

 

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Beginning the bloggin’ life

For some time now the lucky people who work with me have been telling me that I ought to write a blog.  Why me?  Apparently because I’m opinionated and passionate (and almost always right) and spend much of my waking hours writing.  It’s true that I’m the type of person who shouts at the tele – but that isn’t necessarily a good attribute for blogging.

So I thought I’d better invent some rules for myself before I really get stuck in:

Rosi’s bloggin’ rules are: no politics (which is very hard for me), no religion, no name calling, no bitchiness (hard again), no ranting against people who can’t defend themselves and probably won’t read the blogs anyway, no “poor me” rants either.  No information or chatting about my personal life (cause that’s personal)….. The rest of the rules I’ll make up as I go along, or when I break all/any of the above.

The purpose of the blog is to write about my Flamenco life, or my life in Flamenco – whichever one you prefer.  So there’ll be a bit of musing on the last 30 odd Flamenco years, some funny (and almost certainly true) stories of things that happened to me or others in the Flamenco world, some reporting on developments in Flamenco, some information on and about the classes, the workshops, the events and the shows that we run and also some musings/information on Flamenco in Spain – including our Flamenco holidays. 

There’ll also be lots of photos, because we have so many really great ones and I’d like to share them with you. 

So now …..let the blogging begin – “viva la vida blogging”

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