1. Can I get your name, location and number of years of experience in the dance world.
My name is Karen Stelling and I currently work and teach in the Chicago area. I have been studying, performing and teaching Flamenco and Spanish Dance for over 30 years.
2. Can you tell me what makes Flamenco dance unique?
Flamenco dance is just one part of an entire culture that defines a community of people who came to together in area of southern Spain, what is now known as Andalusia, over two hundred years ago. To really understand Flamenco, to know it, requires one to understand and know the gypsy culture that birthed it.
In Flamenco “arte,” there was first the voice or the “cante,” literally the crying out against life’s cruelty, as well as happily expressing love of the land, of family and of life. Then came the guitar to set it all to music in a wide variety of rhythms or “palos.” Finally, after the singing and the guitar, came the dance. Ultimately, the dance is the outward physical demonstration of this culture, with its struggles as well as great joys that were endured and celebrated. It is truly a “folk” art form in that at its roots, it is deeply embedded in the gypsy culture of Spain. There is nothing akin to it in American culture with the possible exception of jazz music.
3. How difficult is Flamenco to learn, and what are some of the major challenges in doing it well?
Learning to dance flamenco requires a terrific amount of patience and practice. Because it is largely improvisatory, just like any improvising, one has to acquire good “chops” and understand it all very academically first, before one can begin to let go of the boundaries and explore. This of course takes time! But to become a knowledgable flamenco dancer, one must study all the different structures which can be in 3, 4, 6 and 12 count phrases! Many students begin flamenco classes thinking it’s like latin dancing or salsa with easy 1,2,3,4 counts and then wonder why it is so hard to learn. Each rhythm, or palo, has its own tempo, accents, style and musical structure including how to dance to the singing, that must also be learned. There are some dancers who will only perform one particular palo over and over again, because it fits their temperament and allows them the clearest expression.
4. In terms of technique, can you describe some of the things that Flamenco dancers must master?
Having a good sense of rhythm is paramount and because there is so much percussion inherent in most of flamenco dance, one has to know how to dance on the beat and in the counter rhythm or “contratiempos.” Flamenco dancers have strong legs and feet…the pounding is part of the job! Like ballerinas dancing on pointe, one just has to accept a certain amount of discomfort at first and then eventually, one doesn’t notice it any more. I constantly encourage my students to go for it, put 100% energy into doing heelwork and to avoid doing steps in a weak fashion, “marching in place” rather than digging the feet into the ground. The studio is the laboratory where you work this stuff out and make mistakes and get out of rhythm but that’s how you learn. There is also a certain carriage of the body that has a distinctive flamenco look…the arched back, the arms in a very held position with elbows turned out and the “flores” or movements of the hands which need to be in sync with the rest of the dancer’s rhythm and steps. There needs to also be a strong connection to the earth underneath us. The upper half of the body reaches toward the heavens but the hips and legs and feet all belong to the ground. Most women have difficulty connecting to their physical, sensual selves and the ability to open up to the earth and yet this is imperative in flamenco. To feel comfortable in one’s skin and move in a way that is non-pedestrian is very challenging.
5 How did you fall in love with Flamenco dance?
I remember seeing a company of dancers perform at Navy Pier in the early 70’s. They had a little postage stamp of a stage to perform on but it was amazing. I believe one of the female dancers was a woman named Carmen Mora who later became one of my favorite dancers. Then, in 1975 when I had the chance to study with Nana Lorca at the Boston Conservatory of Music, I remember being completely overwhelmed by her beauty and grace at the closing concert of the workshop. She had transformed herself from this tough teacher with no make-up to a stunning performer in amazing costumes and stage presence that lit up the theater.
6. What is it like to choreograph Flamenco dance?
The best and most accomplished flamenco dancers may or may not have “set” choreographies. Remember, flamenco originally was a jam session of the folks in the household or the little community. It was made up on the spot and anyone who wanted to could stand up and sing or dance. This understanding is still prevalent among traditional flamenco dancers. More frequently, the dancer works with the guitarist and singer to determine which palo will be performed and because the dancer knows how and when the singing will start and end, he or she creates the dance in the moment. Most traditional palos have set structures for verses, choruses, silences and so on. The best option is for the dancer and guitarist to co-create the music and choreography at the same time…then it truly is a one of a kind creation.
For me personally, to choreograph requires one to know the rhythm extremely well and to always honor the singing. And because there is so much rhythm involved, on Monday, I may decide to accent here and here, but by Tuesday, I’ve “heard” something else altogether and now the accent is there and way over there!
7. What type of costuming is involved in Flamenco dance?
Nowdays, comfort is key and lightweight fabrics with fun designs are seen. Typically, women still wear dresses and top and skirt combination’s but many enjoy dancing in trousers which was popularized in the 30’s by the great Carmen Amaya. The traditional “bata de cola” or the dress with the tail, is still used frequently but is very carefully tailored and requires an excellent fit. Women may also dance with “mantons” or large emroidered shawls which are often incorporated into their costumes. Depending on the dancer, flowers are still worn in the hair, a distinctive flamenco look.
8. How can people who are interested in doing Flamenco find a reputable teacher?
Usually by word of mouth but the best way is to ask around and learn something about the instructor’s background, e.g., where and with whom have they studied, what is their specialty and so on. It’s also good to take a number of classes with different teachers until one finds a good match. Many students want to strengthen technique, others want choreography and still others a chance to perform. A teacher may have a reputation as difficult but ultimately that means they challenge the student to really work hard and the payoff is great technique.
9. How are the arms in Flamenco different than other dance styles?
The arms are carried in front of the body, with elbows raised intentionally in all positions from top to bottom. There is also a strong angular component when the arms are across the body. The hands are also an integral part of the arm movements and not just because they are attached at the wrists! The arms may come to a stop but the hands may continue the movement and rhythm.
10. Can you share something else about this dance style that you think readers may find interesting?
It truly is one of the hardest dance forms one will ever love! It is not for the faint of heart because there is so much “multi tasking” going on in every class or performance…one must learn technique and use it well, know the variety of rhythmic structures and their accents, understand the guitar accompaniment, the singing, how to dance in a dress, use a shawl, a fan, castanets and dance in high heeled shoes! Everything done in heelwork on one side, has to be done on the other side as well! With all of it’s challenges, it allows a dancer the most expression one can experience while working within a time honored tradition.
And the best news? Unlike ballet and other dance forms, where physically the body can no longer execute some movements and age is not a friend, in flamenco, an older body is not the enemy. An older dancer can imbue her dancing with her life stories and experiences, thereby enriching the presentations. It is very inspiring to see dancers I knew from my “youth” still performing “old school” with just as much passion as they had twenty or thirty years ago!
I often say once you are sucked into the flamenco vortex, it is hard to escape but… why would you want to? Try a class at least once in your life and see for yourself!