Flamenco dancer resurrects colorful dance for audiences
By CHRISTINA HENNESSY
Oct. 18, 2017
NORWALK, Conn. (AP) — Yohanna Escamilla can tell you about the rhythms that are at the heart of flamenco, but it's so much more fun to watch her pound them into the floor.
For the last several years, Escamilla has been taking her show on the road, bringing the art form out of the teaching studio and into public spaces, such as bars and restaurants. It's a bit of a back-to-the-future idea, considering flamenco largely became the public art form that it is today when cafes began to pop up in Spain in the mid-1800s to feature practitioners of this centuries-old tradition.
But that was a long time ago. In America, fans undoubtedly can track down theatrical presentations and special performances, but Escamilla believes taking it closer to where people gather informally will provide greater interest and more venues for those who come after her, including the many students, ages 5 to 73, she teaches privately and at a Norwalk studio.
"I probably have two or three students who are very serious, and they would like to become flamenco dancers," she says on a recent afternoon at Studio Arte, where she teaches. "I bring them to different performances, such as festivals or elementary schools. . I want to open a path so more people come to these venues and there are more opportunities to perform."
One of the first things she often has to do is tinker with the terminology. "I tell people I am a flamenco dancer and they say I love flamingo dance," she says, laughing. "I say, no, it's flamenco with a 'c.'"
Escamilla, who lives in New Canaan, finds spaces such as Café Madrid in Norwalk and Taberna restaurant in Fairfield, where she was performing on a recent night with fellow dancer Rachel Holmes and guitarist and singer Cristian Puig. As she moves around the small, wooden portable dance floor, her nail-studded, black-heeled shoes stomp out the accents and beats in a precise, yet fiery manner. A spin, a sashay of the hip, a quick turn of her head and she is as much a dancer as a physical manifestation of the melody. Such is the quintessential DNA of flamenco — the place where dance, music and song meet.
Known as tablo style, the performances bring together a singer, a guitarist and a couple of dancers. The feeling is closer to a jazz ensemble that is comfortable with the classics, but adept and quick enough to improvise. Once a dancer has advanced to performance level, he or she is as versed at the foot work as the hand-clapping, which changes based on the type of song. Some of the oldest follow a complex 12-beat rhythm, and tend to mirror American blues — songs of deep emotion and challenging travails. Others tend to be a bit lighter, at least in emotion, but no less daunting rhythms.
But one need not be a student of the music to enjoy the show, which was in ample evidence during the recent performance. Hoots, hollers and calls of ole were abundant. Holmes revels in the theatricality required to interpret the songs and to engage the audience.
"The visceral and cerebral engagement really gets me going," the New Haven resident says during a break in the show. And it does take focus; woe to the dancer who loses the rhythm. "I liken it to double Dutch. That jump rope is going to keep going."
Through visual, musical and physical cues, the little band of artists keeps it interesting. Perhaps a dancer wants to stretch out a song, so the guitarist and singer better be on their toes. The guitarist decides to slow it way down, so those clicks and clacks better keep suit. Dancers occasionally are sidelined to let the music speak for itself, although they are enlisted to keep up the clapping and provide the percussion, sometimes using castanets, as well.
"I've been doing this for 15 years," says Escamilla, who began studying flamenco at 19 in her native Colombia. "It's still challenging. . There is always something you have to fix, no matter what. Your footwork has to be clearer, or you want to make it faster. You decide to go this way, rather than that way. It's always something."
It is believed that flamenco grew out of the gypsy cultures, as well as the Moors and Sephardic Jews, who met in southern Spain centuries ago. It became a music and dance tradition of the everyday people — a creative way to share the comings-and-goings of everyday life, from the trials and tribulations to the joys and successes. It is this common approach that is at the heart of these performances, which was evident in Fairfield the other night, when the finale got nearly everyone up from their tables for several minutes of dance.
Escamilla is hoping to add more venues and get more people out to her existing shows. The next one, at Café Madrid, is Oct. 21; Taberna is Oct. 29. There are signs her efforts are not for naught.
As the crowd quieted down, and began to disperse into the night, a woman in a black-and-white striped dress and red flower tucked behind her ear stopped to thank Holmes for the performance. As she began to head out, she paused to ask, "If you are teaching any flamenco lessons, let me know. I'm there."
Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com