Who Can Dance Flamenco?

Olga Pericet of Madrid. Photo by Paco Villalta, courtesy of National Institute of Flamenco

A fierce concentration fills the studio as a group of flamenco students—male and female, undergraduate and graduate—rehearse under the watchful gaze of Daniel Doña and Cristian Martín. The young men stretch their bodies in taut, elegant lines. The young women move their arms in fluid contrast to the brisk, rhythmic staccato of their feet. Long, ruffled skirts, called batas de cola, are draped carefully over the audience seats for the women to wear during sections that involve manipulating them like dramatic mermaid tails. When the passage is finished, Doña gives corrections about spacing, while Martín quietly takes one of the men aside to demonstrate how to perform an airborne renversé-esque move with more attack. Martín's legs slice swiftly like a blade, yet it takes a magically long time for him to land from the jump.

Celebrated Spanish flamenco artists, Doña and Martín are in residence at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The city has become home to the most vibrant flamenco community outside of Spain as flamenco itself has become increasingly popular in the U.S. Festival Flamenco Albuquerque, which takes place every June, draws leading international flamenco artists, and UNM offers the only accredited flamenco concentration in the country. Yet as flamenco evolves beyond its traditional roots, the concentration has become an incubator as well as a wellspring of dance excellence.

UNM's dance program offers staples such as ballet and modern technique classes, kinesiology and dance writing, but by their junior year, undergraduate dance majors must choose between a contemporary or a flamenco concentration. Flamenco students will then take classes in the history, structure, improvisational forms, techniques and choreography of their chosen pursuit.

There are currently 25 undergraduates pursuing a BA within the flamenco concentration. "These numbers have grown substantially in the past five years," says Donna Jewell, chair of the UNM dance and theater department. "We have tripled the number of students auditioning to be in the flamenco concentration. We also are attracting more MFA graduate students interested in the flamenco discipline."

Two of the program's biggest draws are Eva Encinias-Sandoval, a leading flamenco artist who launched the festival 32 years ago and has taught flamenco at the university for 45 years, and her daughter Marisol Encinias, who currently directs the UNM flamenco concentration as well as the festival. Like the UNM flamenco program, the festival has grown. As its budget has increased, it has allowed Encinias to bring more artists each year—from traditional Gypsy family troupes to performers like Doña who push the boundaries of how flamenco is understood, incorporating other forms such as classical Spanish dance and folklórico. The festival now includes performances, classes, history colloquia and workshops—most taking place at the university.

Many of the artists who perform in the festival also hold choreography residencies for the flamenco concentration during the academic year, working with the students for weeks, teaching technique and setting works. The resident-artist program is separate from the festival. "I always try to bring people who will teach," says Encinias. "As well as artistry, expression and musicality, I want the students to work with dancers who will be very clear in how they interpret technique."

The Encinias family's artistic influences feel like a microcosm of both flamenco and New Mexico culture. The state's history is old, diverse and sometimes challenging to reckon as Spanish, Native American, Mexican and U.S. cultures clashed and blended. "My grandmother was a dancer and singer. Her mother was a singer of traditional New Mexican music," says Encinias. "My mother would do flamenco, Spanish classical dance, ballet—it was all-encompassing. I grew up dancing with my family. There was no distinction, no 'Now my mother is dancing modern' and 'Now she's doing flamenco.' My mother loves dancing. To me, that is important." This perspective has helped Encinias establish a broad and celebratory view of flamenco in both the UNM program and the festival.

The festival exposes the students to a level of flamenco rarely seen outside of Spain, both in formal performances and in postperformance tablao, an informal flamenco setting, like a tavern, where flamenco is improvised communally. "The festival has been one of the peak experiences of my life," says Samantha Martinez, a fourth-year undergraduate double-majoring in flamenco and psychology. "All of the top flamenco artists are here under our roof. As students, we do work-study to pay for classes and tickets. All of us—these amazing dancers and the students—are with each other all week long. We're taking classes all day, seeing shows every evening and ending each night at the tablao for seven days. You get to know the artists from all around the world and see what drives them."

Many of the performers at the festival challenge the idea of what flamenco can be. Israel Galván, for one, comes from a long line of traditional flamenco dancers. Yet he creates stunningly innovative works that both tap and expand traditional flamenco, including a collaboration with Akram Khan set to Gregorian chants and a flamenco interpretation of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Some of Galván's pieces have raised questions among traditionalists about how far the artform's limits can be pushed.

This push and pull between tradition and freedom is a pervasive theme in discussions about flamenco, and not merely in academic settings. In Spain, there are skeptics as to whether non-Spaniards or even non-Gypsy Spanish dancers can perform flamenco. Encinias, however, takes a different view. "It's like saying Misty Copeland can't do ballet," she says. "That idea is alive and well in Spain among certain people. But there are amazing dancers doing flamenco everywhere now."

Third-year MFA student Justice Miles is studying choreography and has focused on flamenco as her path to self-expression. She has created a contemporary dance to flamenco music, constraining the choreography to the rhythms and patterns of flamenco dance. "I'm a choreography major, and I am an African-American and Norwegian-American young woman," she says. "I always felt racially and stylistically in-between. I view myself as an intermediary between people and different cultures. My work puts these into conversation."

Encinias wants the program's students to grapple with the conflict between tradition and exploration. "There is a struggle for power, authenticity, the right to be able to do flamenco," she says. "People are challenging everything within this artform—gender roles, norms, prescribed ways of being. It's perfect that we can study flamenco in a university setting, because this is the place where students are supposed to think about these historical and political issues. It's important for my students to understand the tensions implicit in the artform and to understand how this challenges them as dancers and people. Flamenco can be such a powerful learning tool when you challenge yourself not to look at it superficially."

Concha Jareño. Courtesy of National Institute of Flamenco

Workshop with batas de cola—the flamenco long-tailed skirt. Courtesy of National Institute of Flamenco

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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