I arrived early for my interview with Flamenco dancer and choreographer Tania of La Tania Baile Flamenco. I sat outside a studio at City Dance Studios while she finished teaching, listening to the tell-tale unified stomp that gives a Flamenco class away, although a clumsy word like stomp doesn’t really do justice to the precision of the sound emanating from within the studio.
As class ended and dancers began exiting the studio I waded through them, looking for Tania. As the next class began to enter, I realized I had passed her. Returning to the lobby I saw two dancers sitting together chatting amiably, and one of them was Tania. I realized I missed her because I was searching for a stereotype of a Flamenco dancer—a diva with a striking, almost unapproachable intensity. I had been looking for the intense and passionate La Tania of the stage, when I should have been looking for Tania, the dancer resting her feet after class and making chit-chat with her students. Speaking with her, I see that her personality embodies a Flamenco vibe—she’s direct, unapologetic and assertive. But she’s also very down to earth in a way that I typically find among people who’ve done what they want to do in life and have nothing to prove. Which I find is the case with Tania.
She was born in Southern France to an American mother who took her daughter across the border and into the Spanish province of Seville on her own quest to become a Flamenco dancer. From the age of two, Flamenco was a part of the cultural vernacular that surrounded her daily life.
Tania explains that over the lifespan of a dancer Flamenco—like all dance really—begins and ends as personal expression because as “an art form developed in homes and for the people, it has a side that is about personal expression and not about amazing technique.”
She continues, “when you’re a younger dancer and you want to dance professionally, it’s all about technique and virtuosity, but you grow older and aren’t able to maintain that standard, there’s a core to the dance that is about personal expression. You’re not going to be able to do at 50 what you did at 20. But there’s deeper experience you can bring to the dance.”
When Tania was 17 she wanted to make the transition to professional dancer. She moved to Madrid to attain more formal training, spending years dancing with larger professional companies most notably with Compañia Juan Quintero. Her experience grounded her in a variety of forms.
Eventually, she wanted to practice Flamenco exclusively, so began performing in the tablaos in Madrid. She explains for me that, “a tablao is a venue specifically for Flamenco performances—it has a raised stage in the center with tables around it, and the guitarist, dancers and singers all share the same stage. Shows are usually dinner shows, and after intermission the star dancer comes out and does their thing, and the shows can go from 10pm until 2 in the morning”
Eventually Tania became a star dancer at the Madrid tablao Corral de la Moreria, which was her home base for many years. “I’d dance with them, and then when a large company wanted to go on tour, they would let me go on tour with them and return to them when the tour had ended.”
There isn’t a comparable nightclub culture in the US, and we talk about the centrality of that culture to sustaining a dance form like Flamenco. Tania explains that “not only are you making a living as a dancer, you are practicing your art in front of a live audience every night, testing out new things, experimenting.”
I am reminded of the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, which argues that success in any field can be partially attributed to 10,000 hours of practice, and that performing in the Tablaos must be a vital factor in helping many good dancers become great dancers.
Tania began touring internationally as a soloist, which eventually brought her to Northern California. “I had been in Japan on a lengthy performance contract, and had been working a long time and wanted to take a sabbatical. I have a brother and sister in Northern California, so I came to visit with them.” She hadn’t come to perform but “my California friends and family hadn’t seen me dance in a long time and so I did a show in Mendocino at the Crown Hall.
“My first manager was there—she organized the Mendocino dance series and invited me to be part of the series. She started helping me out, helping me write grants. In a couple of years I was touring pretty extensively in California.” This was in the early 90s and the economy and funding opportunities for touring artists, particularly dancers, were much better than they are now. So Tania decided to stay. “I went back to Madrid, put all the stuff in storage and came back. I started bringing people from Spain and touring across California with them.”
After the economy slowed down in the early 2000s and the California Arts Council budget was slashed by 94%, maintaining a company and focusing on touring became more challenging. Although she had been part of the San Francisco dance scene since moving to Northern California, Tania “decided to make San Francisco my home base and get very serious about teaching, and about forming a core group of dancers. The company I have now is more a local company—a company-school. It involves more of the local community.”
I ask about tonight’s class, and whether the dancers are in the company or just taking classes and she explains “it’s hard to have an ongoing company without regular external funding. I need the studio space, and Flamenco requires live musicians be present for rehearsals and classes. So I maintain the company-school balance and work with dancers on a project by project basis.”
We talk about some of the projects in her CV, particularly the collaborations. Tania is incredibly open to sharing the stage with other dance forms and unusual musical traditions, which can be challenging for dancers practicing culturally-specific forms. I ask her about this, and she’s immediate and forceful in her response.
“First of all, I consider myself a dancer. I happen to be a Flamenco dancer, and that’s my specialty, but I’ll put on any music and start moving. I like to dance freely, to not be tied to a certain form. I like to explore what’s going to come out”
As she says this to me, she begins to move her arms and hands in a style familiar to anyone who has seen a Flamenco dancer using castanets, but in this case they are flowing rather beautifully to the beat of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” which is emanating from the dance class that followed hers.
“When I’ve done the collaborations, what’s been interesting for me is staying within my art form, within my dance forms and then making a marriage between the two.” Some favorite past collaborations include a show she did with Yuriko Doi and Theatre of Yugen called Blood Wine, Blood Wedding which was a mix of Flamenco and Noh theatre.
A more recent collaboration was with Elizabeth Setzer (of the vocal ensemble Kitka) for a piece that interpreted the Radiohead song “How to Disappear Completely” within the space of Flamenco dance and Balkan music traditions, which was performed at the Rickshaw Stop.
Which brings us back to the nightclub scene, albeit far removed from the opportunities for Flamenco dancers in Madrid. “The Tablaos allowed people to do things. Flamenco requires a certain kind of relationship between performer, musician and audience. You have to really develop your intuition and that takes a long time,” which is why the Tablao “where you danced six nights a week to a live audience” are important steps to take in the development of a Flamenco dancer.
This is why she’s happy to see some of her students—“the ones who really want to push themselves”—go to Spain. “Flamenco in its expression is a cultural dialogue based in a Spanish context.” Dancers need to learn “what a gesture means there that it doesn’t mean here. There is a way of talking, a way of moving your body that is culturally based, and in Flamenco those movement[s] become part of the art form.”
As we end our conversation, I ask if she ever envisions returning to Spain: “For so many years, I thought I was going back there—I even bought a house in Seville. But the years slipped by. One day I went back to Spain and I realized I had built my life here. My family, my friends, my work—all were here.”
“I kind of felt disconnected when I went there. I let too much time go by. It didn’t feel right anymore, and it would be a huge effort. It was too late. But at least I could let go of the fantasy.”
Tania tells me this with acceptance. There has been such an absence of theatricality in her conversation that I’m not surprised, but I am reminded of the personality I expected when I arrived for our meeting. La Tania of the stage is an intense and dramatic presence, but in person, Tania’s confidence comes without the theatrics, which I suspect is a result of a life lived in authentic dedication to her art form.