Diving Deeper Into Flamenco

By Holly Shaw


For the last twelve years, I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, studying flamenco and performing professionally. While there are many good flamenco teachers passing down the tradition, I’ve always wished there was a class in flamenco in which I could play creatively and explore my own expression of the art form. For years I was looking for someone who could teach me how to compose in flamenco from a place of exploration rather than simply mimicking the forms. Learning the forms is an important and necessary part of a dancer’s education, and mastering them is a lifetime’s endeavor, but I was also interested in exploring my own style within the forms. I took workshops with different contemporary modern dance choreographers struggling through the arduous and unfamiliar floor-work so that I could have the opportunity to learn the composition skills offered there. I loved the atmosphere of these classes that balanced movement integrity with inspired playfulness. I kept looking for a teacher who would be willing to teach these improvisational skills to flamenco dancers, but then it hit me: it was my work to do it. I was reminded of some wise words I’ve heard before, “Create the class you’ve always wanted to take.”

Melissa Cruz Photo by Anastasia Kuba
Melissa Cruz
Photo by Anastasia Kuba

Flamenco is a difficult dance to master. The combination of rhythmic complexity, articulation of the hands and body, and dynamics require dancers be sharp and soft, tense and relaxed— and yet, magically, it can be one of the most expressive of dances. When I first started telling people my ideas about creating a flamenco composition class with creative experimentation I got a lot of questions like, “sounds fun, but how do you manage to bring those ideas back to flamenco? If we stretch it too far, won’t we lose the tradition?”

Flamenco has certain dynamics that, when stretched out, or fused with other forms, can lose their snap. Like a rubber band there is a tension in flamenco as it is held in the core of the body. Any movements away from the body almost always return, pulling back in. You never give everything away and, even when there is a release, it’s rarely a full release. And if flamenco is stretched out too far it may lose the quality that makes it flamenco and differentiates its movement and lines from ballet or Classical Spanish dance. It’s often the quality of movement, rather than the movements themselves that makes flamenco flamenco. This makes it a challenge to play with as a choreographer. I’m always asking myself how far I can stretch the boundaries while still maintaining the feeling of it.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a thriving flamenco scene. We have world-class teachers, a robust student base and a hefty number of guitarists and singers. There are several professional companies that stage full-length theatre performances, and we invite top artists from Spain to our festivals. We have even become home to some professional flamenco expats from Spain. There is a long history of tablaos (venues where flamenco is presented in a more improvised form) in and around the Bay Area and more and more have cropped up in the last few years. The local flamenco community, rich and well rounded, has deep roots in tradition as well as a deep pool of artists who build on that foundation and help the form evolve. This makes it the perfect fertile ground for a workshop like The Deeper Lab, for engaging participants to use the full scope of composition tools available to them in order to move forward artistically.

As much as I felt that a flamenco composition class was the obvious next step, the natural evolution of the art form, I also recognized it for the paradigm shift that it was. From the outside flamenco looks very expressive, but in order to learn it you are often only expected to copy the style of your maestra (teacher). After you learn the steps and a few of the different palos (flamenco musical styles), there aren’t many opportunities to improvise aside from actual high-pressure situations like performances. However, I’ve noticed that more and more teachers are offering por fiesta classes in bulerias and tangos, where students learn to work with the music and language of flamenco in order to improvise. The Deeper Lab will take this experience one step further by providing exercises in improvisation, an experimental environment to try things out, and tools for bringing that improvisational work into a more choreographed dance.

As I grappled with the notion of facilitating a flamenco composition workshop I knew I didn’t want to do it alone— I felt that my creative skills and improvisational tools deriving from modern dance might be best complemented by someone more entrenched in the flamenco tradition. Melissa Cruz is a professional flamenco dancer and teacher with whom I’ve danced at various times with over the last several years. She frequently performs in the traditional format and has a developed musical ear. I appreciate her approach to technique: she doesn’t just tell dancers what to do, she explains why. She empowers her students with the understanding of physical dimensions and flamenco dynamics.

When I approached Melissa about co-teaching this workshop she said ‘yes’ right away and commented: “I think it’s important to create and foster artists rather than clones. It’s important that people who study with me become their own artists. The Deeper Lab is exactly in line with my approach to teaching and a philosophy I already explore in classes and in mentoring other dancers.”

As Melissa and I were developing the curriculum, certain pieces fell together naturally: she will teach a technique class in the morning, followed by a creative workshop taught by myself where I can pull in elements of somatic exploration. Flamenco is so full of body language and gesture that it made sense to me to use somatic exercises where one can take a gesture and explore its meaning personally as well as develop it artistically.

Somatics, a field which employs holistic body-centered approaches to assist people in integrating and transforming themselves through movement and awareness practices, is taught in bits and pieces all over the Bay Area – in modern dance classes, in ecstatic dance, in yoga. Personally, I’ve been greatly influenced by the teachings of Daria Halprin and the Life/Art Process taught at the Tamalpa Institute in Marin, as well as choreographer Benjamin Levy of LEVYdance. He has an incredible skill for challenging dancers to work beyond what they assume is their typical capacity. At the Tamalpa Institute I learned ways to tap into the wisdom of the body and the importance of listening deeply to its messages. There is a sort of “archeological” dig into our subconscious that can happen when we switch between different modalities: moving, writing, drawing—this is something they teach in the Life/Art Process, and as I learned to allow myself to absorb these insights I found they greatly enhanced the depth of my artistry. One of the main goals of The Deeper Lab is to make these skills available to flamenco dancers. Participants will have the space and tools to explore their own interiority through movement, deep listening, writing and discussion.

We also decided to dedicate each day to exploring a different section of the dance. A flamenco dance piece, typical of what is seen in the tablao setting, is executed via an exchange of established signals, visual and auditory, between the dancer, singer, guitarist and other accompanists in order to move between these different sections. The understanding of these signals between sections makes it possible for dancers and musicians to play together spontaneously with no rehearsal. In The Deeper Lab we will be dissecting that structure and exploring the real function of each of these sections in a meaningful way so that we can then find new approaches that will translate into flamenco; thus adding new movement, but still speaking the same language.

Melissa Cruz and Anna Wronsky Photo by Holly Shaw
Melissa Cruz and Anna Wronsky
Photo by Holly Shaw

The purpose of the workshop is not to come away with a fully developed dance, but rather to come away with a sense of how to create one. Participants will leave with a sense of the complete creative process: the materials needed and their function, tools for exploring their uniqueness and ways they can put all of these things together. “In The Deeper Lab intensive, we will endeavor to foster personal artistic expression, in all of its variations, within the context of flamenco dance,” says Melissa. We will develop a model that honors tradition while also still pushing forward into the unknown.

I don’t fear going to the edge. I fear never going there. Tradition is the backbone holding it all together. It’s always there to link us back in with the musicians and bring us back to the “tribe.” Tradition is there to study, to reference, to celebrate, to relish. But the art of a thing comes not from replicating what has already come before —the art is in the individual choices, the expansion of the form through personal experiences.

Dancers Melissa Cruz and Holly Shaw join forces this summer to offer The Deeper Lab, a five-day flamenco dance intensive, July 22nd-26th, 2013. The focus of the workshop will be on how flamenco dance students can create their own movements and choreographies and will involvew technique, creative exploration and a composition portion focusing on ways to structure “found” material into a flamenco context. The workshop will culminate in a performance/demonstration on July 28th at the Garden Gate Creativity Center in Berkeley.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of In Dance.

Holly Shaw is a professional flamenco dancer/choreographer and also works as a creativity coach helping dancers and other artists explore their creative potential at movingtowardsyourdesires.com