In flamenco, dance is more than a means of self-expression.
It’s communication, a conversation between the impassioned performer on stage and the rapt concertgoer in her seat.
“There’s a lot of emotion going on in the dancer that is expressed toward the audience,” said Carlota Santana, artistic director and co-founder of Flamenco Vivo Carlota Sanchez. “We all have happy, sad, angry feelings, and flamenco explores all of those kinds of emotion.”
Even if event-goers don’t understand the Spanish-language songs, she added, “They hear the feelings behind (the music). They see the footwork.”
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For more than 30 years, Santana’s company has promoted the power of flamenco, the fiery folk music and dance tradition native to the Andalusia region of southern Spain.
First recorded in the late 18th century, flamenco has a complex cultural history tied to Andalusian peasants, gitanos (Roma), Jews and moriscos, Muslims who converted to Christianity rather than risk death or exile.
The art form combines cante (singing), toque (guitar playing) and baile (dance) with palmas (hand clapping) and pitos (finger snapping). Female performers traditionally wear ruffled dresses and fringed shawls, while the men are clad in form-fitting suits.
“There’s a lot of footwork. There’s a lot of rhythm going on. The costumes are beautiful,” Santana said. “There are different areas that appeal to different people.”
Heralded as the “Keeper of Flamenco” by Dance magazine, Santana didn’t start performing flamenco until later in life, although she won’t divulge her age at the time.
“I always tell people that flamenco you can do at any age, because it all has to do with your experience, and your expression of that personal experience,” the New York native said.
We all have happy, sad, angry feelings, and flamenco explores all of those kinds of emotion.
Carlota Santana, artistic director and co-founder of Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
In 1983, Santana teamed up with dancer and choreographer Roberto Lorca to found Flamenco Vivo in hopes of creating a permanent home for Spanish dance in the United States.
At the time, she said, it had been decades since many Americans had seen flamenco, popularized by José Greco and others in the 1950s and ’60s. When the fledging Flamenco Vivo sold out its first three shows at a 300-seat theater at New York University, “We were shocked,” she said with a chuckle.
“We all loved our art form and we wanted to share it with more people,” Santana said. When Lorca died of an AIDS-related illness in 1987, she decided to carry on that mission herself.
Asked about Lorca’s legacy, Santana said, “Roberto was very advanced … very modernish. He was pushing the envelope, and that’s what we try to do all the time.”
As examples, she offered two current Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana pieces inspired by the work of Andalusian artists. One number is based on the symbolist paintings of Julio Romero de Torres, while the other takes its cues from Pablo Picasso’s famed Blue Period.
According to Santana, a typical Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana show features a mix of traditional and contemporary dance and music. The company travels with two guitarists, two singers and a total of six dancers — three men and three women.
In addition to touring in the fall and winter, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Sanchez offers performances and arts education at two locations: its original New York City home and a second location in North Carolina that opened in the late 1990s.
Santana views community outreach as key to ensuring that flamenco flourishes.
“My fantasy is that I would like to make it as popular as modern dance and tap,” she said, expressing a wish that “little girls, instead of wanting to wear a tutu and toe shoes, will want to wear a polka dot skirt and a flower in their hair.”
“Even though it’s a very structured art form, there’s some kind of freedom about it,” Santana explained, especially compared to more rigid, precision-oriented dance styles such as classical ballet. “In flamenco you can let your own personality come out.”
“People in the audience get it,” she said, “and they feel it.”