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How Carlota Santana Uses Her Dance Company to Preserve the Art of Flamenco for Future Generations

“I put blinders on and I just go,” explains Carlota Santana, the internationally-renowned flamenco artist and co-founder of Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, as she chats about leading one of the most esteemed flamenco dance companies in the world. Though it started out as a passion project between two Spanish dance enthusiasts in the 1980s, the company has since evolved into an institution that is dedicated to preserving the culturally-rich form of living art through performance, education, and community enrichment.

Growing up in New York City, Santana dabbled in different kinds of dance, but it was only after she discovered flamenco that she found a way to express a part of herself “that does not seem to come out any other way.” And because flamenco is driven by emotion, passion, and a sense of personal truth, she found catharsis in dancing like no one was watching, while unfailingly ensuring that every individual in the audience was absolutely captivated by her energy. But, most importantly, flamenco gave Santana the chance to discover her inner strength.

The dance form is an aggregation of influences from a number of peoples and cultures, most of which had experienced hardship, discrimination, and displacement. The roots of flamenco are still fairly mysterious, but appear to be connected to the migration of gypsies from northern India to Spain between the 9th and 14th centuries. Along with an extensive repertoire of songs and dances, they also brought musical instruments, like tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets. As time went on, traditions brought by the gypsies blended with the diverse cultural heritage of Spain and gave rise to flamenco.

During the golden age of flamenco — between 1780 and 1845 — songs were the primary focus of the art form, which fell into three categories. The first is cante jondo, or profound song; its structure is normally based on a sophisticated 12-beat rhythm and is characterized by serious themes, like death or despair. The second is cante intermedio, or intermediate song, which blends fandango with elements of other Spanish music styles. And then there is the cante chico, or light song, which, though rhythmically simpler, is more complex in regard to emotional content, individual accentuation, and subtleties.

Carlota Santana | Credit: Victor Deliso
Carlota Santana | Credit: Victor Deliso

After the mid-19th century, however, dance has emerged as the dominant element of flamenco, though it is never performed without accompaniment. Because of this, some people may perceive the art form as highly individualistic, and while that’s true to some extent, it’s also an art form that requires a lot of collaboration and teamwork on behalf of all performers: dancers, singers, and musicians. Santana understands this. Over the years, she’s made sure to make flamenco education as central to the company’s mission as performing.

“Hailed as ‘The Keeper of Flamenco’ by Dance Magazine and honored by the King and Government of Spain with La Cruz de la Orden al Mérito Civil for ‘all the years of passion, excellence and dedication to the flamenco art,’ Carlota Santana is actively preserving a living art that is as culturally mixed and exciting as the city that introduced her to it, and ARTpublika Magazine had the distinct pleasure of speaking to the renowned artist, entrepreneur, and scholar about the art of flamenco.

How did you get interested in flamenco?

I’ve been a New Yorker for many, many years, it’s where all of my flamenco started. There was a woman named Maria Alba, who was in her late 60s or 70s. She was a very famous flamenco artist — an incredible, theatrical person — and she started giving classes. I decided to take her class and totally fell in love with flamenco.

After getting an introduction [to flamenco] in New York, I moved to Spain for a couple of years. We always say that it’s [best] to go to the source to be able to really immerse oneself in the art form and get the feeling for the culture. In Spain, and especially in southern Spain, you're serenaded by flamenco day and night. You walk down the street and you hear it, or you spend [time] in the park and there’s always a flamenco presence.

People often ask me: “Why Flamenco? What is that about?” To me, the female flamenco dancer is a person who is very “feminine,” but I don’t mean feminine in a soft or kind of sexy way that people sometimes talk about. You could be soft and sexy, but you could also be strong and tough. And I think that, for me, has been what attracted me to flamenco and why I think it is so important for women.

How old were you when you were first exposed to flamenco?

I was in my late teens. Flamenco is not something you have to start when you’re seven years old, like ballet. You can start much later.

If you are a ballet dancer, you are hanging up your shoes between the ages of 30 and 35. I think flamenco dancers really get to be their best between 35 and 40. They have all the techniques down, they have all of their life experiences and can express more of what they feel on stage. That’s what it’s about.

When you say “express more of what they feel on stage,” do you mean improvisation?

Flamenco does [involve] a lot of improvisation. I mean, if you’re [performing] in a theater, of course not, because you have to have the program last for 75 minutes, or two 45-minute halves, but in small nightclubs or experimental theaters you will do a lot of improvisation.

There’s a certain structure to each flamenco form, which is called a palo, and everybody — whether they are dancers or musicians or singers — knows what that structure is. And you, the artist, can improvise and play around within that structure.

Flamenco Vivo Performance | Credit: Christopher Duggan
Flamenco Vivo Performance | Credit: Christopher Duggan

Can you elaborate on what you mean by different forms?

I am talking about different forms in terms of different music [and its origins,] and the different feelings it creates. A palo is a certain kind of music with a certain song behind it and a certain rhythm. Alegrías is happy dance, soleares is a serious dance. The siguiriyas is a serious dance and very heavy in rhythm. There are other dances that have different feelings and rhythms to them, and within each one of those different forms, or palos, there is footwork, arm movements, turns and body movements. Each dancer will do something a little different with her footwork and body movements.

How old is the dance form?

We can trace what we see on stage nowadays back to southern Spain in the mid 1700s. It’s a product of many different cultures: Gypsies, Spaniards, Sephardic Jews people from Middle Eastern cultures, and a lot of recently done studies suggest North African influences as well.

Can you elaborate on the movements in flamenco, are they the same for all sexes?

I started my company in 1983, [when] things were different than they are now, much like they are in all other ways of life. Since then, men and women have become more equal.

In the very early days, women did not do footwork; men who sat in the corners of the stage did the footwork, while the women walked around and acted the footwork.

When I was trained and when I was performing, the use of the hands and fingers was for the women only; now, men use the hands and the fingers in movement. Women used to wear long skirts with lots of ruffles for making different patterns to the music, nowadays women dance in skirts that don’t have many ruffles, or they often dance in pants. There is a dress with a tail called the Batas de Cola that only women used forever but, recently, men began to use that as well. Using fans, which were then a feminine prop, have become a prop for anyone to use, male or female. There used to be more upper body stiffness, or structure, in the dancers — people didn’t bend from the waist, people didn’t break their upper backs — but nowadays, all that’s changed.

Polka Dots on Flamenco Skirts | Via Pixabay
Polka Dots on Flamenco Skirts | Via Pixabay

What is the relationship between clothes and flamenco?

Flamenco is very influenced by the gypsy culture. Gypsy women in the past used to wear lots of skirts and overskirts — I believe that’s where that came from. A lot of people in flamenco used polkadots, many people feel that that came from the gypsy culture, too.

Were there a lot of gypsies in Spain there in the 15th century?

Well, we know about the Spanish Inquisition (1478), and that minorities were discriminated against. A lot of the songs in flamenco came from minority communities; the songs were about what they felt and how they responded to the discrimination. There are also songs about being thrown in jail, and songs about people being sent away from their homes. These are the types of songs that were created by the gypsy community, and others, and you can see that — you can hear that in the cries and the songs of the original flamenco.

What are flamenco songs about today?

Flamenco is a totally expressive art form. Today, if you’re a person who’s 25 years old, you are trying to be an individual, as every 25-year-old in the world is. You express yourself against something: Here I am and this is what I want. So, a lot of the singing today has to do with that. There are also songs about love, there are songs about individuality.

Is it true that there is not that much couple-dancing in flamenco?

Because individual expressiveness [is central to] flamenco, if you were going to get up and express your loneliness or anger, you would do that by yourself.

Today, different companies — such as mine — do group choreographies. But, even in group choreography there is still some individuality. If you look at twenty ballet dancers, they are exactly the same, but in flamenco you can have your arm a little different or your fingers slightly different — your persona comes out even though you’re in a group dance.

Female Flamenco Shoes | Via Pixabay
Female Flamenco Shoes | Via Pixabay

What kind of shoes do you need to perform flamenco?

A flamenco shoe for women is like a character shoe, it’s got a 1 or 1.5 inch heel. But, on the tip of the heel and on the tip of the toe, there are tiny little nail heads knocked in. The men usually wear a short boot that comes up to the ankle. Recently, they have also started wearing tie up shoes with tiny little nail heads knocked into the toe and the heel.

What is the relationship between the music and the footwork?

Zapateado is the term used to refer to the rhythmic patterns made with the shoe of the dancer, in other words the footwork. The footwork is totally in step with the music, either with the exact rhythm or in counter rhythms. This goes back to what we talked about earlier; there are certain structures in flamenco and everyone knows those structures. If a professional flamenco dancer met a professional guitarist, they could do a show without rehearsing, because both know the

structures of these dances.

How did you start your dance company?

When I came back from Spain in the early 80s, I hooked up with a man named Roberto Lorca, who was respected professional here in the states. We decided to start a company together, just to promote flamenco and Spanish dance.

I found out about Arts & Education about two years after we started, and I thought flamenco and Spanish dance are perfect for that. Language, history, geography — there’s so much about flamenco that could be used, so we started an Arts & Education project.

Roberto passed away in 1987 — an early victim to the AIDS epidemic. But I continued along; I hired and worked with other people to create performances. Slowly and surely the company grew without me even realizing it. Today, I have an office in New York City, two studios, four full time people as administrators, and 10 or 12 teaching artists, who go out to the schools and teach flamenco, history, culture and curriculum connections. It kind of grew itself.

What do you hope kids will take away from the Arts & Education Program?

Arts & Education at Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
Arts & Education at Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana

Participation is a big goal. We have a 10-week residency, which means 10 Mondays in a row. We teach kids the pride of flamenco, because they have to stand up nice and tall, show themselves to the audience, and express themselves through their movement. We also talk a lot about the multicultural beginnings of flamenco, which helps kids who are not Spanish, because they see how different cultures mixed together and flamenco came out of that. So, students are getting to better understand other cultures as well as their classmates. And, there’s a lot of teamwork in flamenco, because you work with musicians, dancers, and singers, so the kids learn a lot about working together and getting along.

You mention how guitarists and dancers are familiar with flamenco structures. Would a guitarist and a singer be able to get together and put on a show without rehearsing?

Yes. The art form was originally based on the singers and their songs. So, you could put on a performance with just a dancer and a singer. Most of the lyrics are seven or eight measures long, and they are often structured like poetry. So the rhythm is basically based on the singing.

The songs, as I said earlier, are usually about some personal situation related to the singer. There’s a certain part of the dance called marcaje, where dancers [are “marking” the beats] and moving and making turns. The singer is singing while the dancer does that, and when the singer stops, the dancer makes Zapateado, or strong sounds with their feet. For the most part, dancers don’t make sounds with their feet while the singer is singing. They don’t want to interrupt the song.

What do you get out of this endeavor?

It’s about giving — getting people together and having them experience something wonderful with each other. That, I think, has been the driving force for me. I don’t know where it came from, but when we’re getting ready at the theater and the doors are about to be open, I walk through the theater and make sure the place is clean, and that there are no old programs on the floor.

Flamenco Vivo Performance | Credit: Alec Himwich
Flamenco Vivo Performance | Credit: Alec Himwich

When you watch the performers, where does your attention go?

I just feel good watching them perform and express themselves. I also take notes often.

What kinds of notes?

Mostly notes on choreographic structure — details and discipline, that kind of thing. I’ll take my notes to the rehearsal director. I don’t go to each dancer and give them feedback directly. But if I hear a couple of positive comments from the audience, I’ll let them know that.

I usually thank everyone for putting in the hard work after each performance. We’ve been very fortunate to tour the states and we usually have standing ovations, so they get that feedback from the audience.

What goes into a show from a creative perspective?

I am not the choreographer. I hire choreographers. So, I’ll have a concept, and I’ll think about how we would do it and who would be the person to handle this kind of thing for the company. Then, I would talk to this person about the performance — like José Maldonado, who has done the most recent choreography for us — and we’ll have a couple of conversations and touch on a few ideas. After that, we’ll come up with a script and he will choreograph it; I’ll sit and watch and provide feedback. Jose is one choreographer I’ve worked with lately, but that’s a process we tend to normally go through.

Flamenco Props | Fan & Castanets | Via Pixabay
Flamenco Props | Fan & Castanets | Via Pixabay

How do props fit into all of this?

There are a few props in flamenco. There’s the fan or the shawl; canes, which the men use to make rhythm. They are specific to the performance and the art form but not scenery specific.

What kinds of books do you like to read?

I like escape books, so I read murder mysteries. Or something along that line. John Grisham writes good murder mysteries, and then I pick up different things here and there. Looking at what I have in front of me, it’s a book called Disclaimer (2015) by Renee Knight, but I just ordered a book about Winston Churchill.

What kinds of movies do you like to watch?

All black-and-whites. I love Betty Davis.

What do you do for fun when you’re not dancing?

I lift weights, I go for fast walks, and I like to dig in the dirt — we have a place in North Carolina and I get to plant flowers.

Is there anything you’d like to share that I haven’t asked you?

I always say: “Don’t get carried away by anyone else. If you have something in your mind, go ahead and try to do it.”

Note* Images were provided for the article and are used with permission.


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