Within the ancient art form known as flamenco, many who love it best believe, lies the heartbeat of the entire world. Julia Chacón sensed that inexorable truth early on, as a teenaged ballet student. Extensively trained at the Phoenix School of Ballet, she was also exposed to other forms of dance expression there, including Spanish dance, and took to it immediately. By the age of 16, she was professionally performing with the Artes Bellas company in Phoenix-and she's never looked back.
When she talks about her passion, this performer, teacher, choreographer and model fairly sings the word "flamenco," as if it were a lilting, graceful bird soaring from her tongue, out into the great world where opposites often duke it out in a shadow-and-light arena. It's a dance whose roots she embraces.
While the story of how flamenco came to be born is somewhat convoluted, it can reliably be traced back to Andalusia, the southern part of Spain, with the unique interplay of such fiery peoples as the Islamic, the Sephardic and the Gypsies, all of whom were marginalized in the late 1400s after the Spanish Inquisition. Given the choice of either relinquishing their cultural identities to embrace Spanish Catholicism or being forced into exile, many chose to wander and it was most likely they who wove together and digested the experiences of sorrow, sadness, anger, fierce independence, an often black humor and the passionate love of life that connects all marginalized cultures.
"I like to tell my students that flamenco parallels the development of the blues in American culture," Julia says. "Their stories are very similar."
And, as is also true with the blues, flamenco wasn't originally an art to be performed in front of an audience-it was an expression of all the emotions stirring within the hearts of a people pushed aside, a whole community of those who felt these emotions most strongly, old and young alike, and danced it all together. It was not akin to belly dancing, although the two share such certain common elements as the calling (llamada) and middle Eastern-influenced music. Those who embrace flamenco, from its earliest roots to its present-day forms, are expressing the darker, richer, more mysterious and most eerie regions of the human heart. That nearly-inexplicable quality known as duende.
Powering the flamenco dancer's fierce expression and staccato footwork is this duende. The poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who coined the term, tried to describe it in a lecture he gave in Cuba in 1930. "I heard an old maestro of the guitar say, "The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.' "¦This "mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained' is, in sum, the spirit of the earth"¦." Lorca said. It's what's required in order to come up through the depths of human pain and suffering to embrace ecstasy, joy, exhilaration. Duende, he went on, will then color the artist's work with gut-wrenching authenticity, painful hues and tones that produce strong, vibrant art.
"I try to introduce my students to the three basic elements in flamenco-the singer, the musician and the dancer-and give them an idea about how it all came from very humble roots to become this international art form," Julia explains. "And I try to use flamenco as a bridge for typical middle class American students to realize there's a whole world out there, to give them an international awareness and expose them to something outside their everyday experience."
Flamenco, Julia explains, was basically obscure, an underground art form until it caught on in the 1920s as a tourist attraction in cafés across Spain. Already an aficionado, after high school Julia went on to UNM where she trained in modern dance and flamenco with Eva Enci-as-Sandoval. She received her BFA in dance magna cum laude and then went on to continue flamenco studies in Madrid, Spain at Amor de Dios: Centro de Arte Flamenco y Danza Espa-ola from 1999 through 2000.
Julia has danced professionally with Maria Benitez and Teatro Flamenco, Flamenco Sin Limites in Boston, the Arizona Opera, Phoenix's Artes Bellas and the Mosaico Flamenco in Scottsdale.
"The passion and expression and power inherent in flamenco leaves so much more room for your personality and individuality, whereas in ballet it's more of a striving for uniform perfection." She's also drawn to flamenco because it's more of a solo art form. "And that's more fun. The music is always live and it follows the dance. The singer follows the dancer's cues of when to start singing, so the dancer gets to be the conductor and all three play off each other, taking the lead. One thing I love about flamenco is that it's so community-oriented. It's a team effort, a live art form, and that's exciting to me."
Is flamenco, in its truest-to-its-roots form, purely improvisational? Or is it highly structured, choreographed and rehearsed? "Most dancers have very complicated footwork sequences that are choreographed in advance and rehearsed," Julia says. "Those are put into any performance the dancer does. But flamenco can really run the gamut, from straight improv to completely choreographed.
"I perform quite a bit in Scottsdale and there's no chance to rehearse so I always improvise there. It's fun! It's exciting and liberating. A highly choreographed show is exactly the same every night of the season, and that's really cool, too. You get to do more of the unexpected for those, more surprises, more llamadas and cuts."
The llamadas, those sudden high undulating calls, can be done by the musician and singer, too, not just the dancer. "Llamadas set the rhythmic cues that something's about to change, one section is about to close and another section is being called in."
In the course of one performance, flamenco can give the performers continuing chances to "take the mask off," as Julia says, exposing the audience to more and more pure expression. "We can keep going deeper, into emotions you often don't see in dance. When the performance goes into the viewer's heart, they can see and feel, share this emotional intensity with us.
It's not just pretty smiles and jazz hands."
In the best performances, everything comes together, the dancer, the singer and the musician connect in a special loving way that's "magical;" Julia says it's like art taking over. Does this happen most of the time in flamenco? "I wish it did!" she laughs, and intones a pretend newspaper headline: "'Flamenco: Possessed By Ecstasy And Joy!' No, but really," she goes on, "you can't bottle it. It's tremendously inspiring when it just pours right out of you, like a painter who finishes a new canvas all in one night. When it happens in flamenco, it's the most fulfilling and rewarding experience!"
The force the dancer is creating with her feet is visceral, real, tangible, Julia says. "Flamenco is very grounded. You push into the Earth with your lower body and push up from your upper body. It's a balance. And the audience senses the power of that. Most other percussive dance forms I know are just gliding over the surface of the Earth. With flamenco, you go down into and pull power from the force that you put into the floor. Audiences may not understand exactly what's happening but they feel themselves go back into their own bodies and they know it's something powerful that draws them back again and again to flamenco."
And no single artist can exist in flamenco without the others. Santa Fe's flamenco community is quite large, so Julia likes to draw from different members for her various performances, "giving everyone a chance. It keeps the flamenco world here fresh, alive, stronger." She particularly likes to work with guitarists Chuscales, Yiyi, Ricardo Anglada and Joaquin Gallegos and singer Meagan Chandler, as well as dancers from the Maria Benitez Institute and the Moving People Dance Company. And she has a special fondness in her heart for Eva Enci-ias-Sandoval, head of the flamenco program in the UNM dance department who is hugely instrumental to New Mexico's flamenco community. "She orchestrates an annual festival," Julia says, "bringing topnotch flamenco to people throughout the country. She brings the best dancers from Spain every year to teach and perform, keeping the lifeblood of flamenco fresh in the southwest. Like any art form, there are trends in flamenco, and her festival exposes those who can't make it to Spain to the newest choreographers, costumes, and dancers on the scene."
Julia teaches the advanced children's classes at Maria Benitez's Institute for Spanish Arts, and adult classes at Moving People Dance. The latter company is in its 10 th year and is, according to Julia, "a phenomenal dance company and school, producing some of the finest students I've seen! Some go on to Julliard." And Maria, of course, is "an icon. She's an awesome lady!"
Here in New Mexico, we're blessed with many things-our air, our sky, our landscape-and the many opportunities to witness this ancient dance, the flamenco, expressing our collective human heart in all its fullness and complexity.
You can visit Julia Chacón at her website, www.juliachacon.com.