Flamenco fever

The over 500-year-old cultural and musical tradition that originated in the Andalusia region of Spain is attracting Israeli dancers, singers and even flamenco therapists.

flamenco 298.88 (photo credit: )
flamenco 298.88
(photo credit: )
I came, I saw and I fell in love," says Galia Shmoorak, a lifetime dancer from Kiryat Hayovel. The object of her love is flamenco, and the backdrop for her love affair is Duende, the Municipal Center for Flamenco Art. "Every time that I saw flamenco dancing, it did something in my gut," explains the lean artist as she relaxes after a studio class. Shmoorak had been fascinated with the art form for two years until she searched the phonebook one day and chose Duende by chance. And one year later, Shmoorak hasn't stopped dancing. Shmoorak is just one of many Jerusalemites getting hooked on flamenco, both on and off the dance floor. The over 500-year-old cultural and musical tradition that originated in the Andalusia region of Spain is attracting Israeli dancers, singers and even flamenco therapists. "What we have here in the flamenco community in Israel is a lot of development happening very quickly," says Michaela Harari, an instructor at Duende. In addition to the workshops and studios that have been opening up around the city, Jerusalem audiences enjoyed performances from two Israeli flamenco troops last month, including a July 22 performance put on by Duende, which featured several guests artists, and a July 24 show of Tel Aviv's Compas, the Israeli Flamenco Dance Company, with Spanish troupe de Miguel Angel Espana Ballet. Duende, which runs classes year-round, hosted a week-long flamenco workshop with Costantin Jimenez, a Spanish dancer known internationally as El Chato, from July 16 to July 20. Attracting about 40 participants of all ages to the bomb-shelter-turned-dance-studio in Baka, the sessions introduced beginners to the Spanish dance and gave experienced artists a chance to hone their skills. As Jimenez perfects the delicate hip movements and precise arm placements of a group of intermediate flamenco students at the workshop, barking instructions in a mix of Hebrew and Spanish above the clanking steps, several advanced dancers are stretching and practicing their technique before their upcoming session. The syncopated pounding of the flamenco students' footwork, the self-made music of the dance, sets the pace as Karen Yohnan, an eight-year flamenco veteran who now performs with Duende's troupe, Penya Flamenco, discusses how an interest in flamenco dance often leads to an infatuation with flamenco culture. "It's a way of life. You live it, you live the dance," says Yohnan as she pulls a long, flowing skirt and black-heeled shoes from her bag. Yohnan says many dancers become interested in flamenco music and Spanish cultural staples such as telenovelas or the cajon, a special type of stringed drum. For Israeli dancers living far from flamenco's cultural center in Spain where shops specialize in flamenco items, even the flamenco costume must be "invented" from combining pieces at local clothing shops or custom-made by tailors. According to Karen Regev, who handles marketing for Compas, dancers even travel to Spain in order to study, experience flamenco culture and stock up on the staple ruffled skirts. Israel's growing fascination with flamenco is part of a larger cultural trend, says Yehuda Shzieky, a flamenco singer from Jerusalem who performed with Duende on July 22. "I think there has been a big surge in ethnic music in general," he says, "not just flamenco." But despite the growing interest in flamenco and Spanish culture, Shzieky said the love affair has remained largely on the dance floor. "Israel has a lot of flamenco dancers, but I can count the singers on one hand." In fact, flamenco music predated the dance technique and culture that now share its name. The earliest flamenco song form, the Cante, which appeared around the 17th century, is rooted in Sephardi, Muslim, Christian and Gypsy folk music from before the Spanish Inquisition. It wasn't until the "golden age of flamenco" in the late 19th century that dance and flamenco culture became incorporated with the folk music. Today, flamenco art has gained worldwide appeal and includes several categories of singers, dancers, guitarists and bands. The artistic style still reflects the often intensely emotional folk music, which developed as a result of the pain experienced by minority groups in Andalusia during the Inquisition. As she rehearses a portion of a routine with fellow-dancer Oren Drachman at Duende's recent workshop, Abigail Jaiv explains that emotional expression is still central in flamenco culture and arts today. While mastering the poise, complicated footwork and sharp arm placements of the dance is a sign of good technique, Jaiv says great dancers connect to the expression that brings life to the subtle movements. "It's something about the soul," says Jaiv, who's been dancing flamenco for four years. "The music, everything, are bursts of energy from the heart. Some of it is contained and a bit of it is exploding." It was flamenco's expressive side that inspired Jerusalemite Michal Tessel to combine her two loves - dance and psychology. Tessel has been developing a therapy technique based on the flamenco dance that she says has the power to heal. "The therapy takes the elements of flamenco and uses them to help the person make a change to help them understand themselves better and to live a more fulfilling life," she says. But despite the recent enthusiasm over flamenco culture and dance in Israel, the question remains as to whether this is a temporary craze or a cultural mainstay. As she welcomed dancers arriving at Duende's workshop with Jimenez, Harari says that, although flamenco-fanatics continue to focus on the culture's Spanish roots, flamenco is here to stay. "Flamenco has a place in the Middle East," she says. Aliza Appelbaum contributed to this report.