Give Me Flamenco or Give Me Death

Despite its status as the underappreciated stepchild of the dance world, a small cadre of New Yorkers profess undying devotion to the dramatic Spanish art form.

All eyes stare forward into the mirror, waiting for the cue to begin.

On the far side of the room, a woman’s face is held tightly in concentration. Her large brown eyes appear small as she squints forward into the mirror, reviewing her reflection critically. Her back is straight as a pole, arms clenched firmly, parallel to her chest. Her dark, thick brown hair is pulled tightly together in a neat bun. Sweat drips down her smooth beige face in tiny droplets, but her eyes do not move. The only body parts in motion are her feet.

With each pulse, her heels hit the floor hard. As her legs rise with each beat, her feet fly downward with equal intensity. Wood chips fling up behind her heels and form a scattered pile on the scratched-up floor as her heels slam down. When the music changes rhythm her chocolate-colored eyes finally open wide.

K. Meira Goldberg, the instructor, walks by, frizzy hair twisted up in a knot. She glides her hand down the straight-postured back of her dancer and corrects the shape of her body with an all-knowing touch.

“There you go!” Just as quickly as Goldberg’s eyebrows pull forward, they melt back and relax. She scans the classroom, assessing each body for rhythm, technique and posture.

Goldberg leads a class at Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana
Goldberg leads a class at Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana

Her dancer adjusts the alignment of her back by rolling her shoulders backward but keeping her eyes glued ahead. If the audience sees her move before the curtain shuts, the performance would be compromised. This is not a real performance, but it might as well be. Everyone here treats rehearsal as if it were the real deal.

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Goldberg danced professionally for five years in Spain, basically living every aspiring flamenco dancer’s dream. She has performed in almost all of Madrid’s best tablao flamenco clubs.

The story of how she was introduced to flamenco isn’t quite as romantic. The first time she saw the dance was in a high school class she took in order to opt out of physical education. Goldberg’s teacher took her to a class with Luisa Triana, daughter of Antonio Triana, both flamenco legends. Goldberg walked in the room and her eyes landed on a woman sitting down, leg wrapped in a cast. The woman’s arms rose above her head, then waved through the air. She was dancing, just not with her feet.

“That was the moment I fell in love with flamenco,” says Goldberg.

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Cristina Celli takes classes with Goldberg at Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, a studio on West 43rd street in Manhattan. Training to be a professional flamenco dancer, Celli dances at least three hours a day in addition to working as a teacher’s assistant for children with autism.

Celli, in her early thirties, is of Italian descent. Born in Venezuela, she studied law for three years there in her early twenties, deciding to leave when Hugo Chavez came into power and changed the constitution. With new education standards in place, Celli’s semesters of law school were meaningless and did not count towards attaining her degree in the new Venezuela, a catalyst that caused her to leave the country and head for Europe.

“I went to London, to Italy and I just couldn’t find myself,” she says. “A friend of mine said, ‘You just have to try New York. This city is for everyone.’”

Cristina Celli in Meira Goldberg's class
Cristina Celli in Meira Goldberg’s class

When Celli got to New York she fell in love with the city almost immediately. In 2007, she started dancing flamenco, taking two or three classes a week, but this picked up quickly, and in 2008 she began studying the art seriously. She now takes private lessons, studying with multiple teachers.

Despite her tireless commitment to the dance, she feels she has a long way and much more training to go in order to prove herself. Celli says her friends do not understand her dedication to flamenco dancing. “They don’t believe in me yet,” she says, laughing. “They think I’m crazy.”

Come September, Celli plans to leave her job and begin the more intensive stage of training in her flamenco career. Her boyfriend, Jose Moreno (a stage name) has parents who are both flamenco dancers and own a studio in Miami, where she’ll spend time training. Celli met Moreno, a professional guitarist who performs with flamenco dancers regularly, in a flamenco class two years ago and the pair have been dating and working together since. Her goal is to get to the point where she can perform alongside Moreno and match his experience level, although she’s a bit behind, having started flamenco at a late age.

“Hopefully I become this late bloomer,” she says with a wide smile. “I believe flamenco is an art form and has nothing to do with age, but most people will think I’m crazy…a thirty-something to just keep following my dreams. But I don’t care…I just have to do it for me.”

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The five dancers clutch hands and form a line. Wood chips are not flinging up beneath Celli’s shoes anymore. Instead, she walks smoothly to the line of women and men standing before the mirror. She clasps the hand beside her before the music starts.

No este?—You haven’t done this?” asks Goldberg. “Cambio—change—from double to single. You’ve done this.”

“No, I’ve never held hands with everyone,” responds Celli.

“So hacemos!”—We’ll do it!

Edu Duyos and Cristina Celli
Edu Duyos and Cristina Celli

Hands touching, the class lifts right legs then left, knees shooting to the ceiling with each hop. They skip straight towards the mirror, slamming each foot down with force. When they get too close to their reflections, they simply retreat and start all over again—a unified wave, bursting forward and trickling back.

Goldberg’s purple turtleneck hugs the curves of her upper body tightly. Her back is straight and head held high. Her eyes dart around the room. Then she coos a rhythm.

“Tee coo ta co ta, tee coo ta co ta.”

“It’s going to be really, argh!” She groans as she stretches both arms out in the air. They move toward each other, parallel to the floor beneath her. Eventually she pulls them in with two fists clenching toward her torso.

“You have to pull it!” she says, reinforcing her physical demonstration. “You have to follow me. I will take you there.”

Edu Duyos, a muscular male dancer with huge brown eyes, responds with a smile. “Yes master.”

The dance begins again.

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Duyos, forty, has been dancing for four-and-a-half years and has been unable to stop. “It’s like a love affair or a bad relationship where you just keep coming back for more,” he says. “You’re like, ‘I feel so mistreated right now but I don’t want to stop!’”

Edu Duyos and Cristina Celli
Edu Duyos and Cristina Celli

An account executive at NARS Cosmetics who says he had a normal social life before falling for flamenco—going to clubs on the weekends, happy hour with his co-workers—Duyos now takes classes five days a week. Flamenco has become his life. His iPod holds over four thousand flamenco songs. He had to clear everything else off in order to make room for them.

At any mention of the dance, his eyes widen with focus and thick black eyelashes bat around them. “Yesterday I was in class for three hours including the private,” he says. “It is a tortured love affair, like you can’t wait to get out of work to meet this person because it’s all you want to spend your time with.”

Ultimately, Duyos wants to dance professionally. “If I could give it all up and just dance, I would in a heartbeat.”

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While New York is the center of the dance world—ballet, tap, jazz and modern performances on almost every night of the week—flamenco has long struggled to compete. Its history is complicated and includes two hundred years of dancers traveling to and from Spain and the United States. The back-and-forth has caused the style of dance to morph into all kinds of beautiful shapes, but has simultaneously resulted in fluctuating waves of interest.

When dancers first came here from Spain in the late 1800s, they would go to beer gardens and concert halls to perform. Interest was exuberant because audiences were crazed by this new “ethnic” dancing. As time passed, American-born dancers, especially those who had never traveled out of the country, became fascinated by the foreign dance. However, instead of learning the dance in the classical method, like the dancers who came from Spain, they usually just imitated it, adding Spanish flair to other dances. Although they did not intend to demean its value, imitation naturally chips away at artistic integrity, explains Hanaah Frechette, manager of Santana Vivo Flamenco.

“We have this period of early American dancers in full Spanish costume basically just imitating and picking up as much as they can,” says Frechette. “They did a lot to promote Spanish dance in the States but they also cornered it as an ethnic dance.”

Photo by Corey Crago
Photo by Corey Crago

Real flamenco dancing is extremely technical. Movements are sharp and in coordination with the guitarist and cantante (singer). Flamencos, sometimes singing while they dance, hold a fierce facial expression to match the sharp staccato movements of their body. The vaudeville-like imitations, however, reflect just a very thin layer of the real dance. Dancers can copy flamenco garb, including the fans, elaborate frilly dresses and hairstyle, but the adornments have too often taken the place of the advanced technique. Without professional training, the technical dancing, precise timing and syncopation cannot be achieved. Because of this, the emotional climax flamencos strive to reach in their dancing is not possible in mere imitation.

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In March of this year, the New York Public Library opened the first exhibit ever dedicated to flamenco dancing and its history in New York. “100 Years of Flamenco in NYC,” which runs through August 3, was launched by Carlota Santana, a famous flamenco dancer and owner of Santana Vivo Flamenco and curated by Goldberg and Ninotchka Bennahum, another Flamenco dancer and scholar.

For the past year, Goldberg, Bennahum and Santana have spent countless hours researching and collecting vintage newspapers, videos, and costumes, and conducting interviews with some of the greatest living flamencos.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before in the United States,” says Goldberg. “As a scholar who specializes in flamenco, it’s really not considered to be the most important thing. We’re very marginalized so this was a huge step forward in terms of just recognizing how central flamenco has been to the dance life of New York for all these years.”

The exhibit also hopes to correct a lack of respect and recognition that has long been discouraging for flamenco performers.

“People don’t like this kind of art because they don’t appreciate it,” says Celli. “They see it as low.”

Her hands lift into the air as she uses them to express herself. But her words cannot match the fire in her eyes as she squints again and waves her hands. “They think that it’s easy, that it’s not actually hard,” she continues.

Instead of being angry that New Yorkers cannot or do not understand, Celli dreams of ways of bringing it to their attention in a more affective way, a challenge because even finding a place to perform here is difficult.

A class at  Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana (Photo by Corey Crago)
A class at  Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana (Photo by Corey Crago)

“Finding a good tablao in New York is hard,” says Celli. “There is just one tablao—Alegrias,” on West 14th Street in Manhattan. “It’s the only one for flamenco performances with a good floor.”

To flamenco dancers, a good floor is a sturdy wood one that they have permission to beat up, slamming their heels into the ground, at times with all their might. This is part of the dance. Of course, this makes it difficult to find owners willing to rent out their venues.

Celli says New York is a hard place to show people what flamenco means because people are too busy to appreciate it.

“Flamenco is very basic. Basic emotions. Anger, sadness, happiness, loneliness,” she says. “But everything to the extreme. And everyone [in New York] is way too focused on other things than basic feelings and they try to ignore the basics of life, of human nature. Until that stops happening, they’re not going to understand it.”

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The 1970s and ‘80s were flamenco’s golden age in New York. There were many more tablao and restaurants where flamencos could perform, as well as underground after-hour clubs, but this boom of interest ultimately passed. “It seemed like the culture changed and it became dated,” says Duyos. “In New York, if something gets dated, it disappears.”

Not that this matters to Duyos. Before he walks into class, he sits in the waiting area just outside, slips on his flamenco shoes, and discusses choreography with his classmates. He gets up and bursts out a fast and intricate rhythm with his toes and heels, which he mentioned he has been practicing all week in his garage.

There is no sign of it now, but at one point Duyos was intimidated by this very world. He is originally from the north of Spain and grew up spending school years in the United States, and summers in Spain, but jotas and folkloric dances were more popular where he lived than flamenco. When Duyos originally tried to enter the flamenco community in New York, he says people made it tough for him. “Some of them were not very friendly with information. Some of them were not very welcoming so it kept deterring me,” he explains. “The thing that was the hardest was finding that welcoming person”—which he ultimately found in the form of Goldberg and her intro to flamenco class.

Now Duyos’ challenge is understanding the multiple components of flamenco—the singer, guitarist and dancers. A dancer must be aware of all components simultaneously and anticipate each chant, rhythm, and movement before they happen. “It’s really not a study in dance, it’s a study in music,” explains Duyos. “When you dance Flamenco…you expose yourself in every single aspect…emotionally, physically, intellectually.”

(From right to left) Cristina Celli, Meira Goldberg, Edu Duyos
(From right to left) Cristina Celli, Meira Goldberg, Edu Duyos

This complex dedication and passion Duyos exerts is quite possibly what keeps the flamenco community so close, yet so protective of its art. If flamenco is their life, why would they want to expose just anyone to the depths of their emotions, intellect and physical expressions?

Duyos says one of his theories is that flamencos do not want to train new flamencos because they will lose work for themselves. And since, unlike many other dancers, they can work well into old age, there is no pressing reason to pass on their skills to the next generation.

Celli says she experienced similar barriers when she first began, and believes it can be explained by flamencos’ often dramatic and passionate nature.

“Flamencos have a sense of hierarchy,” she says. “They are themselves. We are our own king and queen, and no one wants to give up their crown. They don’t want to help you out. There is one queen. There are not two queens. And that is why it doesn’t grow.”

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Carolyn Cutrone is a journalist living and working in New York. She has written for Extra!, Business Insider and Levo League, and is currently a researcher at Inc. Magazine.

Corey G. Crago is a freelance videographer in NYC and one half of RosegoldCreative.com.

Courtney Dudley is a freelance photographer based in New York.