El Flamenco

Back in 2004 I lived on Edward Street in Halifax. Often I’d be on my way home from campus when I’d hear the thunderous stomping coming from Evelyn Benais’ home dance studio. Evelyn was the dancer who owned El Viento Flamenco dance company and school. She’s since moved to France, however, I did have the pleasure of having her teach me a few times. In my second year at Dalhousie University, I started my Spanish Major, where my interests in dance unfolded even more, intriguing me to take flamenco classes – not because of the flamenco art form itself, but because I enjoyed dancing and learning new things, so I thought, why not – let’s try this. I first had classes taught by Evelyn’s company dancers Megan and Maral, where I learned Sevillanas and some basics in tangos flamencos.

A friend from the Dal Spanish Society told me about a flamenco festival here in Halifax, so we decided to go. It was then that I first saw Maria Osende – presenting a guest artist from Spain, Manuel Reyes, at the Dalhousie McInnes Room. It was my first real flamenco experience. I had never seen a performance like that – and especially by a male dancer! I had never seen such strength and grace, expression and emotion like what was transmitted by his powerful performance.

I started taking classes at Flamenco Dance School Maria Osende soon after that, hopping into her intermediate class, two weeks into the term…which means I had missed the first two weeks of choreography. I remember that feeling of never catching up, but loving the challenge. We were learning an alegrias. I remember how tough some of Maria’s steps were, but looking back at the choreography years later, I see how much I’ve grown – and how much my confidence and posture have improved!

I’ve trained with Maria Osende for over eight years – some years taking more than one class, some years missing those first two weeks of class or months at a time from travelling; but coming back to her class was like coming home. And flamenco, certainly has a way of calling you…and not just for the footwork – it resonates with our deepest emotions.

Flamenco is a complex art form; its musicality and structure vary from rhythm to rhythm, and requires dedicated study in order to embrace and present a genuine artistic expression. In flamenco and in life we are all students. There are always so many more layers to learn: styling to add, steps to create and play around with, masters to learn from, emotions to uncover…it is a constant exploration of our souls. Practice and an open mind can lead you down that path – however, the true essence of flamenco, in my opinion, comes not from studying just the steps and the compás (rhythm), but from listening to the music, diving deep into your soul, letting it feed your emotions, and bringing them to surface, then releasing them through your feet, your hips, your arms, your head, your eyes, your mouth…transcending your physical body and unleashing that emotion to the world around you. That is flamenco. That is the rawness of this art form. It connects you to this raw, open place – where you cannot inhibit yourself – you must release it. You can only share your emotions fully, truly and honestly – there is no faking it, or half-assing it – it’s an all-or-nothing art. This is where the studied performance becomes true art.

I am a bilingual English-Spanish speaker and I feel that expressing myself in Spanish has introduced me to a new dimension of flamenco, allowing more curiosity and interest, and above all, a deeper understanding of this art form. The cante (singing) is the foundation of flamenco; it gives life to the dance. I started exploring flamenco as a dancer, and over the years, I have become interested in its musical expression, cante. While in Spain, I took every opportunity to attend performances and classes to begin my study of flamenco cante. Being fluent in Spanish has allowed me to enjoy and explore the art of flamenco cante, as well as create connections with many teachers, artists and locals, further broadening my knowledge of this complex art form.

Initially, as I mentioned earlier, I started taking classes as a hobby, but little by little, this art became a process, a path to unpeeling my layers, uncovering my truth (shyness, quietness, bad posture and all) and making me face my fears (in front of the mirror, in front of my teacher, of my body and self-esteem), to embrace who I really am.

Flamenco forces you to see these things, if you want to or not. In the end, a student can choose to remain in the realm of seeing how pointing out all the imperfections makes them uncomfortable or, they can use their unique story and imperfections to express themselves fully. Flamenco allows you to be fluid and proud, yet grounded, heavy, sassy and emotional. Of course like any other art form, it requires practice, commitment, and above all PASSION to go from the student who doesn’t use this information, to the amateur or artist that embraces what life has served.

I never thought that this hobby would take me down this path. I am a Pakistani-born Canadian citizen, and although as a Pakistani woman, it is unlikely that I would embrace this art form (due to the conservative nature of eastern culture), I’ve been dancing for ten years now and peeling back all the layers of culture, history, suppression and anti-sexuality to embody my true essence and transmit my self-expression.

Aside from my inner courage, I have to acknowledge and share my deepest gratitude for my teacher and mentor through all these years, Maria Osende. It takes a true artist and teacher to see the potential in their students and nourish them with drills, constant pep-talks, studio time, private rehearsals, performance opportunities, teaching opportunities and an understanding that everyone is on their own path, but that they, as teachers are there to support and help you grow, no matter what.

I have had several opportunities to dance at local festivals, student fiesta nights, flamenco nights, fundraisers, community events, Spanish-themed events and even weddings over the years. This wild art form can captivate such an array of audiences because it taps into our emotional core, connecting experiences we all can relate to.

I began this journey in 2008, maybe even earlier without knowing it. I have been a late bloomer in life, however, flamenco is an art form and lifestyle, that has no age or generational obligation. Yes, the younger you start, you have more time to develop technique, learn all the songs, fine tune and evolve. However, being a foreigner to this art, it has been welcoming and insightful to my personal journey – allowing me to break free of some cultural shyness and empower myself. Flamenco has unearthed some part of my identity, and guided me, opening doors along the way.

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