Duende of Dance

Flamenco y Más stays in step with a different kind of soul music.

I entered the small dance studio to rhythmically snapping fingers, handclaps, shouts and intricately clicking steps. Pedro Cortés strummed the guitar violently, Julio Barrul sang, and the dancers, with arms curved above their heads, worked their feet with percussive precision into the floor. Olivia Rojo, director of Flamenco y Más, sat in a chair, keeping time and shouting directions to the dancers.

Flamenco, the traditional music and dance of Andalusian gypsies, first developed in southern Spain. After hundreds of years, flamenco entered mainstream society as café entertainment in the 19th century and is now gaining popularity in Tucson with the continued performances of Flamenco y Más.

When Rojo first heard flamenco 20 years ago, she was hooked. "The music is so beautiful and the singing is just incredible," she says. "When I heard it I said, 'Oh, I love this and I want to experience it more.'"

So how do you experience flamenco more in Southern Arizona when there isn't a large flamenco community? You start learning and sharing flamenco with people yourself. "And sharing it with people supports bringing the artists into town and continuing to learn," says Rojo, as she was hard at work putting together Lluvia Flamenca, Flamenco y Más' annual show, at the PCC Proscenium Theatre Nov. 8 and 9.

This year Flamenco y Más has brought three performers to Tucson: guitarist and composer Pedro Cortés from New York, singer Julio Barrul, who was flown in from Spain, and Phoenix dancer and choreographer Martin Gaxiola.

Cortés, whom Rojo describes as "a gypsy by blood raised in the United States," is the son of a flamenco guitarist and grew up indoctrinated into the music and culture of flamenco. Cortés works as a teacher to the dancers and is a contemporary flamenco composer whose pieces will be heard at Lluvia Flamenca, coupled with the more traditional vocals of Barrul.

Bringing performers to Tucson to work with Flamenco y Más is important, says Rojo, because it is difficult to find musicians who are brought up in all the traditions of flamenco. Though flamenco leads to improvisation, its grammar must first be learned by rote before improvisation is possible.

What the event then does, says Rojo, is give the audience an opportunity to experience the music from experts while also allowing "the students to be able to work with this caliber of musician. You can't do that by going to Spain and studying [thinking] you'll end up with these guys. You don't."

Besides, participation in flamenco is essential, says Rojo, and for that participation to be possible everyone must be present. The dancing has to be done to live music because the musicians and dancers collaborate in intensifying the rhythm. It's like trying to participate in a band by playing along with a CD. That's not how it works.

Rojo concedes with a laugh that it's expensive to bring Cortés from New York and Barrul from Spain. "We always hope and pray we have enough audience," she says."

The cost of putting on the event typically exceeds the income, she admits, but she insists that's not the point. The show exists primarily to educate the public while also providing a venue where dance can be shared between performers and audience members.

The involvement of more students in the dance company also makes this year's Lluvia Flamenca different, says Rojo, because the increase in dancers has allowed for more pieces to be performed, and "the student level of dance is coming way up."

A possible reason for the rise in students is that Rojo secured Flamenco y Más with its very own dance studio at 41 N. Tucson Blvd. this last September. The clientele consists mostly of athletic people who maybe don't want to get their workouts at the gym but prefer to do it through music, movement and culture, says Rojo. She also hopes to start running children's classes in the near future.

"My full time job is being a mom," says Rojo, "but my love of this art form has kept me going, teaching and sharing it with students. I love teaching and then bringing it to the community."

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