Belén Maya is associated with the progressive, contemporary side of flamenco dance. She is the daughter of dance icon Mario Maya and became a household name after she appeared in Carlos Saura’s 1995 film, Flamenco. The film played a critical role in exporting the art form internationally and broadening it’s global audience.
The interview was conducted on April 06, 2018, at the Ikea restaurant/café in Jerez De La Frontera, Spain. It is being presented over the course of several posts. Click here to continue to Part 2.
My name is Belén Maya. I was born in New York [City]. My father was Mario Maya and my mother was Carmen Mora. She was from Madrid and he was from Granada and he was Gypsy. He was Roma; I always use Roma when I speak English. I don’t use the word Gypsy. I started dancing in Madrid and I spent my teenage years in Madrid and then I moved to Sevilla and started working in Sevilla. I’ve been living for quite a while in Sevilla and Granada, and Barcelona also, so I don’t know where I’m from. I always say I’m Spanish, but ya know.
You’re from an important artistic family. What are some of your first memories of dance and music?
Well my parents used to take me to watch their performances and to go to the tablao. They took me to the tablao when I was really small and I used to sleep in the dressing rooms on top of all the dresses because it was so late, like two or three or four [in the morning]. My parents divorced when I was five and I stayed with my mother and she didn’t want me to be a flamenco dancer or do anything with flamenco. I stopped going to the tablao and to the performances, nothing. She raised me as a “normal” child going to school, staying home. She kept working as a dancer. My father had a big company and I didn’t see him much so there was a cut from five to eighteen when I went back to flamenco. I studied, I wanted to go to university, but when I was eighteen I decided I was going to try to dance. I took one year to see if I was good at it and I was good. So I stopped everything and went to Sevilla and started [studying]. Well, I started studying in Madrid for one year, but then I went down to Sevilla and started in the tablaos and with my father’s company.
Did your father formally teach you?
No, I learned from him as a director, as a choreographer, but not as a teacher. He wouldn’t choreograph for me and he wouldn’t personally tell me go this way or do this or do that. I was part of his company and he was not very close to me so I learned, like everybody else, by what he said, because my father was not a teacher that could teach you the steps. But he would speak a lot about music, about flamenco, about the past, about the styles. And he loved singing so he would sing a little bit and talk about the music, but not the steps, not really the steps. One day I told him, “you know I really want to go to the tablao and I’m going to ask for an audition and I don’t have a choreography. I need a dance, a Soleá, an Alegría or something. Teach me something.” And he said, “no no no, I don’t teach like that. You go to someone else.” So I had to go to someone else so they could teach me an Alegrías and I went to the audition at Los Gallos. They told me to stay and I was there for nine months. But I was there dancing something from someone else, not from my father.
Was there a moment when you really felt like you had the talent necessary to continue as a professional, to make this your career? Or did you know that right when you came back?
I had to make a decision in that first year in Madrid. I had to make a decision if this was going to be my profession or not. My mother’s family was also like, “okay you have one year but you cannot wait for too long. Either you go to university or get a job or do something.” So I had one year and then everybody told me “you can be a professional. You have a good ear, you have talent, and you have a natural sense of movement.” So I gave it another year in the South in Sevilla to see if I could be a flamenco dancer, because maybe I could be a classical Spanish dancer, but not a flamenco dancer. From the beginning I saw that flamenco was much more difficult than anything else. And, in this second year in Sevilla, I had teachers and in [the tablao] Los Gallos I started from the bottom. There’s a show and when you go into the tablao you open the show, so you’re at the bottom of the ladder. And I finished closing the show in only one year. So it was really fast, and in three years I was a soloist in my father’s company. So I was really like this (gesturing quickly). So I guess there was some kind of inherent talent in me, maybe from my parents. I don’t know. But [flamenco] was very familiar.
What do you think have been some of the main challenges in your career?
I didn’t know anything when I came to the South. Flamenco in Madrid was very different, I really didn’t know the rhythms. I didn’t know Soleá, Bulería, I couldn’t tell one from the other rhythmically and I didn’t know the structure of the solo. I didn’t know how you should start – nothing. I learned that in the tablao. In the tablao you learn the inner code of flamenco. Those were [some of the] challenges and another challenge was that I wasn’t used to the flamenco ambiente (ambiance/environment). I came from Madrid, from school. I liked to read, I spoke English then and I was really weird in the ambiente. That was difficult. I’m a rather different flamenco person. I don’t fit inside the flamenco box in my mind or in my way of living. But, right now I think there are more young people who are not into that box, but when I started it was really difficult. You couldn’t, for example, read. If you took a book on a tour, like in the airplane, [you were weird] and I was always with my books and notebooks… They pushed me aside, I was not in the group. That’s changed I think.
You were moving fast, but did you ever have any doubts that you could become successful economically or in terms of your artistic vision?
No, I didn’t want to be rich. I didn’t imagine myself as rich and getting a lot of money from flamenco or of being famous and it’s not my goal now. My goal was always to express myself. Of course, to eat, have a house, have the basic needs, but fame was something very distant and difficult. I wanted to express the different view I had of flamenco. From the beginning I felt there was something else beyond what I saw, beyond what my parents did, beyond what my teachers did. There was something really there (gesturing), and I was here, and I always wanted to get there. I was jumping like this (gesturing). That was my goal and it’s still my goal now. Where everybody [else] goes, I want to go beyond that, because there’s always something that flamenco is not expressing for me. It’s always based, even when I started, on tradition, but there’s a tradition that’s being made now, that is being created right now. Not modern, but like a post-modern flamenco, ya know. It’s an artistic goal for me. It’s more related to creating art, to keep expanding the art form, than fame or money or all that.
The first time I learned of you, and probably many people, was in Carlos Saura’s movie. For me it was obvious watching that, and I came to learn more about your dancing later, that one of the things you’re known for is having a very distinct personal style. Of course it’s impossible to completely describe dance or music in words, but how would you describe your own style?
Well, my influences are from modern, contemporary, jazz. I have a lot of influences. My mother didn’t want me to dance, but she took me to ballet. So, I did ballet when I was five, six, seven, and then [again at] ten, eleven, because we moved a lot. I’ve seen a lot of dance because we lived in the [United] States for some time too and my mother would take me to the theater, to dance, not to flamenco.
Was that always in New York?
No, Los Angeles. So, I have a lot of different artistic influences. She would take me to the museum when I was very small too. When I look at flamenco I see more things than someone, for example, that is from Jerez. Of course, I don’t have the rhythmic versatility and wisdom of the tradition, of the singing tradition, for example. I don’t know as much as people from Jerez or Sevilla know. But I see different things, so my style is made of these influences and also I like to describe it as free, as a style that is basically creating itself and transforming itself all the time. Right now I’m so far away from the Saura movie. I mean I can’t recognize myself, but I’m also very far away from what I did last year. So I’m always changing, it’s a style in transition. It’s always changing and it’s always trying to go beyond. As I told you before, to always go beyond what is here, beyond what is obvious right now, even beyond myself.
This post is Part 1 of Belén Maya’s interview. Click here to continue to Part 2.
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Media courtesy of Belén Maya Compañía