In the last portion of the conversation, we discuss topics ranging from technique to political protest to what students should prioritize while visiting Spain to learn flamenco. As is evident from earlier posts, Belén’s words are illuminating and go far beyond the stereotypical romanticism so commonly found in flamenco. Speaking to her was informative and enjoyable, and something I had looked forward to for a long time. Her deep connection and commitment to flamenco are palpable, and her words give others the permission and courage to immerse themselves in this complex art form regardless of personal history or nationality. She strongly believes that flamenco is and must be for everyone.
I hope you enjoy reading the last segment of Belén’s interview — it was a pleasure writing it. There are many more interviews with other artists and posts about various topics on the way.
The interview was conducted on April 06, 2018, at the Ikea restaurant/café in Jerez De La Frontera, Spain.
What is the approach and attitude that you have in terms of your technique? How do you value technique?
When I started, it was so important to have technique. Of course, it’s not the technique that people have now. It’s grown 300 percent, [it’s] different, faster, [there are] really subtle things, and not only footwork, but movement in general, also mantón, bata de cola, everything. It’s evolved a lot. Rocio [Molina], Israel [Galván], there are always these leaders that open the way and tell new generations how it should be. The problem is that these two people, Rocio and Israel, are technically perfect so young people want to be like that. I always tell people in my classes, “you will never be like them, you can’t be like them because they’re perfect. They’re over the general level of technique, it’s almost impossible.” [Work to] have a good basic technique, [that allows] you to do what you want to do. What do you want to express? Start from your emotion and from your narrative. What is your narrative? What do you want to say? What is your universe? For example, Soleá, what is the universe of your Soleá? This singer, this style of Soleá, for example Fernanda or Manuela Carrasco and this look, this kind of dress and this speed, this really slow speed and this structure, maybe three letras and no Bulerías. I ask [students] to make a universe, selecting different pieces and making choices, conscious choices of how you want it to be. First, your emotion, don’t relate to my Soleá and what I’m feeling. What do you feel? What are the experiences in your life… my grandfather’s death, my divorce, my dog’s death. I don’t know. First, find an emotion or a memory and your universe. You put that together and then you move. You move and maybe your footwork and your arm work don’t need much technique to express what you want to express inside your universe. Maybe that technique that you want to reach, that speed or that perfection, belongs to another universe that is not yours. Maybe yours is more basic, really slow, like Butoh. Why? Technique is a medium to [reach] a goal. It’s not the goal, it’s not. Many people do not need much technique.
That’s what I find to be interesting and maybe problematic, is that because the technique is so high, people are spending so much time on technique that they’re not spending time working on the other things you’re talking about. And those are things you also have to work on.
The thing is that if you focus on technique… first you get a very good response from your colleagues, from the audience, from the musicians because everyone loves technique. That’s an easy way out. It’s an easy way out to because you don’t have to express your emotions. You don’t have to go deep into your emotions and into your sadness, talking about Soleá, for example, your solitude and that sadness. You just stop at the level of technique and everything is perfect, so it’s easier in a way. I always tell [my students] to look at dancers like Manuela Vargas, for example, she was old, like from my mother’s time, the 1950’s and 1960’s. She had little technique but the way she moved and what she could express was powerful. I always say the same, that they look to Manuela Carrasco, Manuela Vargas, Farruco. Farruco didn’t have footwork technique, he didn’t do anything, he couldn’t because he was also overweight. But it didn’t matter. The way [Manuela Vargas] would just stand up and the way she looked. And so why, why did these people have so little technique and, still today, they are considered so great?
Have you had elements in your shows that are political or that had a type of protest in them?
Yeah, they were not conceived of as political, but it came out really political. I don’t have the political knowledge and information. When people ask me, I don’t have political arguments. [In one show,] I just choreographed and did what I felt. Afterwards, some friends in the States and here that are political Roma activists told me that it was quite political. It wasn’t intended to be [that way], because I don’t have a political background. For example, the concentration camp solo and the one that talks about gender violence against women are very political. Also, this Roma woman going down off stage toward the audience, asking for money, making them witness discrimination toward her… if you’re there in the audience watching this solo, you have to take part. You have to ask yourself, “What is my position towards the Roma.” It’s not a question I wanted to ask the audience, but it comes out. It makes you feel so many things if you’re an audience member. You have to position yourself in daily life, “How do I feel about the Roma. What do I do when a Roma beggar approaches me in the street or in a shop? If there’s a Roma person here, do I grab my purse?” In Barcelona, for example, I entered a supermarket when I had my hair long and I had my hair up. I was wearing a summer dress and I looked really Roma. I don’t look that Roma generally, but in that moment I looked really Roma. I entered the supermarket and my boyfriend at the time, who was Roma, asked me, “Did you notice that the policeman was following you around the supermarket the whole time?” No, because I don’t look that way so they don’t do that to me [on a daily basis], but that is done daily to all Roma that enter a store, shop, bank, anywhere. There’s a distrust from everybody around. Then I understood how a Roma woman would feel if this was done to her daily every place she goes. The positioning of the audience towards this situation during my performance [makes them ask], “Do I do this in the supermarket?” I think some people changed their reactions after the solo. They understood they were being racists. I think that’s political.
Do you think dancers and musicians should be more political?
Yes, I think so.
What do you think is the best way for them to be political and to have a direct impact on society?
First, the problem with flamenco people is that we don’t have enough culture or information to be politically informed and have a base from which to argue when people ask us about our work. [So educating ourselves and developing a more politically-conscious culture is] one way of doing it. Another way is to break out of the limits that the flamenco industry is forcing us to be within. If [the Festival de] Jerez forces me to make a certain kind of show, to have a certain type of look, and to create a certain type of narrative, they can go to hell! Get out of there and do something different, something they don’t expect, something they don’t want to see. If they don’t want me be that, well I’m going to be that. This way, and maybe it’s not all of society, but you’re questioning the flamenco society. You’re questioning their minds, you’re questioning their traditions, you’re questioning their racism and also their machismo. Rocio Molina, for example, she’s questioning the flamenco community, society, and industry all the time. She goes naked, she says, “If they want me to be in this type of costume… Well, I’m not even going to be in that, I’m going to go naked.” That’s political too, not conforming to your gender, to your background, to your race. The first step to being political in flamenco is being outside of what’s expected of you and breaking it.
When the economic crisis hit in 2008 and 2009 and Spanish government started implementing austerity measures, there were certain dance groups that showed up on YouTube like Flo6x8 and others. What do you think of groups like that? Do they have any sort of impact or is that a superficial thing?
They were great. I think they were so good. They were in Sevilla. I know many people from there and they asked me to [participate] too. That was great and it was needed. Flamenco needed to say something about what was happening. Flamenco people have this old memory of hunger, of not having money or food. It’s a deep memory. I don’t have it [directly], but my parents had it. It’s in the profession. There’s always this element of conforming, “I’m not going to do the right thing because I want to keep working. I want my career to evolve and if I say no to these big people in the Festival de Jerez, for example, they’re not going to hire me anymore.” There’s a fear that’s based in an old, old concept [and memory] of scarcity. When these [protest groups] did this, it broke that memory, because they were not afraid of going to jail or paying fines. They were free to speak. That part of it was good. I don’t know if it had political consequences. I think for the flamenco community, it was fresh air. It was something new and had never been done before. It was rebellious.
For people coming here for a short amount of time to learn flamenco, trying to take from here what they can’t get in [their home country], what is the most important thing for them to take home? What should they prioritize?
Culture is definitely [important], not just flamenco culture, but Spanish culture, trying to understand why Spain is the way it is, why Spanish society is the way it is. Where does flamenco come from? [It’s] not just what you find in the books. Where does it come from socially and culturally? Why do flamenco people in the South behave like they do? [How is this related to] the social and economic background of Spain? Don’t take flamenco as something isolated, but related to the whole of Spain. It’s about relating that to the emotion [of flamenco]. For example, go to a tablao or fiesta or a small venue and get the direct feeling of flamenco without the industry, without the big theater, without the big protections. Go as small as you can [so you can understand] the emotional and physical language, the physical experience of being in a small place and receiving it without filters. Finding your teacher [is also important], the one that works for you, and getting that person to talk to you directly. Ask that person honestly, “I love flamenco, how can I express flamenco with my body, my background, and my nationality as honestly as possible?” This is hard, because some teachers will just take money from you and they won’t tell you, “No, you’re not good for this. Stop. You will never sing; you will never play; you will never dance.” It’s hard. I have had to do that two or three times in my career and it’s difficult to tell someone no. But, you have to because you are watching someone waste all their money and all their time.
It might be hard, but you’re actually helping them more by saying that.
I think so. You risk getting that answer [from your teacher], but the other answer you might get, if you find someone honest, that loves flamenco, is, “Okay, I see that you have these tools, these qualities.” For example, if you’re a musician you have a good ear or good rhythm. This [type of] teacher will tell you your [strong and weak points]. Try to get that information from someone that knows you personally, not from someone who has 50 people in the class, but someone that’s willing to help you personally. Use that information as a goal. “This is what I’m going to work on, and I have three or five years to work on it.” Set a goal of three years, for example, and if you don’t get to that goal in three years, then you stop. Set a goal like that. Be personal and be realistic about flamenco. That’s important for foreigners. What else? I would say be less romantic. Forget romanticism, enough romanticism! There’s a deep, emotional treasure that is real in flamenco and it has nothing to do with romanticism. It has to do with pain, with the real pain of the Roma and of non-Roma people, from hunger, from being in the ghetto, from being an art form belonging to criminals. There’s a lot of pain and discrimination in flamenco, but it’s real, it’s not romantic! Get in touch with it from a real place.
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