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What Is Flamenco Dance? Myriam Allard Answers

Head shot of La Otra Orilla co-founder, choreographer, and dancer Myriam Allard

Continuing With Flamenco

Last month, I wrote about Bonnie Masina, a woman who took up flamenco dance at age 50. This month, I ask the question: What is flamenco? And Myriam Allard, co-founder of and dancer and choreographer with La Otra Orilla in Montreal, answered.

Head shot of La Otra Orilla co-founder, choreographer, and dancer Myriam AllardAllard didn’t start learning flamenco dance until she was 19, an age by which many professional dancers start their careers. She moved to Spain when she was 21 and studied flamenco intensively for six years.

What Is Flamenco?

“First and foremost, flamenco is an expression of a people, the southern Spanish Gypsies,” she explains. “It’s a voice of their struggle.”

If you’ve only seen flamenco, whether on television or on stage, you likely think first of the dramatic form of dance, usually done by women draped in elegant dresses with frills. However, Allard explains that it actually started with song.

“It’s songs of pain, but also of joy. So, it’s really a sub-culture that was really, for a long time, put aside, and they were actually for some time not even allowed to sing,” Allard says. “So, the voice comes first, and then the guitar came, the rhythms, the dance.”

When the Body Doesn’t Fit the Type

As an artistic director and choreographer, though, Allard must add her own voice to this old art form, so she began with her body. As a blue-eyed woman who stands 5’9”, she is not physically what the average viewer likely imagines when they think of a flamenco dancer.

“I’m physically not at all Spanish looking or Gypsy looking,” she says. “So, I have to really somehow adapt from the very start of my studies. I had to adapt the movement to my body, which wasn’t short.”

Adapting an art form, though, doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel works and leaving the rest behind. It’s still important to learn the basics.

Always, Always, Always, Start a A

“I trained in traditional flamenco, because it’s the only thing you can train in, and I believe very strongly in knowing your ABCs before actually doing poetry. You can’t start from poetry, you have to know the words,” Allard says.

I feel very strongly about that in any form of art. It’s not to bore you: after all, who gets a high from practicing straight lines and squares of dots when you first begin to draw? Or from doing more pliés in one month of ballet classes than you eat chocolate in a year?

The point is that those basics strengthen you to carry out your art with fewer errors down the road. In the case of drawing, those errors may mean inaccurate lines. In the case of ballet, those errors can be injuries.

The Basic Structure = Your New Language

There’s another reason, though, for focusing on those basic structures, whatever your form: you learn the form’s language, which is what allows you that new channel of expression. Even if you choose to write, you are still learning a new language, because the forms that typically make for strong writing are different than those that work for a wonderful conversationalist.

It’s the language of flamenco that allowed Allard the freedom to begin experimenting. Her company’s name means “the other shore.” Not only is she located in Montreal, Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic from Spain, but she also experiments with flamenco. When you watch this video, can you see the language of flamenco breaking through the fur cap and exposed pregnant belly?

Flamenco for Today

“I see flamenco as a a very contemporary art,” Allard says, “because I see I’m doing this today in 2018, so I don’t think I have to wear a skirt with frills, I don’t think I have to wear a flower in my hair. If I feel like it, I will, but for me that’s not a code I feel I have to respect, if I can use that word. I’m very free that way. If I want to wear trousers, I will.”

Even just by wearing pants, Allard’s choreography changes.

“As women in flamenco would traditionally wear long skirts, it makes movement rounder, and it also makes for a prop because you’re actually touching the skirt and using it in the movement and it gives volume to a movement. When you have pants on, you don’t have that volume, you don’t have round, it’s all angles. When I work with pants on, I go for angles.”

Flamenco’s Essence

For Allard, flamenco’s core is a raw emotion, one that borders on ugliness. She explains further:

“There’s that very fine line between something that is beautiful and something that is ugly. When you watch a flamenco singer, the expression on the face sometimes is very intense. For somebody it can be very ugly to look at, but I find that very beautiful.”

There is no ideal age to start flamenco. Allard has students well into their senior years who, she feels, have a stronger wisdom about their body than younger students may have. She suggests taking advantage of this wisdom: if you are older, you do what you can, you don’t push.

If starting dance is on your mind, just find an adult class taught by a qualified instructor and sign up. If that’s too much for you, though, maybe get out to see more performances, even ones you’re not sure you’ll like. (Something we discussed in the previous post, with Trevor Copp.)

And if you’re in Toronto from October 2-6, catch Fall for Dance North, where Allard’s company will be performing, be sure to get tickets (only $15 each) and enjoy the rawness and intensity that is traditional flamenco dance.

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Flamenco at 50: “It’s too easy when we age to give up. I don’t agree with that.”

Starting Dance Past 50

When I turned 40, I suddenly cared about aging. Always active in my younger years through dance, and proudly displaying a photo of me doing the splits still at age 37, turning 40 suddenly made me realize my body was changing. So when I spoke with Bonnie Masina, who started dancing flamenco at age 50, I was all ears.

Flamenco is a passionate, emotional dance form for both men and women and has its own style of musical accompaniment. I’ve seen flamenco dances on and off over the years, thought right now the music for the flamenco routine from Riverdance is playing in my mind.

One thing I’ve noticed is the age range of female flamenco dancers. (I feel like I see more pictures of female dancers because of the beauty of their dresses.) Coming from your standard North American background, seeing an older female dancer is rare.

The Body Changes As You Age

But starting flamenco at age 50 is not something I hear of too often. Granted, Masina did compete in ballroom and Latin dance in her youth, but she says she stopped when she was 20 because of kids and, well, life. Getting back into dance after a 30-year hiatus can’t be easy.

But that’s not as remarkable as the rest of Masina’s story. She worked for decades in IT, eventually reaching IT Manager and working extensive hours, which she describes as 24/7. From all those hours glued to a computer, she’d developed rotator cuff injuries in her shoulders and spinal problems resulted in pain in several of her fingers. Over time, she’d lost the ability to raise her arms past her shoulders and to articulate those three fingers: they started functioning as one because years of bad posture had begun pinching things. (I’m fighting the beginnings of that kind of job-related injury.) In addition, a broken toe had broken through the bottom of her foot and healed that way.

These may sound like minor inconveniences. After all, we’re used to hearing about catastrophic accidents to get our attention. However, this is how aging works: bit by bit, the story of your life grows into your body. But instead of the sexy scar across the adventure-movie star’s face, it’s little aches and pains that start to change how you move. I’m over 10 years younger than Masina, and I’ve already noticed it, too.

Flamenco at Fifty

Masina’s hectic work schedule inspired her to seek out its complete opposite: dance. She sought out something Latin but didn’t want a partner. So flamenco it was. She registered with Carmen Romero’s School of Flamenco Dance Arts in Toronto. Masina learned quickly the need to leave work at work and focus on her dancing.

“If you let the outside world in, you’ll mess up,” she says.

Masina didn’t let her injuries get in the way. When Romero tried to push Masina’s arms up, Romero said, “Oh my gosh, you’re stuck!” Masina recalls. “I wanted to be unstuck and I knew dance and repetitively doing it and trying to do things better would help. I can now pull my arms all the way beside my ears.”

Masina even found a way to deal with her improperly healed foot: orthotics with a hole for her bone and, with Romero’s help, special flamenco shoes with a lower heel.

But unlike those products-for-the-aging commercials that make it seem like aging is a picnic, Masina explains it took her a while to dance properly. “But I was determined I was not going to not dance because of one stupid bone in my foot,” she says.

Over time, Masina sought chiropractic treatment and therapy for her fingers, and with Romero, who’s also a brain-injury therapist, regained almost complete use of those three fingers.  She also learned how to balance better so she wouldn’t aggravate her foot.

Age Doesn’t Matter With Flamenco

Bonnie Masina in a lavish, purple flamenco dress, seated on a couch.
Bonnie Masina poses in a flamenco dress.

Flamenco has become a sort of second life for Masina, and she’s adamant that you can start at any age and at any ability level.

“I don’t think it matters what your age is, dance can help you, even if it’s just having fun,” she says. She’s even taught flamenco at a senior’s home. “You can dance in a chair. You don’t have to be all over the dance floor to enjoy dance.”

Picking up dance can be done at any age and at any ability. When my chiropractor told me the pain I’d been experiencing for months in a joint in my toe was osteoarthritic pain, I thought I’d never be able to dance again. Mind you, I don’t dance every year, but the thought of never is a bit much. However, after talking with Masina, I might revisit that.

[grey_box]The Little KW Flamenco Fest takes place this weekend, running July 31-August 2 at various locations. The program includes workshops (disclosure: some are held at my sister’s studio), and they’re open to all.[/grey_box]