Idaho flamencos tell stories through dance

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Stephanie Laishy swirls and stomps on a hardwood floor at the Fort Boise Community Center. She and other flamencos prepare for a performance for the Mayor’s Appreciation Day for Arts, History and Culture at Boise City Hall.

They repeatedly dance to the same song, striving to unify their choreography and dance cohesively. The free nature of the dance makes it a difficult task. For the most part, flamenco dancers perform solo, accentuating basic movements with character and emotion unique to the individual.

Arlie Sommer

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Idaho Commission on the Arts

Laishy dances with two of her troupe members, Ruth Saltzer and Suzie Orme. “In flamenco, we are all connected. That’s why you see it mostly in small concert halls. It’s because we interact with the musicians live and give cues and succeed,” Laishy said.

“Flamenco is a person dancing in the middle of a circle with your musicians and your singer; a person interpreting their story,” Laishy said.

This part-improvised, part-practiced craft combines dancing, clapping, slapping, foot-tapping with stomping, singing, and guitar playing. Roma immigrants from Rajasthan in northern India are believed to have brought flamenco to Spain around the 15th century. Spain was also home to Sephardic Muslims and Jews at the time and these marginalized groups likely influenced the art form.

“What initiates the dance is the music, it’s the singer,” Laishy said. “So the singer says something and that pushes the dancer to perform, which is why you’re not really dancing with another person. You’re dancing with the singer’s voice. You’re dancing with the guitar.

Laishy brings the art form to the people of Idaho through her organization United Flamencos, which she founded to promote the benefits of flamenco dance through shows and teachings. She leads workshops with all ages in Idaho and shares a message embedded in dance: art heals.

Laishy knows firsthand the healing power of flamenco. In her early twenties, her brother died suddenly, a devastating event that caused her to question her purpose. Unable to bear living in Idaho without him, she uprooted to Portland, Oregon.

It was then that she remembered an ongoing conversation she had had with her brother. They were trying to understand their family culture and discovered flamenco as a potential way to connect with their past.

Laishy flirted with the possibility of pursuing the idea and taking dance lessons in a new city. But at 22, she felt too old to start such a complicated and historic dance form.

“It wasn’t until I went to a show and I heard the singer sing and I saw the dancer dance, and the words that came out of her mouth, the sounds, were connected.”

Stephanie Laishy

Sparks were ignited with the memory and emotion of her brother’s passing and tears flowed as she recalled the day her mother announced his death to Laishy.

“The dancer’s body was exactly what I felt, that I couldn’t express. I was able to sit there and finally emote. Finally, I could start crying. And I knew then that I could start my healing process using this dance form,” she said.

Laishy set up a journey to develop her skills and her connection to flamenco, which grew in strength and complexity as she danced. Her pilgrimage takes her to California, where she studies with a flamenco group, then to Spain, where she dances with the flamencos of Jerez and learns their specific styles.

“One of the first teachers I had in Spain, she asked me about my Native American heritage, and I said, well, Native Americans don’t really know our roots. We do not have access to this information,” she said.

Growing up, Laishy’s family had moved all over the United States, and she felt little connected to the places she temporarily inhabited. She went to great lengths to blend in and disguise any cultural background.

Now it draws its strength from cultural identity that includes Yaqui heritage. The Who is there are native to the desert southwest and have a reservation near Tucson, Arizona. They also have a strong presence in Sonora, Mexico, just south of Arizona.

A person wearing a long red skirt and red heeled shoes.  There is a person wearing a black skirt and black heels in the background.

Arlie Sommer

/

Idaho Commission on the Arts

The teacher, who was Roma, expressed sadness for Laishy’s loss of connection to past generations and traditions and said the separation caused pain and suffering.

“She thought Native Americans were like Roma, but American. She said, “Well, because you don’t have your culture, I’m going to share mine with you.”

Laishy decided to return to her family in Idaho, transformed and with a mission to transform others as she had been.

“I think a lot of us flamenco people connect to those parts of ourselves that we can’t physically touch, to loved ones we can’t see, to places or times in our lives. life, or expressions. It’s also like when you can’t express anything, when you don’t have the words.”

Stephanie Laishy

Laishy fully embraces flamenco culture. Now, back in Idaho, she passes on the gift, bringing joy to the people of Idaho who dance alongside her. She says the flexibility of the dance form helps build confidence within a group.

“Our initial training is just to do what we feel. Your emotions are never wrong,” she explained.

Communication is inherent in dance, but not necessarily through direct means. Laishy rhythmically and energetically calls out to her group as she dances. These cries are called “jaleo”.

“Jaleo just means ‘lots of noise’. What they are are words of encouragement,” Laishy said.

Jaleos guides flamenco dancers and musicians without specifically counting polyrhythmic rhythms or exact dance moves. Laishy describes the phenomenon as Pavlovian for young dance students, with the body responding before the brain. Rhythmic calls trigger corresponding body movements like tapping, twirling, or changing gears.

For flamenco artists, the jaleo is a way for the other dancers in the group to encourage each other, without interrupting the rhythm and distracting the performer.

Live go

And andando!

Live go

And andando!

Tra tra tra

Toma toma toma used!

The whole body becomes a percussion instrument, expressing rhythm and a story. The dancers slap their legs, hips, chest, snap their fingers, turn their wrists inwards or outwards and imitate characters: the matador, a grandmother or a mother. Flamenco dancers and musicians empathize and synchronize their playing within the dance, which is highly varied and individualized.

A close up of a person's black heeled shoes.

Arlie Sommer

/

Idaho Commission on the Arts

“There are studs on the heel and on the toe of the shoe. Their style will tell you a lot about what the person is dancing, like even the clothes, the color, the decoration.

“Flamenco has a family tree. The root of the tree, the trunk of the tree are the most free. They have no rhythm for them.

Different branches of the flamenco tree are linked to different emotions. Soleá flamenco expresses loneliness. Alegrias communicate joy. Siguerillas transmit pain and tragedy. There are also the festive forms of flamenco: Buloría, Tientos and Tangos. There are branches that reflect all the travels of the art form. Torantos and Ir y Vuelta have African influences, Colombianas are from South America – the list goes on.

“To dance, I really like Alegria. I really love joy,” Laishy said. “I really like the feelings that go with it, because even in those happy moments of flamenco and even in that particular style, there’s always a sense of belonging.”

The connection between joy and sadness, the growth that occurs between stages of life, and the physical embodiment of very personal experiences all shine through on the flamenco dance floor. Laishy offers these connections as tools for her students and audience to navigate life and its complexities.

“I know my job is done when I’ve conveyed my emotions and it’s strong enough to elicit a reaction. I want their hearts to move. I want their minds to go or start spinning.

This piece was made for Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the Idaho Commission on the Arts, with financial support from Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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