Kathi Beste

The Flamenco Arts Center: Preserving History, Honoring the Source, Passing on Culture

Flamenco Arts Center was founded in Chicago in 2000 by dancer, actress, and educator Cynthia Rosario. It was her dream to set up an open meeting place in the city where anyone with an interest in flamenco music and dance could come to teach, learn, and share their love of the art form. Before 2000 there was no central location for flamenco where everyone was welcome. Different teachers worked at different schools and studios that were not always in communication with each other, and there was a generational divide between those who had studied and performed before 1980 and those who started learning flamenco after 1989.

Before Flamenco Arts Center, instruction in flamenco music and dance was offered at very few places in Chicago, due to the noise factor and the distress it could cause to studio floors. Continually on the move using short-term temporary gathering places (park district buildings, old warehouse spaces, garages, even outdoors), flamenco musicians and dancers around Chicago were somewhat nomadic and disconnected. Performances were irregular, and mostly limited to small restaurants or bars.

Cynthia's idea was to find a space with no noise or access restrictions, with a floor designed to withstand the percussive dance. She made the space available for a nominal fee to any and all flamenco teachers and students, hoping to foster a sense of community and sharing. I helped Cynthia construct and open the studio, and worked with her as programming director for events such as performances and guest artist workshops. In 2005 Cynthia moved to Evanston and turned the management of the studio over to me. She continues to be involved as a student and member.

The main component of this community-based art form is the song. The dance and its costuming are often incorrectly mistaken as the primary focus in flamenco, but the dancing, guitar, and cajón came after the singing. Based on the musical structure, dancers and guitarists are obliged to follow the singer, who is responding to one of the many rhythms in the genre. The tree of flamenco song has many branches, each with main and sub-categories (referred to as "palos").

The music began as a mixture of Indian, Gypsy, Andalusian Spanish, Sephardic, and Islamic influences that met and converged in Andalucia before and after the Reconquest. Through exploration and cultural exchanges in the New World, this living art form continued to change and absorb American, Caribbean, and African influences. Flamenco continues to evolve as we move into the twenty-first century, and today's artists are incorporating Peruvian, middle eastern, pop music styles, and world music melodies and instruments.

An important focus at Flamenco Arts Center is educating the public on the history and structure of this art form. By making the music more accessible and understandable, audiences will find it easy to enjoy this music and will want to share it with their family and friends.

Influence in Chicago

Flamenco's popularity is constantly in flux, both in Chicago and the world. Prior to the rise of the Internet, it was difficult to find flamenco teachers and performers due to the insular nature of its primary creators and practitioners, the Gypsies in Spain. Franco's use of flamenco to promote tourism in Spain popularized a stylized and limited version of the art that appeared more classical and focused on the dances and costumes.

In Chicago the influence of flamenco is often tied to the popularity of Spanish restaurants, where most of the performances take place. Venues would host performers, be popular for a while, but once they closed or changed formats, there was less exposure, resulting in fewer students with less information about the musical structure. As it is rediscovered, the process of informing the public about what flamenco really is and is not (i.e., it is not salsa, merengue, Argentine tango, cha-cha, or a dance done by pink birds) begins all over again from square one.

With a small Spanish immigrant population, Chicago's flamenco performers and students come from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. There are no typical flamenco practitioners in Chicago, and there is no single place where one must go to learn authentic flamenco. Unlike other cities in the United States with larger immigrant influxes from Spain, most flamenco teachers and performers in Chicago are from the Midwest, and have traveled to learn flamenco in Spain and around the world. No flamenco teacher in Chicago today is from Andalucia, the birthplace of flamenco. However, the availability of information on flamenco via the Internet has helped keep the public informed about the music and its practitioners. Chicago also hosts flamenco artists from around the world a few times a year, who teach and perform to large audiences, demonstrating the vibrant Chicago flamenco community.

Overview and History of the Chicago Flamenco Festival

The first citywide festival celebrating flamenco took place in the Chicago area September 3–18 in 2002. This major cultural event was a collaborative effort on the part of many community and cultural organizations. Presented and promoted by the Hot House Center for International Performance and Exhibition, the festival’s official name was Viva Flamenco Chicago 2002. Major funding support was provided by the Illinois Arts Council’s Governor's International Arts Exchange grant awarded to Hot House/CIPEX. Additional support was provided by American Airlines and Chicago’s Flamenco Arts Center. In-kind and collaborative support was supplied by Old Town School of Folk Music; Instituto Cervantes Chicago; don Quijote Restaurant; the Gene Siskel Film Center; EXTRA; and ¡Exito!

Marguerite Horberg of Hot House/CIPEX chose the 2002 Flamenco Festival curators: me, representing the Flamenco Arts Center, and Tomás de Utrera, a Chicago-based flamenco guitarist and singer. The festival consisted of a wide variety of programs, including performances, an art exhibition, film screenings, lectures, classes, and workshops. Teachers, artists, and speakers in the lecture series were chosen based on their knowledge of the art form, and the availability of the artists to participate in community performances, workshops, and events throughout the city.

The festival continued in 2003, but moved to February to better align with the partners’ and curators’ abilities to attract top talent from around the world. The partnerships have changed over the years but the core constituency has remained the same: Flamenco Arts Center, Old Town School of Folk Music, Instituto Cervantes Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Culture and Tourism. The festival has run almost continuously since 2002, with a hiatus in 2009. It is a popular and anticipated series every year, with a mix of paid and free events that warm up the cold Chicago winter. Combined with strong media support by Telemundo, Univision, Red Eye, and Newcity, the festival events and activities are well attended, and help keep the public informed and interested in the art form's pure essence.

Building a community around the art of flamenco is challenging in a city as diverse as Chicago. There is competition from other forms of music and dance, sports, films, video games, pop culture, and the strain of the current economic times. The music is complex and can be difficult to understand and appreciate to the uninitiated. It is an art form that takes years to learn, which can be a deterrent to those who want to master something and be able to perform on stage in six-to-ten weeks. As a community-based art form, the essence of flamenco is passed down from generation to generation, which is not a familiar learning style in the United States. The current community is comprised mostly of people age 30 and older. To keep flamenco authentic, vibrant, and growing in Chicago, we need to introduce younger people to the art, teaching them the music, song lyrics, rhythms, movement, and instrumentation as part of growing up. This will help give the community strength and continuity. Providing an open space for learning about and enjoying flamenco, as I do with Flamenco Arts Center, helps flamenco maintain visibility and influence in Chicago's cultural milieu. Flamenco Arts Center strives to promote an accessible community form of the art. By taking away the "Mystery of Flamenco" stereotype, FAC hopes to protect it from becoming caricature or overly diluted by pop culture.

Written in Summer 2011. This story includes editorial support by CAR Dance Researcher Meida McNeal.

Kathi Beste is a curator, performer, photographer, designer, performance presenter, and book artist based in Chicago, and currently an MFA candidate and Offset Fellow at Columbia College Center for Book and Paper Arts. As Director of the Flamenco Arts Center of Chicago, she has been performing and presenting flamenco for more than 20 years in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Miami, and Boston, working with artists such as Carmela Greco, Antonio Vargas, Omayra Amaya, Gerardo Nuñez, Pitingo, Elena Andujar, Pedro Cortez, and Edwin Aparicio. Her recent presentation of Omayra Amaya in the 2011 Chicago Flamenco Festival at the Chicago Cultural Center was standing room only. Additional performance experience includes the monthly Chicago Backyard Variety Show with Douglas Grew (1996-1999); Robert Metrick’s opera The Enunciation; Quest of Theseus, Jondo Portraits, Shifting Landscapes, and Unraveling Rhythms with Clinard Dance Theater. Exhibitions include Department Store (2008) at Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and Viva Flamenco 2002 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Recent book projects include Quick Sketch, co-authored with James Hajicek; A Little Book of Boekie Woekie for the Journal of Artists' Books 28; and The Object of Labor, edited by Joan Livingstone and John Ploof, published by MIT Press.

Published by CAR_Laura on Wed, 09/14/2011 - 12:02pm
Updated on Tue, 02/23/2016 - 3:53pm