Inesita teaching a deaf child the Flamenco rhythms.
From my earliest years in dance, I was asked to teach. I conducted private classes occasionally. I had no desire to establish a school or instruct on a regular basis. It was never appealing to me.
Notwithstanding, I did accept students at every opportunity. This occurred in England where I was given free access to a dance studio by a well known teacher in London, Elsa Brunelleschi, a dancer of Italian background from Argentina. I was given her name by a dancer I knew in the States.
When we finally met and I spoke some Spanish to her, she was very cordial and quite enthusiastic when I danced for her. It was a long association which resulted in the use of her studio and the chance to teach and rehearse there.
Now and then, I had students in New York, and in Mexico I did a seminar. In Los Angeles at my home there were private students, but I never pursued teaching as a profession. The stage always beckoned.
In 1970, a concert was arranged at the Wilshire Ebell Theater; scene of many of my past performances. A harpsichordist, Bess Karp, was contacted at UCLA, and rehearsals on my new repertoire of Scarlatti dances began. I also engaged a young guitarist I had met and worked with before and with the addition of a classical guitarist I organized a program of four Scarlatti dances and a group of flamenco pieces.
The first part of the program featured a lecture-demonstration using a condensed version of the material I presented in London and New York.
After the performance, among the well-wishers backstage, I was approached by a woman and her daughter who expressed an interest in studying with me. I explained that I teach only privately and the woman said that this was what they wanted. A time was arranged and the family came once a week from quite a distance. During the conversation backstage, two male dancers I knew overheard this and asked for my phone number. Some weeks later, I received a call from another family with a young daughter who also was interested in study. They were highly recommended by Roberto Amaral, one of the two male dancers backstage.
The result of these incidents led to a large number of Spanish speaking families bringing their daughters and in one case a son, to study with me privately and I soon had a substantial enrollment.
Apart from the families who brought their young daughters to study, a number of older students sought me out for private sessions.
One young lady, whom I later found out had attended the 1970 concert was an American who had studied with various teachers in the Los Angeles area. Eventually she contacted me and began private classes. . When I finally was in contact with her, I learned that she was married to a student of Jeronimo Villarino, the dean of all Flamenco guitarists who was from Spain (Huelva) . He had accompanied all the great artists of Flamenco. I knew him for years and had worked with him in the past. The husband, a young American, had worked with Villarino intensely for several years and was a dedicated disciple of Flamenco. When he heard my name on the phone, he knew instantly who I was and explained about his wife and his own interest in flamenco dance and the guitar. The prospective student called me back and a time was arranged for both of them to come to my studio at home and begin private classes.
The husband was visibly affected at the lesson when he saw me do an Alegrias. The patterns of the dance matched exactly the music he had learned with Villarino and none of the other teachers that his wife studied with had shown any knowledge of this material to her.
The result of this was a long period of 23 years of dance instruction. My student enrollment consisted of numerous individuals from virtually every Spanish-speaking country in the world including Spain. The classes continued until 1993 and encompassed all aspects of Spanish Dance. Flamenco structure was offered to everyone and no one to my knowledge took apart the rhythmic complexities the way I did. Some of my pupils went on to careers of their own and a number of these stayed with me for as long as ten years.
During this time, another aspect of instruction became part of my activities. Flamenco is unwritten and an oral tradition. The function of the music and dance becomes a special action in this case. Technically, the dancer does not follow the guitarist; the dancer is the drummer and puts down the rhythms as the dance proceeds. Therefore the dancer is in essence the conductor and the guitarist’s melodies are attached to the various rhythms. It is possible that the dancer does not have to hear the guitar. In fact, a Spanish dancer of yore, Juana Valencia, ( she was popularly known as La Sorda, the deaf woman) was hearing impaired and was able to lead the guitar through her dances by her percussive heel patterns.
Within this concept, we had the idea of teaching young deaf and hard of hearing children simple steps from flamenco, such as an Alegrias. These actions could be taught to five and six year olds enabling them to dance to music they could not hear.
We began this adventure as an experiment in 1971. It was difficult work as I was not accustomed to working with small children. Gradually we worked out a plan. During a period of two and one half years we labored with this. In some ways it was satisfying and in other aspects very frustrating. Most of the teachers misunderstood what we were really trying to do. It was a learning experience for us. On such a level, the sessions were tedious and not at all related to a professional dance class. The aim was to educate and develop cognitive skills out of number concepts.
After time spent with four different schools for deaf and hard of hearing, we decided to offer the classes to disadvantaged children of mostly Spanish speaking and African-American youngsters who had normal hearing. This made it necessary to visit some poorer sections of Los Angeles where mostly indigent families lived. All the work done was volunteered and only occasionally, a small fee was paid, but it was a “labor of love” It was extremely tiring, more arduous than teaching students who wanted to learn to dance. From time to time, touching episodes occurred to make this memorable. In addition to the work with young children, we offered classes to “head start mothers” and other adults who might benefit from this instruction. We included sessions with Down Syndrome youngsters and with developmentally handicapped older adults.
During a summer session in 1982, we worked outdoors in the playground at the school. The children did well and the teachers in this case were cooperative. A grandfather of one of the young girls was moved to write in Spanish some lines of praise and poetry about what we were doing and this in itself made these sessions worthwhile. We had a guitarist during most of these classes. A videotape was made of a performance I did. This consisted of my dance in costume and my lecture material featuring four of the children we taught doing the dance patterns with guitar accompaniment. It represented the sessions we did at the same school in 1975 with an audience of children and teachers. It was costly, but at least it was a record of this experiment.
We also appeared on a TV news program in Los Angeles. Nothing came from all this hard work except to prove that children could derive some educational insight from the structured dance forms.
As an addendum to this post, I add some more specific information about the methods we used to instruct the children we worked with. I include this page for additional clarity.
A Laboratory Work shop for Education in the Arts and Humanities
Flamenco is a traditional form of music and dance which comes to us from the province of Andalusia in the south of Spain. A flamenco dance is made up of a number of rhythmic variations, each introduced by a short percussive theme phrase known as the llamada (call). Within this framework a dancer traditionally pilots the guitarist into an interplay of syncopated and crossing rhythms.
Alegrias (happiness) is the name of the dance children learn. In Alegrias the llamada and each measure (compas) of music within the variations has 12 beats. The llamada appears to stop with a thrust of beats to the 10th count. This pulsating hold in the rhythm of the llamada gives children time to say, “wait-wait’ for the 11th and 12th counts. The break in the action provides a doorway into the first variation. The llamada is stepped out a second time at the end of a variation. Here the llamada does double duty. The coda-like crescendo in the llamada closes the door on the variation just performed and the pulsating “wait-wait” opens the door into the next variation. The rhythms are open-ended. It is impossible to make use of written music in traditional flamenco.
The measures of 12 beats in a variation are counted in pairs, 2,4,6,8, etc. The Spanish word for pairing the measures of music is (cuadrado). When we dance just 2 measures the dancer will do the “wait- wait” on the 10th count in the 2nd measure. When 4 measures are stepped out, the “wait-wait” would come after the 10th count in the 4th measure. Children will learn to dance 16 measures in one of the variations before signaling for the close of that variation.
In the games we have invented for children they work in teams of two. The “wait-wait” after the 10th count in the last even-numbered measure sends a message that it is the partner’s turn to step out the llamada and the next variation in the sequence. Dancers exchange alternate variations until both have performed all the variations they know.
The variations have a traditional order: paseo-desplante, first vario-silencio, first escobilla, second vario-silencio, castellana, cante, second escobilla and bulerias. They are structured in a sequential order of staccato and legato. Again, the ABA structure of theme-variation-theme is common to both flamenco and the sonata form of classical music.
The Andalusian name for flamenco is cante jondo (deep song). No one knows how old flamenco is, but the custom of howling and wailing, which is reflected in flamenco song, was in evidence as far back as the ancient cultures of Babylon, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.
Children learn to function as percussive musicians, computing the phrases of 12 for the llamadas and the variations. They communicate with each other according to a mathematical process that will enable a child to pilot a professional guitarist in and out of the variations. Peer teaching is encouraged. Children learn how to help and how to accept help. Sharing is the essence of this work. The concept of sharing and connecting, if taken seriously by more of us, might bode well for our future as a civilization.
Children are challenged to cope successfully in a task that is subtle and complex. This builds self esteem. Cooperative behavior is stimulated. Motor coordination, mental concentration and self-discipline are notably improved.
The mathematically structured nonverbal language of rhythmic forms in flamenco helps overcome barriers in communication. In these thinking games children play and ideas dance.