Return to last page

Chicago Tribune Article

By Julie Hudson Tribune Staff Writer July 20, 2000

You don't need directions to find the flamenco workshop at St. Alphonse's school. The dancing two stories up is audible from the main floor.

Conja "La Conja" Abdessalam walks her students through a long sequence of vueltas (body turns), braseo (arm movements) and zapateado (footwork); then they're on their own.

"Otra vez," Abdessalam calls, clapping out sharp beats as dancers stomp and swirl into motion.

The guitarist eases into song and Abdessalam sings along in Spanish, her voice rising above the dancers' synchronized steps, transforming the Near North Side classroom into a chunk of Spain.

But it's over much too soon.

"Conja, time's up," says Mari Booth, the workshop's director.

Flamenco is the music and dance of the Gypsies of southern Spain. When they arrived in the 15th Century, the Gypsies, who call themselves Rom, brought the native music of their land of origin, northern India, along with the musical influences of Egypt and Morocco.

Few forms of dance encourage the extremes of emotion as flamenco. From facial expressions to hand gestures, the dancer's entire body translates the music's mood, most often, through improvisation.

This weekend, the Ensemble Espanol, a dance troupe at Northeastern Illinois University, celebrates 24 years of Spanish dance with three performances of "Flamenco Passion" at the Northshore Center for the Performing Arts. Dame Libby Komaiko's 35-member troupe performs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. (847-673-6300 for tickets).

Flamenco singing has been compared to the wail of the muezzin, or Muslim call to prayer, sung from deep in the chest. For centuries the Rom lived as social outcasts, impoverished, and used song and dance to express their pain.

When Booth moved to Chicago from Dallas three years ago, she wanted to resume the flamenco dance classes she had taken here 15 years before. "I was literally dancing in my closet," says Booth, whose search led her to the Old Town School of Folk Music. After two years of lessons at the Old Town School, she was pressed into service as a teacher because the classes were becoming wall-to-wall popular. "About a year ago," says Booth, "we were getting 20 to 40 new students every eight weeks."

Around this time, Booth saw Abdessalam perform in Wisconsin. She was so impressed she began flying to New York to take classes with her.

Last year she brought Abdessalam to Chicago for a workshop at the Old Town School, where many of her classes sold out.

Ken Kowalkowski, 32, takes lessons three times a week at the Old Town School and the Flamenco Arts Center, a new establishment on the western edge of Wrigleyville. A biologistfrom Kane County, Kowalkowski agrees that the flamenco scene is heating up. "It's getting better," he says, stretching after the workshop. "Even from when I started a year ago."

Walter Guzman, 33, came from New York to take Abdessalam's four-day workshop. "It started as a hobby, just to take a class, and I really got caught up in it," says Guzman, who studies twice a week at Fazil's, the premier flamenco studio in Manhattan.

Paul Fradin, 44, is an eight-year flamenco veteran."For a lot of people, it's like a little subculture," Fradin says with a smile. "I'm not fluent in Spanish. I can understand some of the lyrics, but it's the whole feel of the dancing and music, and once they get into that, most people stay with it a long time."

Kowalkowski admits that as a musical culture, flamenco isn't terribly portable. "You can't really put a tape in at work," he says.

Fradin laughs. "People are like, `What the heck are you listening to?' You know you're really hooked when you're standing in line somewhere and you start tapping, doing footwork."

"I do that waiting for the `L,'" Booth says, laughing. "Maybe we should start a flamenco support group!"

What they would prefer is more outlets for this unique artform.

"There are a lot of teachers and a lot of students, but there's no place where people go and have fun with it," says Fradin. "Once in a while there's a performance here or there, but not very often."

They look forward to events like Flamenco Nights at HotHouse, a not-for-profit club that favors international music.

For Guzman, the New York scene provides numerous outlets. "Every day you can go to Fazil's and on two or three floors, there's flamenco" classes, he says. "The energy in that building is incredible."

New York also boasts a number of , or flamenco bars, where flamenco is performed formally and informally. Chicago has none.

Having lived in Washington, D.C., and Miami, Fradin knows that flamenco is catching on. "Do an Internet search and you'll find flamenco Web sites all over the world. And you can go to any major American city with a population over 500,000 and find flamenco. Five or 10 years ago, that was not the case."

The biggest flamenco addict of all might be Abdessalam herself.

A dark beauty from California of Egyptian descent, she began studying at age 10, when she saw a flamenco dancer at the studio where she was taking ballet.

At 15 she won a scholarship to study with the legendary Jose Greco and spent the summer touring the country with his company.

After spending most of her 20s in Spain taking classes and performing in the prestigious tablaos of Madrid, Abdessalam toured Europe, Egypt and Japan. As her reputation grew, so did the global embrace of her artform. She credits the influence of guitarist Paco de Lucia, the movies of Carlos Saura, and the rhumba of Gipsy Kings with helping flamenco along.

Go to next column

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While flamenco is an acquired taste, "Flamenco is popular all over the world," Abdessalam says. "Norway surprised me because their culture is a little bit reserved. Same with the Japanese. I think that's why they like flamenco. It's an outlet of expression for them."

Abdessalam says, people shouldn't be daunted by its complexity.

"For people to understand flamenco, it's like trying to understand jazz."

As is also true of jazz, flamenco is constantly evolving. Musicians who in the past have married flamenco with jazz, rhumba and pop are now fusing it with the sources it came from: the traditional music of the Middle East and India.

"In the southern part of Spain you have the influence of the Arabs who lived in Spain for 800 years," says Abdessalam. "You have the Roma, who left India 1,200 years ago and migrated through Europe. That's why flamenco is such a multicultured dance and music. It has all those different elements. It's really just going back to the source."

Abdessalam admits that she has to restrain herself from flying off to Spain, where the real action is. "The way they're doing flamenco in Spain is very out-there, very difficult."

Abdessalam lives and performs in New York but will return Aug. 14-25 to teach at the Old Town School of Folk Music. She will also appear with her flamenco company at HotHouse on Aug. 19. "

Some people call this `the clubhouse,' " says Cynthia Rosario, director of the recently opened Flamenco Arts Center at 3755 N. Western Ave. "There's lots of flamenco in Chicago, but it's so spread out. I kept wishing there was a place where everybody could have their classes."

Rosario had two teachers in mind and wondered what it would cost to rent a place. "I was walking down the street and found a storefront for rent." Now five flamenco teachers use the facility, and Rosario hopes to add guitar lessons as well.

Marguerite Horberg, the director of HotHouse, agrees that flamenco is a hot ticket. "There's a huge interest," Horberg says. "There has been since the beginning."

For more than 10 years, HotHouse has featured flamenco artists. Recently, the club featured Omayra Amaya, the niece of the best-known flamenco dancer of all time, Carmen Amaya.

"Women's dance was changed forever by her," says Tomas de Utrera. In "Peel My Love Like An Onion," Ana Castillo's 1999 novel about a flamenco dancer living in Chicago, Tomas de Utrera is mentioned as a virtuoso. That isn't fiction. As a child, Utrera and his family fled to Argentina from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's regime and then went to Los Angeles. During his teens Utrera studied flamenco guitar.

He went back to Spain in 1967 and played in the tablaos and theaters before coming to Chicago in 1981. Utrera has students who come all the way from Nebraska and Cleveland, when their schedules allow. Currently, he is at work on two flamenco-related books, one in Spanish and one in English. If all goes well, he hopes to move back to Spain permanently.

When asked how his compadres feel about his living in Chicago, says Utrera, "I get a lot of flak."

Ken Kowalkowski, 32, takes lessons three times a week at the Old Town School and the Flamenco Arts Center, a new establishment on the western edge of Wrigleyville. A biologistfrom Kane County, Kowalkowski agrees that the flamenco scene is heating up. "It's getting better," he says, stretching after the workshop. "Even from when I started a year ago."

Walter Guzman, 33, came from New York to take Abdessalam's four-day workshop. "It started as a hobby, just to take a class, and I really got caught up in it," says Guzman, who studies twice a week at Fazil's, the premier flamenco studio in Manhattan.

Paul Fradin, 44, is an eight-year flamenco veteran."For a lot of people, it's like a little subculture," Fradin says with a smile. "I'm not fluent in Spanish. I can understand some of the lyrics, but it's the whole feel of the dancing and music, and once they get into that, most people stay with it a long time."

Kowalkowski admits that as a musical culture, flamenco isn't terribly portable. "You can't really put a tape in at work," he says.

Fradin laughs. "People are like, `What the heck are you listening to?' You know you're really hooked when you're standing in line somewhere and you start tapping, doing footwork."

"I do that waiting for the `L,'" Booth says, laughing. "Maybe we should start a flamenco support group!"

What they would prefer is more outlets for this unique artform.

"There are a lot of teachers and a lot of students, but there's no place where people go and have fun with it," says Fradin. "Once in a while there's a performance here or there, but not very often."

They look forward to events like Flamenco Nights at HotHouse, a not-for-profit club that favors international music.

For Guzman, the New York scene provides numerous outlets. "Every day you can go to Fazil's and on two or three floors, there's flamenco" classes, he says. "The energy in that building is incredible."

New York also boasts a number of , or flamenco bars, where flamenco is performed formally and informally. Chicago has none.

Having lived in Washington, D.C., and Miami, Fradin knows that flamenco is catching on. "Do an Internet search and you'll find flamenco Web sites all over the world. And you can go to any major American city with a population over 500,000 and find flamenco. Five or 10 years ago, that was not the case."

The biggest flamenco addict of all might be Abdessalam herself.

A dark beauty from California of Egyptian descent, she began studying at age 10, when she saw a flamenco dancer at the studio where she was taking ballet.

At 15 she won a scholarship to study with the legendary Jose Greco and spent the summer touring the country with his company.

Go to next column

 

 

 

 

After spending most of her 20s in Spain taking classes and performing in the prestigious tablaos of Madrid, Abdessalam toured Europe, Egypt and Japan. As her reputation grew, so did the global embrace of her artform. She credits the influence of guitarist Paco de Lucia, the movies of Carlos Saura, and the rhumba of Gipsy Kings with helping flamenco along.

"Flamenco is popular all over the world," Abdessalam says. "Norway surprised me because their culture is a little bit reserved. Same with the Japanese. I think that's why they like flamenco. It's an outlet of expression for them."

While flamenco is an acquired taste, Abdessalam says, people shouldn't be daunted by its complexity.

"For people to understand flamenco, it's like trying to understand jazz."

As is also true of jazz, flamenco is constantly evolving. Musicians who in the past have married flamenco with jazz, rhumba and pop are now fusing it with the sources it came from: the traditional music of the Middle East and India.

Some people call this `the clubhouse,' " says Cynthia Rosario, director of the recently opened Flamenco Arts Center at 3755 N. Western Ave. "There's lots of flamenco in Chicago, but it's so spread out. I kept wishing there was a place where everybody could have their classes."

Rosario had two teachers in mind and wondered what it would cost to rent a place. "I was walking down the street and found a storefront for rent." Now five flamenco teachers use the facility, and Rosario hopes to add guitar lessons as well.

Marguerite Horberg, the director of HotHouse, agrees that flamenco is a hot ticket. "There's a huge interest," Horberg says. "There has been since the beginning."

For more than 10 years, HotHouse has featured flamenco artists. Recently, the club featured Omayra Amaya, the niece of the best-known flamenco dancer of all time, Carmen Amaya.

"Women's dance was changed forever by her," says Tomas de Utrera. In "Peel My Love Like An Onion," Ana Castillo's 1999 novel about a flamenco dancer living in Chicago, Tomas de Utrera is mentioned as a virtuoso. That isn't fiction. As a child, Utrera and his family fled to Argentina from Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's regime and then went to Los Angeles. During his teens Utrera studied flamenco guitar.

He went back to Spain in 1967 and played in the tablaos and theaters before coming to Chicago in 1981. Utrera has students who come all the way from Nebraska and Cleveland, when their schedules allow. Currently, he is at work on two flamenco-related books, one in Spanish and one in English. If all goes well, he hopes to move back to Spain permanently.

When asked how his compadres feel about his living in Chicago, says Utrera, "I get a lot of flak."

"In the southern part of Spain you have the influence of the Arabs who lived in Spain for 800 years," says Abdessalam. "You have the Roma, who left India 1,200 years ago and migrated through Europe. That's why flamenco is such a multicultured dance and music. It has all those different elements. It's really just going back to the source."

Abdessalam admits that she has to restrain herself from flying off to Spain, where the real action is. "The way they're doing flamenco in Spain is very out-there, very difficult."

Abdessalam lives and performs in New York but will return Aug. 14-25 to teach at the Old Town School of Folk Music. She will also appear with her flamenco company at HotHouse on Aug. 19. "

End