Fenella Barker. Photo: William Potter Dance UK explores… Spanish dance

Date Wed 4 June 2014

Each month, Dance UK is investigating a different dance style for our members' e-newsletter, finding out about its technique, style and history. For May, it’s Spanish dance, which teacher, dancer and choreographer Fenella Juanita Barker discusses in an interview with Dance UK’s Communications and Membership Officer, Laura Dodge.

What is Spanish dance and how did it originate?

That’s a big question! People often think that Spanish dance equals flamenco but there are actually lots of different styles of Spanish dance. As well as flamenco, there is danza estilizada, which is a theatrical form, and escuela bolera, a more classical form, as well as lots of regional styles.

Flamenco is a dance from Andalucia in southern Spain and was originally performed by marginalised people as a means of expression. Lots of ideas were combined in its formation – it’s a real melting pot of cultural influences.

Flamenco started with the song, and then the dance and finally the guitar components were added. The rhythm and mood of the music are the most important elements for dancers to convey. During sung sections, the focus is on the singer but it is the job of the dancer to keep the rhythm going by marking the beat with their feet and to interpret the song, mood and musical melody with the upper body. During the unsung sections (escobillas) dancers are put in the spotlight, having the chance to interpret the rhythm (or compas) with intricate footwork! The pulse and rhythm of the music always drives the movement.

Escuela bolera (or the bolero school) is a codified classical dance form from the 19th century that was influenced by and grew up alongside the Romantic ballet of that era, although interpreted in a Spanish way. It’s performed in ballet shoes (and sometimes pointe shoes) and often uses castanets. Fanny Elssler, a ballerina of the era, helped to spread the fame of escuela bolera by performing one of the bolero dances, the Cachucha, all over Europe. (For more information, see ‘The Bolero School’ by Marina Grut; 2002, Dance Books, London).

Danza estilizada is danced in heeled shoes (normally flamenco shoes) and performed predominantly with castanets. It takes some of the flamenco vocabulary and rhythms, as well as some inspiration from regional styles, and makes it more theatrical. It’s performed to orchestral interpretations of Spanish music.

Danza estilizada has been performed as part of Spanish light operas (zarzuelas) for many years, but became really popular in the 1920s when Antonia Merce (L’Argentina) performed it in her own concert hall recitals. During her career, she became one of the highest paid performers in Europe.

As for Spanish regional dances, they are quite different again. They work on a chorus, verse, chorus structure and each has its own distinctive style.  Two of the most famous are fandangos and jotas.

Do you have a favourite Spanish dance style?

I don’t have a favourite. I like the variety. But I particularly enjoy teaching the classical and regional styles, as I don’t get to teach them so often.

How do you train as a Spanish dancer?

The Spanish Dance Society (SDS) syllabus is definitely the best way to train outside of the Spanish conservatoires. It covers all the different Spanish styles of dance, and trains both teachers and dancers up to professional level. It is used by many vocational schools to teach Spanish dance.

To train at a high level, I also recommend classical ballet training and yoga or Pilates to increase body awareness. You may also need to go to a specialist conservatoire in Spain, as there are no full-time schools in the UK with a primary focus on Spanish dance.

Is there much work available for professional Spanish dancers?

Flamenco is a really global style of dance and is popular across the world, so good flamenco dancers are in demand. For other Spanish styles, there aren’t so many opportunities to perform, though Spanish dancers are often needed for opera productions such as La Traviata and Carmen.

What should you look out for when watching Spanish dance?

I’ll talk about flamenco, as that’s the dance form that we usually see performed onstage in the UK. Unfortunately, if you’re not familiar with flamenco music and rhythms, it’s hard to know what to look out for. Also, flamenco has very different rules and freedoms in its technique compared to other dance forms such as ballet and contemporary, and even to other styles of Spanish dance.

Flamenco is about expression, so if nothing else, there should be something that speaks to you – a passion, whether it’s happy (chico) or sad (jondo). Footwork should also be clear, even when it is performed at a fast pace, and there should be an elegance of line within the upper body.

Why do you love Spanish dance?

I love the variety, the passion, the rhythm and the way I can express myself. As a dancer, I can use all of my skills within the realm of Spanish dance.

Find out more about Fenella and Spanish dance at Facebook.com/Info.FenellaJuanita

What dance style would you like to see featured next in the 'Dance UK explores...' series? Email suggestions to laura@danceuk.org