Flamenco finds a home in New Haven

Melinda Marquez

By Lucile Bruce
Photos by Harold Shapiro

Flamenco is alive and well in New Haven.

Among its many arts assets, the city now boasts a top-tier flamenco dance teacher whose local studio, which opened in 2006, has found its wings.

That teacher is Melinda Marquez. I found her quite by accident. One Sunday afternoon last January, my children and I heard a thundering sound emanating from somewhere in our church, the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James, on the corner of Chapel and Olive streets in Wooster Square where Marquez rents the basement dance studio.

We tiptoed downstairs to see who — and what — was making this sound. To our amazement, it wasn’t drums or other musical instruments but rather women using their feet.

Years ago I’d seen a flamenco performance in New York City and loved it. Now the deep, powerful rhythms and emotional directness of the form captivated me again. This was Marquez’s advanced class, I learned later, and I could tell by watching that she is an expert. Marquez made me feel like I could do this despite my complete lack of dance background. I signed up as an “absolute beginner.”

I’m in good hands. Melinda Marquez has been studying, performing, and teaching flamenco for more than 40 years. She was trained as a classical ballet dancer. Offered a contract with the Frankfurt Opera Ballet in Germany when she was 19 years old, she ended up leaving ballet for a very different form of dance. She’d fallen in love — with flamenco.

In May, I talked with Marquez over coffee at Atticus Bookstore/Café. She described her first flamenco lesson with virtuoso flamenco dancer and teacher Roberto Lorca. Marquez was an apprentice with the Harkness Ballet, which offered flamenco workshops to its dancers. She arrived early to find Lorca, two guitarists, a singer, and someone doing “palmas,” the rhythmic hand-claps that are a staple of the form.

“I was frightened,” she recalls. “He started dancing and the palmas were going, and I burst into tears because I had no understanding of how to approach this. But somehow Bobby and I clicked, and it just went from there.”

Lorca became her mentor and a new career was born. Marquez studied in Spain, worked with several flamenco masters, and performed professionally all over the world. With Lorca and Carlota Santana, she co-founded Flamenco Vivo, a company that still exists today.

Marquez is now a New Haven resident and her Elm City studio has grown quickly. In 2006, she taught one class with flamenco guitarist Val Ramos, who lives in Hamden. Today she teaches six classes, an evening of company rehearsals, and several private students. She also teaches twice a week at Ballet Hispanico in New York City, where she’s been on the faculty since 1985.

“Flamenco originated in the Andalusia region of southern Spain,” Marquez explains. Its roots are ancient, reaching back to the Greeks, Romans, and those early centuries in which Christian, Muslim, and Jewish people lived in close proximity, sharing forms of cultural expression. The form as we know it today evolved in the 18th century with the gypsies in rural areas, says Marquez; as it moved into the cities, it became a performance form.

Left to right: Melinda Marquez leads Sally Richmond and Ashley Page in a recent flamenco dance class.

“Flamenco is a three-part form,” she tells me. “It consists of dance (el baile), song (el cante), and the music (toque). The palos or “forms” are very basic to flamenco. If you’re not dancing those forms, you’re not dancing flamenco.”

By “palos” Marquez means the rhythmic structures of this song-driven form.

“Certain types of songs go with certain rhythms,” she explains.

The songs have different functions, too. In flamenco there are songs — “palos” — for every occasion.

“The soleas are deeper, sadder songs,” says Marquez, suitable for situations of mourning and death. The alegrias and tangos are lighter, happier forms for festivals and parties. There are lullabies, children’s songs, songs for getting married, prayer songs, prison songs, work songs such as the “martinetes” (songs of the forge) — and many more.

The goal is to learn the palos well enough to make them your own.

“I’m not going to limit myself as a performer, teacher, or choreographer and say, ‘Well, I have to do what I saw in Spain 40 years ago,’” says Marquez. “I’m here in the United States and there are many things in my current life that are going to influence where I go with this form. That’s what I find really exciting.”

A few years ago, in the wake of the Iraq War, Marquez choreographed a dance to the words of Pablo Neruda’s searing poem Song for the Mothers of Slain Militiamen. For all the beauty of Neruda’s anti-war poem, she says, “women are told ‘rest assured, the fallen will rise in this revolution,’ which is a beautiful concept … but I wanted to see the women as actors, actively resisting.” While she does have a few male students, Marquez teaches mostly women; she views flamenco as a form that’s particularly empowering for women.

She created a flamenco piece using percussion — the abrasive sound of hammer on metal, plus the dancers’ footwork — to bring women into the poem. Marquez’s students from New Haven and New York performed the piece in the black box theater at Southern Connecticut State University. Marquez plans to launch a new choreography project later this year.

Reflecting on the power of flamenco to express political and personal ideas, Marquez told me, “Flamenco is a form — whether you are dancing for yourself at a party, or for a community, or on the stage — that says, ‘Here I am. This is who I am. I have something to say.’ You have the moment to say it — to go deep into your gut and soul, and bring it out.”

To dance flamenco, dancers wear special shoes with tiny nails tapped into the heels and soles, giving them that special loud, concentrated sound. Flamenco dancers are equal parts dancer and musician: In addition to their expressive movements, they are percussionists, both responding and adding to the music.

“I love it,” says Sally Richmond, Marquez’s student since 2008. Richmond, a paralegal who lives in New Haven, had been looking for a local flamenco dance class for several years before she finally found Marquez.

“Flamenco is very grounded,” she reflects, “but the arms are fluid and upward. I like this aspect of it — that when we dance we’re rooted on the ground, yet also reaching up.”

In flamenco, dancer leads musician. While ballet dancers follow the orchestra, the flamenco dancer decides a great deal — how long she wants to dance the sung portion, how many sung portions there will be, how long she wants to continue with footwork, and what’s coming next. Leading the musicians, says Marquez, is the most challenging aspect of dancing flamenco.

In addition to building her classes and doing more choreography, Marquez aims to begin a “choreographic institute” as many other dance institutions have done. Her institute will be a training ground and experimental site for artists and community to “come together and develop dance that will educate and engage the audience/community in dialogue and awareness of global and local social-justice issues.”

Such an institute, says Marquez, will honor and respect the roots of flamenco, which began in the marginalized underclasses of gypsy and Andalusian communities.

Marquez is also active as a presenter. She offers performances by well-known flamenco artists, many of whom she has known for years. This winter, she hosted a riveting evening with dancer/musician José Moreno and guitarist Juanito Pascual in the St. Paul & St. James basement. Marquez’s events are open to the public; she asks for a modest donation at the door and hopes these performances will help build community and bring flamenco into the lives of increasing numbers of people.

While many people’s idea of flamenco comes from popular images of flamenco performance — with women wearing those famous colorful, sweeping long skirts — in Spain flamenco is ubiquitous, commonly found in community settings such as cafés, street corners, parties, family events, and the workplace. Ordinary people living everyday lives burst into flamenco song, rhythm, and dance, whatever they are wearing, whenever the spirit moves them.

Left to right: Alleen Batista, Claudia Putzhammer, Ashley Page, and Melinda Marquez dance the flamenco

Acknowledging the strong cultural roots of this important community art form, in 2010 UNESCO — the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization — inscribed flamenco on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

“Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects,” explains the UNESCO website. “It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants … The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted from one generation to the next.”

Fortunately for all of us, that transmission of knowledge and skills continues in New Haven — and around the world — today.

For more information, send e-mail to Melinda Marquez at marquezflamenco@hotmail.com. For Intangible Cultural Heritage and related information, visit unesco.org/new/en/culture.

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