On the fourth Wednesday of each month, a part of Spain – an especially passionate part, with a centuries-old history – comes to downtown Oakland. It’s called Flamenco Downtown night, and last Wednesday its organizer, a dancer named Clara Rodriguez, was wearing a flowered black ankle-length dress as she sat on an onstage bench in the restaurant Disco Volante, waiting for the swelling of the music that would move her to rise and dance.
Seated beside Rodriguez, another dancer named Stephanie Narvaez was clad in a ruffled red dress. The slow melodic rhythm of the flamenco guitar lulled the audience, as the emotion of the song was exhibited in both dancers’ facial expressions. The dancers rhythmically clapped, while singer Roberto Zamora and guitarist David McLean initiated a new song. The guitar’s melody intensified as the song progressed and the audience participated, clapping along, creating a sharpness to the guitar’s beat.
Then, at the crescendo of both song and dance, Rodriguez took the center stage. Revealing a solemn facial expression, she seemed to be interpreting the lyrics of the song played at that moment. It was a song of unrequited love. She spun her body in the center of the stage, her arms flowing, in a graceful arc. Her left hand was flexed in an elegant way, while her right hand rested over her waist. The rapid movement of her feet helped to create a rhythmic clacking sound, as the hollow sound intensified with the guitars’ beat.
“I always loved something about flamenco,” Rodriguez said during a break as she sipped a glass of wine at the restaurant’s upstairs. “There was something that drew me to it. The music made me want to dance and just inspired something in me that I never felt. I still haven’t found anything else that brings me that.”
In recent years, the Bay Area has become a major U.S. scene for Spain’s greatest flamenco artists. They frequently come to teach and perform here, but in many cases, end up making the Bay Area their home. Singers José Cortés and Kina Mendez as well as dancer Antonio Arrebola are examples of artists who relocated from Spain and created a significant impact in the local flamenco community.
Just last week, the annual Bay Area Flamenco Festival, directed by Nina Menéndez, brought celebrated artists from Spain to perform and teach workshops in Oakland and San Francisco. The acclaimed Farruco Family, known as the first family of Gypsy flamenco dancers, and the renowned Spanish guitarist Diego Del Morao, who performed at Oakland Yoshi’s, were some of the festival’s attractions.
Despite the long history of flamenco’s popularity here, Rodriguez said, she realized two years ago that there was no regular flamenco night in Oakland to entertain the aficionados. That was the impetus for the Flamenco Downtown night, which she inaugurated in 2011 at Disco Volante. “While a lot of flamenco artists live and teach in Oakland, a majority of regular venues to perform in are in San Francisco,” she said. “And that’s one of the reasons why having the Disco Volante is very important to me. It’s the only regular spot for flamenco in Oakland.”
Flamenco Downtown nights usually fill to capacity, Rodriguez said. The crowd contains artists, aficionados and people totally new to flamenco. “Flamenco is exciting, fun to watch, even for new audience,” she said. “There is something about it that is very powerful. People get beaten by the bug. Once you get the flamenco bug, you can’t stop going.”
Rodriguez grew up in Santa Barbara, and she was only eight years old, she said, when she first felt the attraction to flamenco. She was learning Spanish classical dance when, on one special occasion, she saw flamenco dancers performing at a festival in her city. She immediately felt a strong connection to the flamenco sound and unique movements, and soon started taking classes at a studio located near her home.
“Where I grew up flamenco is very popular, Spanish classical as well,” she said. “It’s something that a lot of little kids learn there. There were five or six dance studios there and every dance studio had 15 or 20 dancers that were my age.”
Rodriguez continued her flamenco studies in Los Angeles through adulthood, and eventually moved to Spain, to study with a variety of instructors and perform. Two of her teachers were Juana Amaya and Concha Vargas, notable flamenco dancers. Rodriguez also studied canté (singing) with Inés Bacán, who is considered one of the finest singers of canté gitano.
“What makes flamenco unique, aside from the movement, is that a flamenco dancer has to be a musician,” Rodriguez said. “They have to understand the language and the vocabulary of flamenco.”
Rodriguez returned from Spain in 2010 and relocated to the Bay Area, where she encountered an already-established flamenco community. She performed with many of its companies, including Yaelisa’s Caminos Flamencos 2011 season, La Tania Baile Flamenco, and Theatre Flamenco.
“The flamenco scene in the Bay Area is very strong,” Rodriguez said. “It’s actually known across the country for having various, strong, really good dancers and musicians living and working here, people who have created a community here.”
Rodriguez currently teaches flamenco at her own Studio Azul in East Oakland and performs in a variety of venues around the Bay Area, including Disco Volante, where she can be seen during the end-of-month Flamenco Downtown nights.
It was almost 10:30 pm when Rodriguez and the performers around her invited aficionados from the audience, at Disco Volante, to come onto the stage. In the Spanish culture, this fin de fiesta, as it’s called, celebrates “the end of a flamenco show, when artists invite other performers to join them in the dance,” Rodriguez said.
Seated in the restaurant bar, Richmond’s resident Jim Aite, 62, a taxi driver, watched the end of one more Flamenco Downtown night. He said he felt lucky to be able to get a seat. “ It was completely packed last time when I came, so I couldn’t even get in,” Aite said. “I really enjoy following flamenco, and this is a great place to come. The ladies dance with style and discipline. They are actresses.”
He nodded appreciatively, looking to a woman who was seated next to him in the bar, waiting for her agreement. “And the guitarist plays with a lot of fire,” he said.
Flamenco Downtown occurs on the fourth Wednesday of the month at 8pm. For more information, visit www.discovolanteoakland.com