Kathi’s quick to laugh and joke—we’ve established that already. But she’s also an incredibly astute observer of other people. A listener, like Evelin Santos. And the flamenco world has a lot to observe. Let’s face it: it sounds a little crazy.
But Kathi is aware of this, and knows you probably will be, too. It’s her strange world, sure, and she loves it. But she knows that you probably have some other strange world off somewhere else that you love even more. People from complicated multicultural backgrounds seem to process potential difference better than most.
It’s not like I walk around and say, Hey, I’m Cuban, Kathi tells me, because I really don’t look it and I don’t sound it. She laughs. I’m disconnected. I’m not part of the Cuban diaspora at all. That’s too distant for me to relate to, I don’t know where the property was. We have pictures of it, a painting of a sugar plantation, but I can’t really march around with a flag or anything, She says.
As a mixed-background person, I would feel like I was being disingenuous to choose and say, I am this. Both of my parents are not Cuban, and both of their parents were from somewhere else too, so we’re really American-American. But I think you can work with all the backgrounds. I think it’s fair to give respect to all of that.
By “all of that,” Kathi seems to mean all of it—her own cultural heritage, and the cultural heritage of anyone else who comes along. However, it must be noted, that she reserves a special place for anyone who dances flamenco.
The flamenco community in Chicago is filled with what you would call over-supporters, people who go to flamenco all the time. Anything that’s flamenco-related or flamenco-esque, they will be there. It is a really tight-knit core group, so we always need to reach out to other people. It’s a community-based family art form, so you learn the songs from your grandmother while she’s cooking and they’re a little bit like nursery rhymes. That’s how you really get it in your soul.
It’s not like salsa where you do a ten-week class and you just go out and start dancing. The singing is really important, so it’s hard to get younger people interested unless you start them really young, like five years old, so they sing the songs like nursery rhymes, they clap along. Then they get it. Then maybe they want to dance, or play guitar, or maybe they want to play percussion. But they know it and that’s fine. What happens is, we get people who are college age or above, and they they’re looking at it first as a dance form where they want to wear a pretty dress. That is coming at it from the opposite end of where you should to understand what you’re doing. It can be very frustrating. I’m amazed how many people think that you just get up there and fluff around and you’re a flamenco dancer. But you are not. I’ve seen many people dance outside of the music. It’s almost like watching bad lip-syncing. They have no idea, and years later they will have an instructor reach them with the message that you need to dance to the words of the music, and I see the faces go white and they are shocked to discover that they have been performing without knowing what they’re doing.
The types of flamenco songs indicate certain feelings, so if there’s a song that’s allegrias—that’s not the title, that’s the type of song—that’s a happy song. So you don’t do a serious, knit-your-eyebrow, stomping-around-the-stage dance to it. It’s out of whack and just doesn’t make sense. That would be as if you’re cheerleading to goth music. then if you have another song which is seguiriyas, which is a very serious piece and the words are serious too, you wouldn’t be out there in a fluffy dress, bright and shiny, cheery with a smile on your face. Again this would be like—I don’t know, some one can think of more of those cheerleader things, you know what I mean. It just wouldn’t work.
Uninitiated people don’t get it, they see the visual and they’re like, That is awesome. I do a lot of stage management and lighting for flamenco because it follows the music, and it, again, can be spontaneous and usually the lighting designers have no idea what’s going on. The person will usually say, Are they almost done? Are they done now? Now what happens? Is it almost finished now? Is that the end? No, it’s not the end yet. There are, like, 20 endings and 50 starts, but for people who know the music it makes sense.
And: how do you know when to clap? All those people are clapping like wild, how is it they all know when to stop at the same time? They’re usually listening to the music or they know it by heart. The structure of the music is important for everybody: the clapper, the guitarist, the singer, of course, who’s usually setting the tone, and the dancer.
If the dancer is not familiar with the music, they’ll end up dancing and the music stops and they’ll keep going, or there are also improvisational sections where the dancer can choose to come in based on what’s just been sung, and it’s supposed to be short and sweet and then they’re supposed to exit. There’s a signal to tell the musicians that you are leaving the performing circle. If you don’t tell them, they will keep singing and you have to keep dancing. A lot of times, I see dancers just walk off because they don’t know how to stop. A lot of times the singer will leave. Oh, you’ve taken too long. And they leave to go get a drink at the bar.
When the performers pass the baton to one another, there are a lot of nods and gestures. They’re very subtle, like in jazz, when everybody smiles like: That was cool, that was cool. In flamenco they do the same thing but it’s larger, and they’re usually laughing more. They also have something in flamenco that’s called jaleo, which doesn’t happen in classical music, but you’ll hear it in any flamenco concert. When someone does something good—guitarist, singer, whatever—the audience will get involved and cheer them on and they’ll do something, make a sound. Like ole asa, my special jaleo is aeeeehhhh, that means I liked what you just did. But you have to do it right, at the right time. If you do random jaleo [laughs] it’s kinda like, Who let that person in?