We're very lucky to have a special guest for our latest #myflamencostory installment.
Today's interview is with Laura Onizuka a flamenco dancer and teacher from Portland, Oregon who writes about flamenco dance at her website Portland Flamenco Events and also organizes tours to Spain to study flamenco with amazing teachers in small intimate groups.
We hope you enjoy reading about Laura's experiences learning and teaching flamenco.
What is your first memory of flamenco?
My first memory of flamenco dancing was a video from a Spanish class in college. As soon as I started watching I knew this was something I wanted to do someday. (You can read the whole story about that here: http://portlandflamencoevents.com/2015/09/why-i-started-dancing-flamenco-how-did-you-get-into-it/)
Where and when did you start taking classes?
I started in the fall of 1997 here in Portland, Oregon. I had been longing to take flamenco classes for two and a half years but hadn’t found a class. I already had a plan to go to Spain to study flamenco. I was working as a waitress and a cook at a local brew pub, living with my parents, and saving my money so that I could take myself to Spain. I found a class at the community college with a woman from Cádiz, Faly, Rafaela de Cádiz. I had several classes with her before I went to Spain. I barely learned the first sevillana! (Classes in Spain were a rude awakening…)
Have you travelled to extend your studies?
Yes, I consider Sevilla the my beginning of my studies because I only had a handful of classes with Faly before I traveled to Spain for flamenco. I went in 1998 with no plan other than to give flamenco a try. I didn’t know what city I was going to live in, I hadn’t researched any flamenco schools, I didn’t know how long I would stay. And, as you now know, I had done almost nothing to prepare myself for flamenco classes. I knew that I wanted to settle somewhere in Andalucia and find classes, that’s all. Well, that’s not entirely true, I also knew that I wanted an adventure. (Looking back, I see that this most definitely was not the smartest way to do it, but I was 23, and it’s the way I did it…) I ended up finding work, staying for almost a year, dancing very little in the beginning and a lot toward the end. This article (http://portlandflamencoevents.com/2014/08/matilde-coral-and-my-first-experience-with-a-bata-de-cola-a-very-important-tip/) touches on that time.
Ten years passed before I went back to Spain. I never could have imagined when I left that so much time would go by before returning. I wanted to dance flamenco more seriously, but I didn’t believe in myself, I wasn’t sure how, and it seemed impractical. I thought I had started too late to really dance flamenco. And the level was so high in Spain. My fear held me back there too, and I came back after all of those months with so many gaps. Basically I came home from that trip, got a ‘real’ job, went back to school, became an elementary school teacher, and took flamenco classes off and on.
In 2008 I finally went back to Spain. I’ve been going back regularly ever since. And I now organize flamenco tours for students who want to study in Spain with a small supportive group becasue I realize now that is the way I prefer to learn. With others, in a special workshop just for us, not jumping into ongoing classes. After many attempts at doing it that way, I realized that’s just not for me.
When and why did you decide to make flamenco your career?
In 2006/07 I took a leave of absence from my teaching job. Part of the reason I took the leave was that I felt so busy and overwhelmed with work that I struggled to find time for anything else in life, especially flamenco. I wanted to do it but it was really hard to find the time and energy to devote to it. While I was on leave I still worked for the school district doing temporary and part time teaching jobs for a few years until I finally transitioned out of it.
Technically I started my business in 2006 when I organized a workshop with Ricardo López here in Portland. I was still a full time teacher then, and I did not in any way see that as the beginning of a new career. I saw him perform here in Portland with the Nuevo Ballet Español, and he completely knocked my socks off. I did not have a teacher at the time and had the strongest desire to take flamenco classes from someone of his caliber. So I asked him why they hadn’t offered a workshop, and that was that. (You can read the full story on that here: http://portlandflamencoevents.com/2011/08/it-just-kind-of-happened/
I loved making that workshop happen and seeing the community come together to study with this amazing guy and I loved the energy he brought, so I continued organizing workshops. But I didn’t consider that I was going to have a “flamenco career” at that point. (It was bascially the same thing that had held me back in Spain that first trip, fear and not believing in myself. I didn’t believe that I could actually make a living working for myself, let alone from flamenco!) Anyway, during that time I started teaching because people asked me to, but I still didn’t really know how long I’d do it, and I didn’t really feel completely “able” to teach flamenco. In 2011 I got a Regional Arts and Culture grant to go back to Spain to study. That’s when I started my blog, got back into writing (a passion of mine since childhood) and also when I realized I wanted to create a flamenco tour to Spain.
Have you always taught flamenco dance in the same place?
No. I’ve never had my own studio, so I’ve moved around a lot and rented from and taught in different studios and schools here.
What has been your biggest challenge teaching flamenco within your community?
Hmmm, bringing the true essence of Spain to class perhaps.
Is there a particular aspect of flamenco that you find students struggle with? How do you help them with that?
Technique! Time in class devoted just to that as well as bringing it into other parts of the class (i.e. choreography), lots of reminders, encouraging them to take an active role in improving their technique by considering it and noticing and monitoring themselves.
(I had big time gaps in technique when I met Ricardo. He tore me apart! (with lots of love) and I’m glad he did. I hadn’t really learned much technique (if any) from my teachers in the US, and on that first trip to Spain I was so green; even after almost a year there I was still a total baby when I came back.) Technique is one of my favorite things to study. I LOVE the technique work we do with Mercedes in Jerez; it’s so good and the way David addresses it in Barcelona, constantly reminding and believing in you that you can do it, and Ricardo too, aaaaahhhh; to be honest, I did not used to, but now, I love technique!
Is there a teacher that you have studied with that you take inspiration from when you teach?
Oh my goodness, most of them… Mercedes, of course. Ricardo, of course. Ani, Ana Maria López. David Romero. Marco Flores. Manuel Liñan.
How did you make the jump into performing?
It wasn’t really a jump because soon after I came back from Spain and started taking classes in Portland my teacher, Faly, had us all peforming. Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I was doing during those performances, but we always had a blast. She was very supportive.
Do you get the opportunity to perform very often?
Yes and no. I am not very interested in performing at the moment, so I don’t actively seek opportunities. When they come my way, sometimes I take them, and sometimes I don’t. Lately when I do perform it tends to be for private events. I used to enjoy performing more, but I’m really focused on the trips to Spain, writing, and teaching at the moment. Perhaps that will change. I don’t really know, but it’s not my current focus.
Do you have a memory of a particular performance that you would like to share?
Definitely the first time I performed with Ricardo. It was the shortest performance in the world but you would have thought it was the longest. I was scared out of my mind, and I had no idea why he would want me performing with him. Seriously, I can’t even begin to tell you how freaked out I was or how many emotions I went through. He believed I could do it, so I had to pretend I could… And I’m so glad I did. I’ve grown so much from every performance we’ve done together. (Though I still feel I have no business performing with him, haaaa.)
What challenges do you face with your own training living outside of Spain?
Motivation. And staying true to the essence of flamenco.
What advice would you give to your students hoping to study flamenco seriously?
Go to Spain. Definitely go to Spain. Listen to flamenco music. And then listen some more. And then some more. . . Study correct technique. Get it down until your body defaults into that. Practice! Use the amazing resources, like this one, Flamenco Bites, online. This kind of stuff wasn’t available when I began, es un lujo!
Thank you so much Laura!
We wish you all the best with your work and your next trips to Spain this October and November.
If you'd like to find out more about what it's like to be a flamenco dance student in Spain, Laura has prepared a little sneak peak. You can go here to get your hands on it....
If you would like to submit your #myflamencostory you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org