Idaho flamencos tell stories through dance
Stephanie Laishy swirls and stomps on a hardwood floor at the Fort Boise Community Center. She and other flamencos are preparing for a performance for the Mayor's Appreciation Day for Arts, History, & Culture at Boise City Hall.
They dance to the same song repeatedly, working to unify their choreography and dance cohesively. The free-form nature of the dance makes this a difficult task. For the most part, flamenco dancers perform solo, accenting basic moves with character and emotion unique to the individual.
“Flamenco is one person dancing in the middle of a circle with your musicians and your singer; one person interpreting their story,” said Laishy.
This part-improvised and part-practiced craft combines dancing, clapping, snapping, foot tapping with stomping, singing and guitar playing. It’s believed Roma immigrants from Rajasthan in northern India brought flamenco to Spain around the 15th century. At the time, Spain was also home to Muslims and sephardic Jews and these marginalized groups likely influenced the artform.
“What initiates the dance is the music, is the singer,” said Laishy. “So, the singer is saying something and it moves the dancer to interpret, which is why you're not really dancing with another person. You're dancing with the singer's voice. You're dancing with the guitar.”
Laishy brings the artform to Idahoans through her organization Flamencos United, which she founded to spread awareness about the benefits of flamenco dance through performances and teaching. She hosts workshops with all ages in Idaho and shares a message embedded within the dance: art is healing.
Laishy knows personally the healing power of flamenco. In her early 20s, her brother suddenly passed, a devastating event that caused her to question her purpose. Not able to bear living in Idaho without him, she uprooted to Portland, Oregon.
It was there that she remembered an ongoing conversation she had had with her brother. They were trying to understand their family culture and discovered flamenco as a potential way to connect with their past.
Laishy flirted with the possibility of continuing the idea and taking dance classes in a new city. But at 22, she felt too old to start such a complicated, historic dance form.
"It wasn't until I went to a show and I heard the singer singing and I saw the dancer dancing, and the words that were coming out of her mouth, the sounds, were connected."
Sparks ignited with memory and emotion from her brother’s passing and the tears flowed as she recalled the day her mother told Laishy of his death.
“The body of the dancer was exactly what I felt, that I couldn't express. I was able to sit there and finally emote. Finally, I could start to grieve. And I knew at that point that I could start my healing process using this dance form,” she said.
Laishy set a course to nurture her skills and her connection to flamenco, which grew in strength and complexity the more she danced. Her pilgrimage took her to California, where she studied with a flamenco group, then to Spain, where she danced with the flamencos of Jerez and learned their specific stylings.
“One of the first teachers I had in Spain, she asked me about my Native American heritage, and I said, well, Native Americans don't really don't know our roots. We don't have access to that information,” she said.
Growing up, Laishy’s family had moved all over the United States and she felt little connection with the places she temporarily inhabited. She took great efforts to blend in and disguise any cultural background.
Now she draws strength from cultural identity that includes Yaqui heritage. The Yaqui are native to the southwest desert and have a reservation near Tucson, Arizona. They also have a strong presence in Sonora, Mexico, just south of Arizona.
The teacher, who was Roma, expressed sadness for Laishy’s lost connection to past generations and traditions and said that severance caused pain and suffering.
“She thought that Native Americans were like Romas, but American. She told me, ‘Well, because you don't have your culture, I'm going to share mine with you.’”
Laishy decided to return to her family in Idaho, transformed, and with a mission to transform others the way she had been.
"I think a lot of us flamencos connect to these parts of ourselves that we can't physically touch, loved ones that we can't see, or places or a time of our lives, or the expressions. It's also like when you can't express anything, when you don't have the words."
Laishy fully embraces flamenco culture. Now, back in Idaho, she passes on the gift, bringing joy to Idahoans who dance by her side. She says the flexibility of the dance form helps grow trust within a group.
“Our initial training is just to do what we feel. Your emotions are never wrong,” she explained.
Communication is inherent to the dance, though not necessarily through direct means. Laishy rhythmically and energetically calls out to her group as she dances. These shouts are called “jaleo.”
“Jaleo just basically means ‘a lot of noise.’ What they are, are words of encouragement,” Laishy said.
Jaleos guide flamenco dancers and musicians without specifically counting out the polyrhythmic beats or the exact dance moves. Laishy describes the phenomenon as Pavlovian for young dance students, the body responding before the brain. Rhythmic calls trigger corresponding body movements like tapping, twirling or a change in speed.
For flamenco performers, jaleo is a way for other dancers in the group to cheer each other on, without interrupting the beat and distracting the performer.
Tra tra tra
Toma toma toma usted!
The whole body becomes a percussive instrument, expressing the beat and a story. Dancers slap their legs, hips, chest, snap fingers, rotate wrists in or out and mimic characters: the matador, a grandma or a mother. Flamenco dancers and musicians empathize and synchronize their play within the dance, which has great variety and individuality.
“Flamenco has a genealogical tree. The root of the tree, the trunk of the tree are the most free. They don't have rhythms to them.”
Different branches of the flamenco tree relate to different emotions. Soleá flamenco expresses loneliness. Alegrias communicate joy. Siguerillas impart pain and tragedy. There are also the party forms of flamenco: Bulerías, Tientos and Tangos. There are branches that reflect all the art form’s travel. Torantos and Ir y Vuelta like rumbas have African influences, Colombianas are from South America – the list goes on.
“To dance to, I really like Alegria. I really like joy,” Laishy said. “I really like the feelings that come with it, because even in those joyful moments in flamenco and even in that particular style, there's still a sense of like, where you came from.”
The connection between the joy and the sadness, the growth that happens between the stages of life, and the physical embodiment of very personal experiences all come out on the flamenco dance floor. Laishy offers up these connections as tools to her students and her audiences to navigate life and its complexities.
“I know my job is done when I've transmitted my emotions out and it's strong enough that it causes a reaction. I want their hearts to move. I want their minds to go or to start turning.”
This piece was produced for Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.