A flamenco dancer on stage looks amazing. But what about backstage, what does it really take to become one? I asked two famous flamenco dancers from Spain, Úrsula and Tamara López, who run their own dance academy in Seville.
Hidden behind a roll-down shutter smudged with graffiti in a back alley of Seville you can find a little gem of a dance academy called ‘Flamenco Danza Estudio’ run by sisters Úrsula and Tamara López. They have been my teachers in Seville and inspire me with their artistry and open mindedness. Let me introduce them to you.
Tamara, me, and Úrsula in front of flamenco academy FlamencoDanza in Seville, 2017. Photo: Hannet Engel
A flamenco career
Eventually Úrsula and Tamara would begin their own dance academy in 2013, but they started out their careers by joining a big dance company. Both sisters had a training of classical Spanish dance, ballet, contemporary dance and flamenco in Córdoba at the conservatories of Málaga and Sevilla and with flamenco meastros like Manolete or Manolo Marín.
Támara danced with the Spanish National Ballet for twelve years and has danced as a leading artist in many productions by famous dancers like Mariemma or Antonio Canales. Her sister Úrsula started dancing in the dance opera ‘Carmen’, directed by Carlos Saura, when she was eighteen and many roles in flamenco companies like the ‘Compañía Andaluza de Danza’ followed.
Úrsula now has her own flamenco dance company and collaborates a lot with Tamara, touring the world together. But this kind of dancing career is only for the lucky few at the top. A lot of dancers perform in small cafés and private venues or in touristy flamenco venues called Tablaos.
Úrsula and Tamara López in flamenco and classical Spanish costumes. Photo © Félix Vázquez.
Interview at FlamencoDanza
I interviewed the sisters López at FlamencoDanza in their cramped dressing room with the stomping of flamenco feet and clicking of castanets in the background and dancers in their training outfits with sweaty faces passing by. While totally getting into the vibe of daily flamenco workout, I asked them:
You do not only teach flamenco at FlamencoDanza, but also ballet and Danza Española (Spanish classical dance). What motivated you to start a dance academy that provides both a flamenco and a classical education?
Tamara: “My own teachers at my first dance school inspired me very much. We always had a dream to start a flamenco dance academy that would give its students a complete education, like we have had ourselves. A flamenco dancer needs a classical training in a lot of ways. For the positioning of the arms, the body, and it aids the technique. From that base you can experiment and do what you want, but only if you know where it comes from.”
Úrsula: “Almost every young flamenco dancer has enjoyed a classical training nowadays. Most of all, it helps to open your mind.”
Tamara López dancing classical Spanish dance with castanets.
Photo © Ballet Nacional de España
“Nowadays almost every young flamenco dancer has enjoyed a classical training. Most of all, it helps to open your mind”
Tamara: “We see more and more modern choreographies in flamenco, but it always shows when someone does not have a foundation in classical or modern dance. I can tell by the quality of movement and the way a dancer uses the space.”
Úrsula López teaching at FlamencoDanza. Photo © Félix Vázquez 2013.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your students are from outside of Spain. Is a foreigner just as capable to learn flamenco as a Spanish student?
Úrsula: “When it comes to technique and knowledge someone from outside of Spain can be just as proficient as a Spanish dancer. But there is a difference when someone was born and raised here, surrounded by flamenco. Flamenco was always surrounding me and I have lived it, so I know how to sing a letra por soleá (a verse in the soleá-style) for example, but I have no idea how I learned it. It just comes natural to me.”
Tamara:“Flamencura [‘authentic flamenco style‘- free translation] is hard to learn. Either you have got it or you haven’t got it. It has something to do with the way of life here. While classical ballet is far more international and a dancer’s nationality doesn’t effect the dancing very much, in flamenco you can already notice the difference between someone from Seville or Barcelona. They have different styles and ways of living.”
Promotional photos for the flamenco show ‘J.R.T’ by Tamara López, Úrsula López and Leonor Leal, based on the art of symbolist painter Julio Romero de Torres. Photo’s © Félix Vázquez.
Did you grow up in a gypsy family?
Úrsula: “Well, you might think that, but in Córdoba we are all a mix of Andalusian people, Moors and gypsies. My sister and I were actually the first flamenco artists in the family, although everyone in my family is an aficionado. We used to listen to flamenco in the car and at home all the time. My grandmother owned rows of flamenco LP’s by Manuel Vallejo, la Paquera and Manolo Caracol for example. My grandfather also sang, but only as an amateur. We never listened to anything else besides flamenco.”
“First discover if you really love flamenco. Only the very best can make a living from it”
What is your advice to the flamenco dancers of the future who want to go to Spain and dedicate themselves to flamenco?
Úrsula: “First discover if you really love flamenco, because you will have to work very hard at it and make a lot of sacrifices. A lot of people only see the pretty ‘packaging’ of flamenco, like the lovely costumes and elegant poses. But if you aspire to be a professional then you will have to commit to it several hours per day. And the competition is killing these days. Only the very best can make a living from flamenco.”
Does classical Spanish dance effect the way you dance flamenco?
Tamara: “I don’t think so. Some people seem to think, that flamenco dancing becomes ‘softer’ when you have had a classical education, but that is not true. If you have the power that is necessary for flamenco, then you will always have that power.”
“If you have the power that is necessary for flamenco, then you will always keep that power”
Úrsula: “I learned classical Spanish dance and flamenco at the same time and there was nothing exceptional about it. In classical dance classes, I danced classically and in a flamenco class, I danced flamenco. I never mixed the two.”
Tamara: “FlamencoDanza is not for classical ballet dancers anyway. You need a very specific technique for ballet and certain physical requirements. We are an academy for flamenco dancers. I teach Spanish classical dance that is suited for every body type and prepares the students for a career as a flamenco dancer.”
Úrsula López at the Flamenco Festival of Jerez 2013.