The bottom of Elena Osuna’s skirt flares with each step, her feet pound and her hands twist as she rehearses in a sweltering studio.
A student of flamenco dancing for about six years, she’s preparing for a rare chance to perform with the best: renowned artists who are in New Mexico this week for the Festival Flamenco Internacional de Albuquerque, one of the world’s top five flamenco festivals.
The nine-day event lasts through Sunday and features 40 of the best flamenco artists from around the world, including Teo Morca, Joaquin Encinias, Andres Marin and Alfonso Veneno. This year, roughly 7,000 people are expected to attend performances along with a few hundred students like Osuna, intent on honing their skills.
“It’s an important festival for the United States. A lot of people just can’t go to Spain,” Morca says. “You come to this festival and you can see eight or nine days of some of the greatest artists.”
The University of New Mexico, which boasts the only undergraduate and graduate dance degrees in the United States with a focus on flamenco, hosts the festival.
Apart from performances, there are workshops for all ages. Many of the international students who take part have been coming for 10 years to learn from the best.
“They are opening up the understanding of flamenco,” Morca says. “Let’s face it, in 10 days you won’t become a flamenco dancer, but if you’re sparked, you’ll do it.”
The festival, now in its 19th year, has grown to become a destination for some of the most renowned flamenco artists, said Ninotchka Bennahum, a flamenco historian from the University of Long Island’s Brooklyn campus.
“People want the gig of coming here. They really do,” Bennahum says. “It means something to them.”
'Passion, subtlety, bitterness, sweetness'Flamenco was brought into the American mainstream in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Jose Greco, a famous flamenco dancer who often performed on TV on such programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It traces back to Spanish gypsies, but “in flamenco, there is a lot of fusion of cultures,” Marin notes.
“The music transmits a lot, and it’s very rich in culture,” he says. “I believe flamenco has a lot to offer foreigners today because they feel it a lot like we do. It has passion, subtlety, bitterness, sweetness, it’s interior and exterior, superficial and powerful. It has everything.”
Osuna’s love for flamenco took hold of her as suddenly and powerfully as it did for her brother, Gabriel, who introduced her to the dance.
“It just draws me,” says Gabriel Osuna, who plays guitar. “When it grabs you, it’s like poison. It doesn’t let you go.”
“I couldn’t stay away from it when I started,” Elena Osuna recalls. “For me it’s just searching and then being brave enough to be able to share that with other people even if it is sometimes uncomfortable or embarrassing or you don’t feel beautiful.”
Driven by the Spanish language, a performance melds the talents of singers, guitarists and dancers.
When Osuna’s on stage, she’s not thinking about what other people see in her. Instead, she’s letting the music invoke emotions.
“It’s one of the few art forms that can say, ’You can be ugly, you can be beautiful, you can be fat, you can be skinny, you can be whatever,”’ Osuna says.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you look like. It matters how you dance.”