Stand outside Yaelisa’s East Oakland dance studio on a quiet night and you can hear the sound of dancers practicing their footwork. Inside the studio, about ten women in long skirts are standing in line behind their teacher. She sings throughout her class and calls out guidance to her students as she keeps the rhythm with her hands and feet. The dancers move in unison. The sounds of their stomps take on the quality of a drum.
The flavors of Flamenco
Yaelisa has been dancing flamenco most of her life; her mother passed the art form down to her. She’s the director of Caminos Flamencos, a Bay Area performing dance company and non-profit that offers classes for all levels, from beginner to professional. Yaelisa says she’s committed to preserving the legacy of Flamenco and bringing it to people of all backgrounds.
“It’s not just a dance. You have to study the music, the culture, the singing,” says Yaelisa. “It’s a fully-rounded art form.”
There are four distinct parts of Flamenco: singing, dancing, guitar and jaleo. Jaleo is the the spontaneous hand-clapping and cries of encouragement that audiences and fellow artists give to each other.
The dance itself has a diverse origin. Flamenco comes from the mix of cultures in southern Spain, an area called Andalusia. There are cultural influences from the Roma as well as Jewish, Spanish, and North African flavors.
Duende, or 'having soul'
“It’s born of the people,” says Yaelisa. “It came from poverty and oppression, suppression.”
There’s another important element of Flamenco: duende. It’s something that’s both ever-present and shrouded in mystery. It has many shades of meaning, but it’s sometimes translated as "having soul." Mainly it is the expression of an emotion the dancer or singer is projecting. For Yaelisa, it’s central to the dance.
“It’s like a cry of joy or pain. Or sorrow or anguish,” Yaelisa explains. “It’s a cry for every emotion you can think of, every feeling that a human can have.”
Teddy Milder is a local sculptor who has been studying Flamenco with Yaelisa for six years. She’s had time to explore the concept of duende. “It’s the soul, the spirit, it’s deep within,” Milder says. “And you know you’re dancing when you feel it.”
Mo Awobo, another student of Yaelisa’s, says she likes the emotional catharsis Flamenco brings.
“I feel like ... with all the patriarchal oppression, women get to let it all out and say what they feel,” Awobo explains. “I feel it has a lot in common with the African Diaspora. As a black woman I feel that anger, that duende that they have.”
Awobo says she can connect to that anger in a specific Flamenco movement.
“One of my favorite gestures is the hand flip, because it kind of reminds me of when my mother would get mad at somebody," she says. "It starts with your hand facing inward toward your forehead, and it flips really quickly so it comes up by the side of your head and your palm faces out. It just looks like, 'I know you didn't just say that!' It's just such a womanly, angry gesture, and I love it.”
A surviving art form
Outside of Flamenco, Awobo is a designer and professional belly dance instructor. She says the changes taking place in the city of Oakland are felt deeply within the dance community.
“We are already kind of losing—here in the Bay Area—all the amazing folk arts and the home grown feeling. We need to keep everything we can get,” she says. “We need to keep it all here and not let it get sold out, and to keep people interested, so that places like this can survive.”
Like Awobo, Yaelisa is worried about the survival of the arts community here in Oakland. It’s not just a place where she’s running a dance studio—it’s where she’s made her home. "The arts community is important here, and it gets short shrift,” Yaelisa says. “It’s such a special place, and a ground-breaking community.”
This story was created for our live show, the Sights and Sounds of East Oakland as part of our partnership with Oakland Voices, a program of the Oakland Tribune and The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.