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KU dance professor to introduce flamenco to new audiences

Thursday, February 20, 2014

LAWRENCE –  Flamenco - a dance of fierce foot stopping, passionate arm waving and intense guitar playing – can be a window into the observer’s own culture.

As the educational curator for the upcoming Philadelphia Flamenco Festival, Michelle Heffner Hayes, a professor of dance at the University of Kansas, aims to create an appreciation of flamenco for those who normally wouldn’t be introduced to the dance or the scholarly works that surround it.

During the festival, which runs March 1-16, Hayes will travel to different neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia connecting a 200-year-old art form to everyday lives and American culture.

“It speaks so beautifully to the experience of life,” Hayes said of flamenco. “Most people know what it is to grow up in families or communities that have really specific languages and cultural practices. When we can step outside of that experience and look at different cultures, it teaches us to look at something we’ve done all our lives as being an exotic art form to another culture.”

Hayes draws parallels to hip hop and jazz in the path flamenco has taken from a form of expression for southern Spain’s 19th century underclass to part of the country’s national identity.

“The forms originated in marginalized cultures that then became part of a commercialized industry and eventually synonymous with a national culture,” Hayes said.

In its second year, the Philadelphia Flamenco Festival will bring internationally renowned flamenco performers and choreographers to Philadelphia, including Rosario Toledo and Israel and Pastora Galvan, who are siblings and part of a Spanish flamenco dynasty.

These artists have helped evolve flamenco into an overt form of social and political critique. Toledo pushes the observer’s idea of gender by presenting the traditional view of feminine beauty, then distorting it in humorous ways. Israel Galvan has used his work to draw attention to the genocide of the Romani people during World War II.

Hayes wrote "Flamenco: Conflicting Histories of the Dance," which was published in 2009 and is one of the few books written in English about the dance. She is currently co-editing "Flamenco on the Global Stage: New Writings in Flamenco Dance Studies," which will be printed later this year.

The book will translate scholarly articles into English as well as pull from amateur historians who are aficionados of flamenco, but haven’t had their works published in academic settings. In the book, Hayes will look at how flamenco has transcended Spain’s national identity to become an identifier in its own right.

“There is an artist in Turkey who says ‘yo soy flamenco.’ Not ‘I am Turkish’ or ‘I am an engineer,’ but ‘I am flamenco,'” Hayes said. “It’s their way of life, their culture, it has transformed into something like a nationality.”