Festival De Jerez Week One: Joy, Sadness and Hard Work

1 Mar


I’ve had good luck and some foresight when it comes to choosing flamenco teachers. Generally I select them on the recommendation of other dancers whose opinion I respect or because I’ve admired an artist’s live performances. All of them have brought something different and priceless to the studio and I’ve tried my damndest to put their advice into practice.

This week I went back to square one for Alegrias with Leonor Leal and Tangos de Malaga with Mercedes Ruiz. Both of these Jerez-born women are exceptionally talented dancers and teachers. Anyone who’s read my flamenco journal will know how much I adore Leo’s alegrias and Mercedes performs one of the best ever Farruca’s. Just check it out on youtube.

When I saw they were both teaching in Jerez I registered for both of their basic level workshops thinking I would probably only get one because they are so popular. When I received confirmation I had both and realised I would be dancing almost five hours a day for seven days straight I wondered if I could last the distance. It’s been tough at times but I’ve learned so much from them I wouldn’t have traded the pain for anything.

Both workshops have been at the same venue, the Peña Tio Jose de Paula on Calle Merced. They’ve erected a mirror wall and laid down wood flooring. It’s humbling to dance amongst photos of the great musicians and dancers who’ve performed in that space.

Mercedes is a few years older and in fact taught Leo for a time, so there are several similarities in methodology but many differences too. Of the two I would say that Leo’s approach to explaining how to use your body effectively to perform has been the most relevant to me. She is very generous in sharing her stagecraft. Mercedes on the other hand has an incredible ability to teach choreography through technical exercises, plus deconstructing and rebuilding sequences that takes a lot of the anxiety out of learning a new style. Her choreography flows beautifully.



With Mercedes Ruiz in front of the infamous columns – had regular run ins with them when moving backwards!

Both women have warm, sunny natures and keep the atmosphere light, even when we’re working intensely. They have a strong following in Japan and Germany and both speak some Japanese, while Leo’s English is pretty good too.

Rather than teach by having us simply copy movements Leo uses a lot of visual imagery and makes weird and wonderful sound effects with her mouth to convey the effect she’s looking for. We have been at different moments blowing up balloons, scything wheat, being caged lions and tigers, had tree roots for feet and waded through honey.

Today we were breaking down the basic marking step for Alegrias and doing a pity poor job of it when Leo stopped us and went to get her phone charger. She suspended the cable from the lowest midpoint in her pelvis (yes, that’s the spot) and explained that she wanted us to feel like the cable was attached to us and plugged into the earth. We were to guard that space – no crossing of legs – and keep the cable vertical as we danced. Sounds weird but it works!

The last forty to forty-five minutes of each session we have the singer and guitarist and that’s when I am always struck afresh by how flamenco, more than almost any other music, has a direct connection to my emotions. Even after seven years of intermittent study I cannot keep the smile off my face and tears overflowing my eyes. Even writing this I am remembering the joy that comes when certain notes are struck by the singer and those small flourishes of the guitarist. Pure magic.

Our singer and guitarist por tangos were Tamara Tane and Santiago Lara.


Por alegrias they were Sara Salgado and Miguel Salada.

All were wonderful.

THE SHOWS: I have seen six of the seven Villamarta Theatre shows to date (we skipped opening night as I have an allergy allergic to the style scheduled). They have all been good, some have been great. Amongst the great I count Belen Maya and Olga Pericet (one of my teachers next week, the other being Angel Muñoz).

In addition the young Cadiz dancer Alberto Selles’ first Festival show at the Sala Compañia was outstanding. It is one of the perks of following this art form over the years to see the emerging dancers develop into fully formed artists. He is a shooting star. I saw him again tonight in the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia show directed by company director Rafaela Carrasco. Another familiar face in the company is Florencia Zuniga, that rare creature, a non-Spanish born dancer in a state funded Spanish flamenco company. Florencia is from Chile and I saw her dance many times at the T de Triana, Seville. I should be a talent scout as I marked her from the first as one to watch.

Take a bow Rafaela!


Villamarta Theatre lobby and outside after show – spot the guitarist playing outside the theatre cafe.

Selfie taken while waiting for Alberto Selles midnight show- starting from man in hat and going clockwise Eduardo, Tina, Peter, Simonetta, Vanessa, me.

THE SADNESS: In the middle of the week the living legend of flamenco guitar (and other guitar genres) Paco de Lucia died of a cardiac arrest aged 66 at his Mexican beach retreat. The Festival and the flamenco world in general was plunged into mourning. Tomatito had an anxiety attack and cancelled his Villamarta show for tomorrow night. I may be considered callous but to me it is amazing that Paco de Lucia lived so long. He has been a smoker most of his life and spent decades touring constantly with the stress incumbent in that lifestyle. Given his risk factors the last decade of his life would have been a gift. It’s very sad that he leaves young children but his considerable legacy is his many, many recordings, videos and the guitarists he has mentored and influenced, as well as the other flamenco artists who benefited from his expansion of the genre.

I would imagine the best way to celebrate Paco de Lucia’s life and his work and to respect his artistry and his effort is to continue to the practice and patronage of flamenco and to expand its reach so that generations to come can benefit from this life enhancing art form.

This is a 2011 documentary of the great man. And his latest recording, now in final production will be released in April.

PS: Stuart has passed a quiet but productive week working on rehabilitating his knee at the gymn, having private Spanish language classes and editing his company’s new website. He even saw a few shows too! Sadly, his knee is still not fit for skiing so he’s stuck in Jerez with me for another week.

Working our way through the sherry menu.

PPS: Special mention and thanks to my Aussie flamenco buddies Cathy and Emma from Adelaide. Cathy’s smile brightened the studio each afternoon and I loved having them as Villamarta seat neighbours nightly. Buen viaje guapas!

With Cathy after Leo’s last class.

Festival organisers seem to seat by nationality!

No rain all week, yeah!

This year’s feria fashions



Festival and OffFestival the flamenco options are overwhelming

One Response to “Festival De Jerez Week One: Joy, Sadness and Hard Work”

  1. Donna tickle March 1, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

    Good on you Sharon! You sound so
    happy. Donna. Xx

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