This post was written by Yinka Ese Graves in 2014 in response to a young African American girl who wanted to pursue her passion in Flamenco dance in Spain. Yinka's experience, passion and dedication is motivational to anyone who is looking to make a major life change to follow their dreams.
A while back I received an email from a fellow flamenco lover, a young African American lady who is contemplating coming to study flamenco in Spain with the hope of becoming a professional flamenco dancer. I am touched that she saw me as someone who could possibly answer her many questions about what that process entails…. although I as well am making it up as I go along! Nevertheless, I’ve thought long and hard about many of the things she’s asked me about and felt that sharing my experience might help answer some of her queries as well as anyone else passionate about following their dreams.
When I moved to Madrid, now over 6 years ago, my sole desire was to learn how to dance flamenco. I didn’t have a time frame, I didn’t know why I wanted to dance and I certainly didn’t know what I wanted to do with it… I just knew I wanted to dance as well as I could! I have though, resigned myself to the fact that I’m on a life long quest, part of the reason why I recently had to be very honest with myself about this experience and give myself a deadline for which I’d have to pick up my bags and really put my dancing to use. With that, I mean that at the moment I’m still investing in my dancing, money, time, focus, but I can’t be a student all my life! [How many of us have kept pushing the ‘deadline’ back? I’m sure 2 years ago I said just 2 more years! Ahhhhh!]
I have loved dancing since I was a child. My parents luckily were quick to realize this and put me in all sorts of dance classes from around the age of 5. Ballet, later jazz, modern, african dancing, afro-cuban dancing… the list goes on. I think the only time I stopped dancing was between the ages of 15 and 18 when teenage preoccupations and the prospect of waking up early on Saturday mornings and staying late after school on Wednesdays to get into some pink tights was not appealing. Other than that I have always been drawn into some dance class of sorts.
In the letter I was asked about conflict, insecurity, and doubting my choice to dance flamenco. Como sabes?! My body has always been clear about what it wanted since I started flamenco but my mind had a whole other agenda. I would honestly say that for most part I have been plagued by negative thoughts and frustration.
I studied Art History at University and really believed I would have a career in the arts, that was the direction everything was taking me in, but life decided to play with me. I worked in radio for a while and did some general hustling until I came up with the bright idea of moving to Spain indefinitely to further my understanding of flamenco (which I had started at University and had later spent 9 months studying in Barcelona whilst teaching English).
It took me a good 2 years of being back in Spain and watching myself reduce my teaching (English) hours to be able to practice flamenco by myself, that I started admitting to myself that this was more than just a hobby. Yet still I didn’t believe for a minute (or allow myself to believe) that I would want to dedicate myself professionally to it. Even if I had wanted to somewhere deep down in me, all the odds were against me. I’d started late, was an adult, wasn’t Spanish... so I didn’t really see it being a reality.
I would say that my peers, flamenco friends, who I continue to grow with are the ones who have made me little by little, dream of being able to make a living from Flamenco. I owe a lot to them, their determination, hard work, and amazing advancements, I’m talking about Delara Tiv, Magdalena Mannion and Paula Quintana. We’ve worked in the studio together so much, performed together and in many ways knowingly or unknowingly have pushed each other to be better dancers. I know they’ve done that for me.
Things have happened very organically for me. In fact, I hate to say that not until last year, it’s been thanks to other people that I’ve done anything professionally. By this, I don’t mean that I’m lazy, but I have never felt ready. If it weren’t for Cristobal Reyes who pretty much told me to be in his coproduction with Ana Yerno, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to present myself at the audition. I also owe it to Maria Keck who after practicing together for a while said it was time I performed by myself and that’s how it got started.
Most of us foreign dancers pay for our living costs and classes, short of having wealthy parents or a wealthy spouse (or ideally sponsorship of some kind) by working as language teachers in shops, bars, etc… I’ve been very fortunate to have worked as a guide in France and Spain, which has meant that for periods of the year I’m on the road and not in my dance shoes, but it has meant more freedom when I am in Spain.
I’d say that so far I’m speaking about topics that might be generic for all of us who come from abroad. I was also asked about truths more relevant to an African American woman.
‘What is the flamenco community like for black dancers specifically?’
I was asked a similar question in my New York Times interview last year, to which I gave this answer. If I had been born in Spain, started dancing flamenco at 5 (like many of my Spanish peers did), had followed the path of most of the flamenco dancers here, if I had been born Yinka but my experience had been in Spain with real training most of my life... If today, that Yinka went to auditions and was never taken, when most obviously the only reason was because I was black I would have to say, yes I’m being discriminated against.
That not having been my reality, I do not feel able to say anything. The only person that I know of who ever attained a level to be on a par with Flamenco dancers here was Nicolia Morriss, another Black British woman. She started flamenco when she was 9 years old and came to Spain at the age of 18. By 23, she was dancing in the Seville Bienal with Israel Galván, I mean real amazing stuff! I would love to know what her experience was. Having said that, like most fields that are predominantly white, it can sometimes feel that there are doors that won’t open easily for us.
I’ve learnt a great deal from another friend and fellow dancer, Esther Weekes who has really brought flamenco to her territory. She dances flamenco to jazz in a wonderful group that fuses Jazz and Flamenco aptly named Jazzolea. I don’t mean that that our only choice is to create fusion (I happen to really love traditional flamenco) but what Esther has taught me is that there are so many ways of doing what we love and what we should concern ourselves with.
I have to say, the simple fact that you, like me and all of us coming from abroad in the thousands, more than ever before, are even contemplating dedicating ourselves to flamenco is a sign that the times are a changing. By simply existing, things will inevitably change.
You might have a different experience but being a flamenco dancer means you have to create your life. Short of being born into a flamenco dynasty, there are few jobs that you’ll walk into, even a University degree nowadays doesn’t guarantee employment! I have supported myself working all the time. I don't live from it entirely but I’m working towards that! This is a long long process, somewhat at odds with the quick-fix world we live in.
What I do know is that we’re all going to have to be creative. This might not really the type of career where a step by step plan is feasible. You’ll have to use your antennae to work out your steps, because in a beautiful way they haven’t been written yet. The truth is that very recently I’ve come to understand that whilst there will always be a myriad of better dancers, it simply is not about anyone else. I cannot forever observe myself via other people, instead I’m choosing to trust that for some reason my body brought me to Spain to explore this incredible dance, and that’s all I need to honor and focus on. What keeps me going is that I love how I feel when I dance and the amazing encouragement people give me to continue learning and understanding. Those are the only things that stop me from taking my shoes off and giving up.
I’m a firm believer in taking risks that your insides call for and I genuinely believe that it’s about dreaming in journeys and not destinations. Each person’s journey is unique, my experience cannot speak for anyone else’s. In fact this is the eternal conversation I have with many of my peers and I’m always intrigued to know how other people have dealt with/ deal with this madness!
Here’s a special shout out to the forever growing community of Negras Flamencas (that I know of): Phyllis Akinyi (pictured below), Esther Weekes, Jani Rodrigues, Agnes Nasozi, Tracy Cumberbatch (pictured below Phyllis), Asha Thomas, Alicia at Flamenco Fix and you Sheila Ruiz, and to all the loc@s following a wild dream.
Yinka Esi Graves is a British Flamenco dancer based between Spain (Seville) and the UK (London). Her passion for flamenco is what drew her to move to Spain originally and what keeps her feet tightly bound to the Iberian soil. She describes herself as something of a melting pot, having lived in Latin America and the Carribbean in her childhood and having been educated in French. She aspires to take continue travelling and hopes to take her dancing as far as it will allow her to. She writes a blog called 'on pulses that move the soul and heels' following her journey as a flamenco dancer.