Flamenco Dancing in Spain, Meet Black Flamenco Dancer Phyllis Akinyi
Flamenco dancing is reserved for Spanish people, and only Spanish people.
While flamenco dancing has its roots in Southern Spain, specifically the enchanting city of Sevilla, its reach goes much further than the Iberian peninsula. We’ve already seen how the magnificent Afro-flamenco dancer Yinka Esi Graves who has been featured not only on our site, LMDES, but also in El País, Spain’s most popular newspaper! While Yinka is from London, Phyllis, the gem we’re interviewing today, is from a bit further north. Like, Scandinavia, north.
LMDES is getting to know Phyllis Akinyi even better, and this is one woman’s story that you absolutely don’t want to miss. Get ready to feel inspired by Phyllis Akinyi, the Danish-Kenyan flamenco dancer and creative powerhouse!
How long you’ve been here in Spain, where are you from originally, what do you do for work?
I’ve been living in Madrid for almost five years now, but started traveling to Spain frequently since 2007. I’m originally from Copenhagen, Denmark, with strong Kenyan roots.
What brought you to Spain?
I came for flamenco. As simple as that!
How would your best friend describe you in 3 words?
Grounded, independent, and probably stubborn!
Favorite Spanish musician?
You’re a creative, and an amazing one at that! What has been your experience as a Black flamenco dancer in Spain? Have people been receptive?
Thank you. Well, I find it a difficult question to answer. There aren’t that many flamenco dancers of direct African descent in Spain, or abroad for that matter, so some people may find it surprising to see us do our thing. And although things are changing and people are educating themselves more on Spanish history regarding the amount and impact of sub-Saharan Africans in Spain during the last couple of centuries, we still have a long way to go until people stop questioning or even noticing my skin color in regards to my flamenco dancing.
Personally l’ve felt both. Some flamencos are very positive towards me and some give me side eye. I’m no longer bothered by it. When l was younger and first came to Spain to study flamenco l soon realized that l was the odd one out and it took me a couple of years before l ran into another black flamenca in Madrid. We of course bonded straight away, and it felt good not feeling alone with this weird sense of not belonging. Because no one ever said anything to my face at the academy, but l always felt different. I kept going, kept doing my thing because of my love for flamenco, but to say it has been easy would be a lie.
Today I’ve created my own space, mentally and physically. I stopped hoping to work in the traditional spaces, knowing that l don’t fit their flamenco image, and started my own flamenco events where I get to dictate how it’s done and working with musicians of various ethnic backgrounds. I’m also working on my own projects that are rooted in flamenco but incorporating other styles, music genres, etc. My latest work is a performance piece called Nyar Kakan - I contain multitudes, and it was a piece I needed to do to set myself free. It is a mix of everything I am and all that I come from and although flamenco plays a part in it, it’s not all that l am. (Phyllis has a show in Madrid on April 28th! Get your tickets here!)
Do you have any tips for networking in Spain in the world of artists? How does one go about finding and creating opportunities?
I’m not the best at networking.. Or doing so actively to further my career. I’ve found it very difficult to make friends within my field but I think it’s easier if you’re a musician. There are a ton of jam sessions, at least in Madrid, and people seem to be open to one another. I never saw myself as an entrepreneur or independent artist, but l had to become one. If I want to dance or perform, l have to create that space. And that meant, finding venues, collaborators, doing PR etc.. It’s not necessarily super difficult but it can be overwhelming. So if you feel like there are little to no opportunities for you in Spain, create them yourself! It’s worth it in the long run.
When you find yourself feeling uninspired, how do you recharge your energy?
I hibernate. I’m often on the run, traveling and performing, and sometimes l just need to shut everything and everyone out for a minute, stay in bed and binge watch something silly like Real Housewives (preferably of Atlanta haha). I’ve learned to say that it’s okay doing nothing sometimes. It doesn’t mean that I’m lazy. Self-care is alfa omega for longevity as an artist and self care comes in many forms. After some days of hibernation my body longs to move again and new inspiration will arise.
What’s one piece of business advice you wish you’d received before launching your own company?
Don’t believe anything until you’ve signed the deal. I’ve been naive at times, clearing my schedule for possible events and collaborations and so many times they’ve been canceled or changed. At first l felt very emotional about it, took it personally. But now I know that it’s business. I’ve toughened up a bit.
What’s the most common misconception you’re encountered about dance, specifically flamenco?
Probably that people think it’s Spanish culture. I would say it’s Andalucian. A lot of Spanish people in central and northern Spain aren’t interested in flamenco at all. Plus most of the students you find in flamenco schools in Spain are foreigners. Flamenco survives partly on foreign interest and hopefully there’ll be a larger inclusion of more diverse performers on stage in the future. To me flamenco is a feeling, a philosophy of life. Not a skin color.
How do you maintain contact with your Kenyan (and Danish) roots while in Spain?
I’m married to a Swedish man, so l get to speak Danish at home which is lovely. I used to have a group of Danish friends in Madrid but most of them are gone now. I’m in Scandinavia a lot though as l’m performing there frequently. I also try to visit my family in Kenya about once a year/every two years.
But while Im in Spain, my roots run through me in my dance. I connect with my ancestors as I dance and that’s pure therapy for me.
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