Ten years ago, my husband Jim and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary in Madrid and Gijón. Our list of sights to see and events to take in was modest, but at the top was a café flamenco performance. I had seen stage and film productions, but wanted to see it up close in a café in Spain. The café we chose wasn’t an intimate one, our seats were in the back, and the distractions of the dinner they served before the performance made it feel as if commercialization had eclipsed authenticity, but there was no denying that the dancing transcended the pesetas, with a layered jaleo that cried out beseechingly to draw us into the drama unfolding on the smallish stage. It was the individual personality of each dancer, dressed in bold polka dots or rich rioja or canary yellow, burnt orange or the verdant green of the rough-hewn countryside, whose steady gazes burned holes through black mantillas and the drifting smoke, which stole my heart. Each contributed to a sure-footed zapateo dispatched from the “Spanish back,” held and high with shoulders angled downstage, and the syncopated tempos of feet, shouts, cries, guitars and clapping—made this dance form come alive. The dancers were all Spanish, and Spanish- looking in the ways we are groomed to expect: women with porcelain skin and chiseled features, or dark skin and long bones, men with taught jaws and hips that gave definition to the term “kinetic energy.” Among them was one huera, a blond, and when we consulted the program we saw that she was from the United States, and in a simple and shameless tourist kind of way, were proud that our countrywoman qualified to join this troupe of veteran professionals. Her name was Cristina Hall.
A short time later, I was lucky enough to see another flamenco performance in the Bay Area, and the ubiquitous Ms. Hall was in the program there and once again, she thrilled the audience. A number of years passed, and I met the San Francisco artist, Ana Teresa Fernández, who on occasion accompanied me to dance events. She mentioned her new interest in flamenco, having met a dancer she was eager for me to meet. The dancer’s name was—Cristina Hall. Since Cristina and I were both busy with various projects, the opportunity to meet was put on hold until this past week, when Cristina Hall gave a series of workshops in San Francisco, and I was able to attend one of them in a small studio on McAllister Street.
Hall was born and raised in San Francisco. She began her artistic life not as a dancer, but a violinist. Shortly after moving to Seville in Spain, she began studying with such flamenco masters as Eva Yerbabuena, Israel Galvan, Antonio Canales, Farruquito, and Andrés Marin. Her credits with famous flamenco dancers in Spain are many, and she danced in the 2004 Torero Al-lucinogeno show at the Teatro Central in Seville, and performed in the 2005 Tercer Festival Annual de Flamenco in Vancouver. In 2011, she was a finalist in the London Sadler’s Wells choreography competition for her piece Blackbird. Recently, she placed second in the Concurso Internacional del Tablao las Carboneras de Madrid.
Six women dressed in practice clothes and wearing special character shoes with tiny nails banged into the heels, stood facing Hall and the mirror behind her. Each pair of shoes is something to carefully observe, for its individual style, the material it is made of (leather or suede), and the heel height.
The class opened with stretches. Feet, while in parallel, were shoulder width apart. The students reached high above their heads and then all the way down to the floor. They lifted their shoulders to do rolls forward and back, and then head rolls. The dancers then extend their arms to the side to do arm rolls, and Hall tells them in English, “You want to isolate the ribs,” as she lifts hers to demonstrate, and counts in Spanish, “Un, dos, tres y cuatr’.” She urges the dancers to engage the middle back as they extend the arms. The hands are flexed and roll open and closed into a fist and back again, wrists rotating the whole time. “Center the stomach, knees over toes, and not like this,” she says, indicating that she wants no hyperextension. She lunges into a wide fourth position and shows how to square the shoulders. “Feel the weight shift from one foot to the other.” She gives the remaining directions in Spanish and English, “Subimos, left foot lifted and knee turned out, but bent. Bring it around. Make sure you have a triangle aqui,” and she points to where the legs join the pelvic bone. “Now, turn and place the leg in back. Weight is on the balls of feet. The torso is lifted. Plié, and bring the foot around. And turn. The head is always the last to turn. Spotting is important. We will practice spotting later.”
Hall’s students are picking up the combinations and incorporating her corrections handily, but some show that they have more attack than others. “Plant the foot behind. Never dance in relevé, always grounded,” she advises. Un dos, tres, cuatro turn!”
Arm movements are a veritable anthology of the flamenco oeuvre. While they rarely go swan-like as in ballet, they tell about flight (see YouTube of Hall dancing to Nina Simone’s Blackbird shown here:
They also express frustration, exasperation, murder, mayhem, and love, careless, intentional, and unrequited.
Cristina tells the class to draw a straightened arm across the opposite shoulder, and raise any lazy elbows. The upper torso moves to a breath. Students are getting both the fullness and the economy of it. As they stand with arms raised and palms facing out, the women manipulate their hands in sequence in what is called Muñeca. There are no castanets, but it is easy to imagine how easily these could be incorporated as the dancers wave their hands from side to side at pelvis level, adding a little pop at the end. Muñeca does not mean “doll,” as one might assume by thinking of the movements in the doll-themed ballet Coppélia. It means wrist. This is not so much a decorative flourish as a clean accent.
“When you come across with the arm, no elbow. Arms are low. It us not the hip that moves, but the upper body,” Hall counsels, reverting to Spanish syntax, even when speaking in English. “Arms sweep past the face, but not higher. . .” Then she shows Double Muñeca. “No shoulders.” She steps forward into a fourth position lunge to show how it transitions to another shape with a transfer of weight. One hand slides down the inside of the other, while both extend above the head. When the dancer lowers her arm it should descend naturally. . . “Just flip the hand and let it come down.”
The students are rapidly aggregating the steps of the dance Hall is building before their eyes. They open their arms, a hip juts out, and they flip their hands. They align their arms against the space between the hip and ribs. They circle the arms using an impulse from a raised shoulder. Hall reminds them that it all starts with a breath. “If you don’t breathe, the shoulders freeze in place. Don’t let the back go too far back.” I am noticing a fluidity that was not present earlier. I see how the face can nest in the space between the upper arm and side of head. “Get rid of your elbows! Rise with a breath and then lower. If you don’t breathe, there’s too much tension and you can’t make the movement flow. Arms rotate from the elbow, reversing on last count and rising to the head.”
As Hall adds a modified pas de cheval, we realize that she is giving sophisticated corrections that couldn’t have had the same impact at the beginning of the class. She tells her students to plié so that they may feel grounded in their wide stance, and then explains that the hip never moves from side to side, but more forward and back, and that to really feel this, one has to get fully seated and low in the plié.
“The head follows the hand.” Now smiling broadly, she demonstrates slamming the back foot onto the floor behind her, then in front, so that we hear the stamp each time. The hand slaps the thigh, though the elbows stay softened. The hip movement isn’t perfunctory: It’s sustained. With the neck and head held, the dynamic of the body is circular, and rounded in a kind of upper-body barrel turn that is technically impressive, but even more so when Hall tells the dancers to “let go a little,” and the arms relax a bit.
Toward the end of the workshop, after Hall has shown the women how to show themselves that they can master the steps, she emphasizes how to use the legs. “Use the legs fully, extend them! You’ll be in a skirt, so you can’t see, but you have to use the same energy as in the golpe (stamp) in the rond de jamb (bringing the leg around and behind the body). Try not to be inside so much. I know you’re thinking internally, but. . . don’t dance that way!
Cristina Hall will be performing with Carola Zertuche in Flamenco en Movimiento. San Francisco: November 11 & 12, 2011, Friday & Saturday, 8 PM?November 13, 2011, Sunday, 3 PM Marines’ Memorial Theater San Francisco. Contact Marines’ Memorial Box Office, or for more information, click on: www.theatreflamenco.org.