The staccato click of wooden heels on wooden floors taps out an uptempo rhythm, echoed by repeating handclaps. The arpeggio strains of an acoustic guitar weave a melody in and out, while a singer enunciates vocal phrases in Spanish. A small stage, lit modestly, serves as the backdrop for dancers whose movements ebb and flow in an emotive language: furious twirls, elegant hand gestures, sweeping foot movements. But always, there is the click-clack of the dancer’s shoes, a percussive instrument integrated into the dance known as flamenco, conveying untold romanticism and passion.
We’re upstairs at Duende, the Uptown restaurant and bar tucked into a small strip of 19th St, for “Caminos Flamencos ,” a twice-monthly flamenco showcase presented by onetime SF flamenco queen and current Oakland resident Yaelisa. An Emmy-winning choreographer and Caminos Flamencos’ artistic director, Yaelisa is a second-generation flamencoeista who grew up around the art form. She’s also the founder of the New World Flamenco Festival, an annual event held in Irvine, California, for the past 13 years.
Yaelisa’s husband, Jason “El Rubio” McGuire, is the guitarist. Surrounding them are flamenco scenesters: vocalist/dancer Roberto Zamora and dancers Melissa Cruz and Bianca Rodriguez. About 35-40 people—almost a packed house—watch the proceedings. Some are flamenco dancers or students themselves, others are merely aficionados. One gentleman in a stylish leather jacket, a former resident of Spain, brought six guests with him.
A typical Caminos Flamencos set might begin with McGuire riffing on Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” before segueing into more traditional flamenco fare. Each dancer takes a couple of turns performing solo, as Zamora handles vocal duties and dancers on the sidelines contribute handclaps. If sufficiently moved, McGuire may play an extensive solo, which bespeaks his fluid virtuosity. There is a group dance at the end of the set: last Saturday’s finale with Yaelisa, Rodriguez, and Cruz earned hearty applause and shouted “Ole!’s” from the audience.
It’s all a little surreal at first; one doesn’t expect to hear world-class flamenco in such an intimate space. The fact that it’s happening in Oakland might raise even more eyebrows. But as Yaelisa explains, much of the flamenco scene, centered in SF since the ‘70s, has recently shifted to Oakland. The reasons are familiar: rising rents have made it difficult for artists to survive in The City, and many venues have closed. Meanwhile, Oakland’s diversity-friendly environs have been welcoming to cultural producers and artist types.
In addition to Duende’s bi-weekly events, Sound Room regularly features flamenco, and there’s a monthly Café Flamenco night in Alameda, plus an annual festival.
“A lot of the flamenco artists are moving here,” Yaelisa says. “Oakland is happening right now. It’s a really, really, really vibrant city.”
What she loves most about flamenco, she says, is “Our ability to express ourselves and dig deep inside, to evolve and work with musicians in the moment and improvise… the dancer and the musicians work together. At times the dancer is the leader, then the leading ends up with the singer, and the guitar leads a little bit, so it’s a three-way conversation.”
McGuire, who’s been playing flamenco guitar for 30 years, explains that in addition to guitarists, “there’s always been lots of singers and dancers gravitating to the [Bay] area.” Right now, he says, Oakland’s “got the vibe. It seems like a town that’s really into rhythm, and not afraid of dark harmonies and pulling the light out of the tough spaces and resolving things in eloquent ways.”
What he enjoys the most about playing flamenco guitar, he says, is “Freedom of expression inside rhythmic confines. I feel free in this language to go anywhere I need to go. For a guitar player, it’s a playground.”
Cruz, the dancer, says, “I enjoy interpreting the music, being in the moment, improvising, working with people who are receptive.” When she’s on stage, she says, what goes through her head is “an intention.” She’ll often dedicate dances to people who are important to her or sometimes just memories. Her routines, she notes, are about 50 per cent improvisation. She draws on her personal repertoire of moves, but often she’ll sequence those moves on the fly.
Interestingly, though Cruz—who’s been dancing flamenco full-time for about 11 years– is a total bad-ass in her ruffled dress and heels when onstage, in person she’s soft-spoken and quiet. Any expectations of a diva-like persona are quickly shattered. Her decision to go for a bold move while dancing, she says, depends on the vibe of the musicians and how comfortable she feels in the moment. “The people behind me are about 80 percent of what I do,” she explains.
Caminos Flamenco’s next show at Duende is Dec. 27; details are here.
Oakulture Holiday Shopping Guide:
Shopping local is always a good idea during the holiday season. If you lollygagged and missed Plaid Friday’s downtown bazaar this year—which featured local merchants and vendors, as well as musical performances by Kev Choice, Dynamic, and others—no sweat, Oakulture’s got you covered.
Here’s a handy-dandy guide to local-flavored gift ideas which put a little of Oakland’s famous grit in your holiday stocking.
Clothing , jewelry, and art from local designers says Oakland in a big way. Here’s a few of Oakulture’s favorites:
Art prints from our Town’s vibrant visual visionaries make an awesome holiday gift as well. You can negotiate directly with Orundide, Deadeyes Black Futurist or Miguel “Bounce” Perez on Facebook for their hand-painted canvases, or find prints from local art mavens such as Favianna Rodriguez, Dignidade Rebelde, and Sage Stargate in the Uptown area at Betti Ono Gallery (which also sells jewelry and clothing from local designers) and Solespace (where you’ll also find a collection of stylish kicks).
Dance classes are a surefire way to help nudge someone toward their New Year’s resolution goals and SambaFunk’s dynamic Afro-Caribbean workouts are available in five- and ten-class cards here. Need something less aerobic but still rhythmic? Drum classes are also available.
How bout them Warriors? Our local NBA squad is actually pretty good this year, which may (or may not) be their last in Oakland. Make the sports fan on your list happy with tickets to a game.
Know anyone who suffers from migraines, chronic muscle pain, arthritis, or PMS? Give them the gift of Oaksterdam, with a medical marijuana evaluation by a licensed doctor at 420 Evaluations.
This week’s picks:
Oakland Reconstructed: A New Map
12/4, 6:15-9pm, $5-$10 sugg. donation, the New Parkway, 474 24th St.
Oakland Massive with DJs Chuy Gomez, Pam the Funkstress, Davey-D, Steelo, Zita, J-Boogie
12/6, 9pm, free before 10:30 ($7 after), the New Parish, 579 18th St.
12/6, 6-10pm, free, Solespace, 1714 Telegraph Ave.
12/7, 1-4pm, donation required, 600 50th Ave.
12/7, 6pm, RSVP required, Impact Hub, 1423 Broadway