Flaming flamenco

Updated: 2012-07-13 07:43

By Sun Yuanqing (China Daily)

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Flaming flamenco

Clara Ramona finds a liberating spirit for women in flamenco. Zhang Wei / China Daily

Veteran dancer heats up the Chinese capital

As the blare from speakers rises to a crescendo, the six Chinese dancers twist and turn, stomping their feet and flourishing their arms in an equally feverish manner. On the other side of the room, their teacher Clara Ramona watches closely, occasionally shouting as beats are missed.

We are in one of her flamenco classes in Beijing, where students become passionate dancers and show a side of themselves rarely seen in their daily lives.

Ramona, who comes from Hong Kong, is herself an accomplished flamenco dancer, choreographer and producer with more than 35 years' experience in the United States and Spain.

The 56-year-old says the dance is finding its ground among Chinese women because of its stress on independence, following its extreme popularity in Japan.

She had no idea that she would be this close to being a regular visitor in Beijing teaching flamenco, when she performed her elaborate work Carmen on the Chinese mainland more than a decade ago.

"The awareness has changed very much. There is strong potential here and the market is growing, I want to be a part of that. Just like what I did in Hong Kong, I was there when there was just a little spark, now there is a full-blown interest in flamenco," Ramona says.

The number of her students has grown from five or six one year ago to about 15 to 20 now. They come from "all walks of life", including working women, housewives and professional dancers.

"For women, it's very liberating to do flamenco. It's very powerful and really develops independence. You don't need a partner, so you can excel on your own. There is no age or physical limit to flamenco. You can start whenever you wish. It all depends on how much time you can dedicate to it," Ramona says.

The students also get the message.

"This is a dance for independent people. Most of us here are single," laughs Echo Qu, an MBA student who has been following Ramona for more than a year and is now helping organize the Beijing workshop.

The dance also opens a window to Spanish culture and its people.

"I studied Spanish in college and I have always been interested in flamenco," says Yao Tianhui, a recent college graduate.

The amateur dancers gather at least three times a week to practice. Once every two or three months, Ramona gives them two-week-long tutoring.

Dancing since the age of 5 in her native Philippines, Ramona was trained in ballet, modern dance, jazz, Spanish classical dance and flamenco in the Boston Conservatory of Dance. She later focused on flamenco as she found it to be her calling.

"Flamenco opens up my passions. My hand movements became more sophisticated. And then you have foot work, and you play castanets, and you create more," she says.

Ramona developed her professional career in the US as the lead dancer and choreographer in the Ramon de los Reyes Spanish Dance Theatre.

Among many choreographies and performances that met with success in this period, her work Carmina Burana debuted in 1989 at the North Shore Music Theatre, Massachusetts, and was considered by the critics as "one of the best choreographies of the year".

Fueled by the successful debut of Carmina Burana in Spain in 1992, Ramona decided to establish herself in Madrid and created her own company, the Ballet Espanol de Clara Ramona.

At the end of 2001, she toured the major cities of China with Carmen, which was met with overwhelming success. Ramona came back three times.

A professional dancer all her life, Ramona can prove a bit "over demanding" toward her students.

"I expect a lot from my students. I want you to learn quickly and move as fast as I wish. Sometimes I ask for too much from my students. You can't imagine how I love flamenco. I want them to love this art form as much as I do," she says.

Ramona was married to a flamenco dancer, and both her sons are flamenco dancers. She also has students who follow her around the world to learn the art form.

Awareness of flamenco has tended to focus on its relation to Carmen, with many Chinese audiences thinking of the performance with the dance and the dance with the performance. But little by little, they are learning more.

"At one time, people thought this was not something you could learn, they thought it was something you could just watch. But now, the concept of being able to do this is happening. So now Chinese women are interested in learning how to dance the flamenco," Ramona says.

While awareness has improved, the problem remains in the gender imbalance of learners because of people's misunderstanding of the dance, she says.

"The problem around the world is how to encourage men to do this. Sometimes I have four or five hundred students and one or two male students. That's it.

"They might think it's a feminine dance. But it's actually not. In Spain, the famous dancers tend to be more men than women. Flamenco is a very masculine and powerful dance."

Being a dancer, teacher, choreographer and producer, as well as mother of two flamenco dancer sons, Ramona finds the art form "a never ending story" in many senses.

"As a choreographer, I see in front of me an ocean of possibilities. As a performer, my age might limit that, then again I might find another form. As a teacher, I will teach until the day I die and pass on this art to my students.

"Flamenco is like wine. It just gets better as you get older. Being technically and physically strong is not the focus anymore, it's the expression and interpretation that count.

"I never run out of ideas. I've done it for 35 years. I'm still challenged. My challenge now is how to introduce and maintain the love for the art that I have to my students. We are not all born to do it. Yet we are trying."

Contact the writer at sunyuanqing@chinadaily.com.cn