We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?


Teresa y los Preferidos

at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium

October 16, 17, 22, and 23

Folk dancing–whether it’s flamenco, African dance, or Appalachian clogging–often creates an immediate connection between dancer and audience. The Western fine-art tradition in dance is primarily theatrical: ballet originated as an interlude in theatrical performances, and modern and jazz dance rely on the theatrical illusion provided by costumes, lighting, and makeup. And often the dances are overwhelmed by their theatrical elements. The audience watches the spectacle passively, behind the invisible “fourth wall.” But the audience for an African dance, urged by a master of ceremonies to applaud individual dancers, could never be called passive.

Folk dancers rely primarily upon music instead of theatrical devices. They embody the music, turning every rhythmic and melodic change into steps. Music’s abstract quality encourages dancers to drop personal concerns and to enter a sort of trance in which the structures and rhythms of the music flow through them. This ecstasy is one of the pleasures of a night dancing in the clubs.

I first saw flamenco dancing in a nightclub in the Andalusian city of Seville. The small company–four women, a man, two singers, and two guitarists–was both exciting and homey. The dancers seemed to literally dance for our applause. The drumming of their heels on the floor said “See me–the person in front of you dancing.” The dancers wanted to be recognized for their spirits; they were putting their souls on display.

Much of the Spanish and flamenco dancing in “Fuego Espanol” has this feeling of dancing in the village or in the local taverna. In a tango choreographed by the renowned dancer La Tati, an older, more experienced woman (Teresa) teaches and challenges a younger woman (Madeleine Gomez). The older woman moves more subtly than the enthusiastic younger dancer, who wastes her energy with flashy movements of her skirt. The battle between young and old, and the iron hand of the old in Spanish society, are clearly delineated.

“Fuego Espanol” shows Spanish folk, classical, and flamenco dancing. A typical folk dance is Danza Castellana, in which two young women in wide-brimmed hats (Sue’s-in Emig and Katalin Sadlicki) sing a song and flirt with a young man (Rene Gonzalez). The classical dances, set to recorded classical Spanish music, use swirling shawls in Pepita Jimenz, swirling skirts in Cumbia, and sweeping arm gestures in Alhambra to create a sense of drama. But all three dances are static, held in check by their uninteresting music.

Flamenco music is more interesting: its sinuous vocal line is reminiscent of Arabic music, and guitars are used as rhythm instruments, ornamenting the complex rhythmic line. Flamenco is usually danced to live guitar and vocal music, and the dances are primarily about rhythm, which the dancers beat out with their heels and castanets and by clapping.

The splendid guest artists who appeared in “Fuego Espanol” offer the living spirit of flamenco. Pedro Cortes’s guitar playing, Cesar Alvarez’s singing, and Dede Sampaio’s conga playing convey beautifully the dark urgency of flamenco music. Luis Montero’s dancing is a wonder. From his forthright smile and precise castanet playing in Pepita Jimenz, a duet with Teresa, to an a cappella dance section of Farruca in which he drums out flamenco rhythms with his heels, Montero is always the consummate professional.


at Centre East

October 23

The flamenco dancer Manolo Rivera was one of four dancers featured in the “Festival of Percussive Dance,” a concert organized by the Old Town School of Folk Music featuring dance in which the dancers make rhythms with their feet. Percussive dance ranges from Appalachian clogging and Irish step dancing through tap and flamenco to Indian kathak and South American gaucho. Wherever music sets toes tapping or feet stomping, there’s probably a folk tradition of percussive dance.

The rhythms of the music set the different kinds of percussive dance apart. Herbin Van Cayseele’s fluid, musical tap dancing relies on syncopated jazz rhythms. As he glides across the floor Van Cayseele, a Guayanese who studied with Sarah Petronio in Paris, produces a loose, flying feeling. Though he’s accompanied by the jazz combo of Paul Arslanian on piano and Ralph Gordon on bass, Van Cayseele is clearly the featured instrument. Some of the numbers feel improvised, as when Van Cayseele enters with bongo drums and performs a call and response with the band, first on bongo and then tapping. In other numbers the band plays from written charts and Van Cayseele performs a choreographed dance with virtuoso steps. The best is a slow blues, which Van Cayseele dances at times sitting in a folding chair. Although the jazz made you sometimes feel like you should have a sloe gin fizz in hand, Van Cayseele’s loose virtuosity captured that moment of the birth of the cool.

Flamenco rhythms, while not as complex as jazz rhythms, have a breathing, felt quality that comes from the musicians tightening and relaxing the meter. A flamenco musician does not keep a metronome pulse but plays expressively, subtly speeding up and slowing down. Flamenco’s elastic meter may be what gives it its capacity for expressing smoldering sexual passion. A flamenco dancer must also have a subtle feeling for rhythm, and a flair for displays of passion.

Rivera and Chicago’s Maya Tatiana lean toward displays of machismo and machisma. Dressed in the short jacket and tight pants of a matador, Rivera heightens the metaphor by waving a white shawl in front of Tatiana as if she were a dangerous bull. Rivera’s showmanship is unfortunately not accompanied by the musical sense that Luis Montero displayed; and the single guitar of Luis Primitive was not enough to evoke the power of flamenco music. But Rivera’s sweetness is evident in the show’s finale, when he gamely tries dancing to an Appalachian fiddle tune.

Liam Harney’s Irish step dancing seems almost mythical, as if we were watching the jig, tap dancing, clogging, and the hornpipe emerge from a Celtic mist. Harney always seems to be six inches off the ground, making intricate patterns with his feet as his arms hang loosely at his sides. Occasionally he presents a turned-out leg forward or kicks high over his head, but usually he floats in that middle ground six inches up, clicking his heels, crossing his feet quickly, tapping a toe on the ground, or landing on a boot heel.

Irish step-dancing rhythms are much more regular than flamenco or tap, and Harney taps out a steady stream of 16th notes, using the different sounds his feet make to form an interesting rhythm. Liz Carroll on fiddle and Marty Fahey on piano and accordion add the headlong rhythmic rush of Irish fiddle music.

Ira Bernstein, the organizer of this eclectic evening, performs the most eclectic set of dances. He starts with a South African boot dance, performed in the diamond mines by black workers. Dressed in knee-length gum boots strung with bells, Bernstein starts a stamping, jingling dance. He sings in an African language and slaps his hands on the boots and his thighs, hunched over slightly. Suddenly Bernstein stops and salutes, stammering out “Attention” in English, before returning to his stamping dance. The dance beautifully captures the lumpen state of South African blacks: tribal dancing in Western working clothes, interrupted by paramilitary terror from South Africa’s rulers.

While Bernstein changes clothes, the fiddler Pete Sutherland does his own eclectic set–a piece combining Scotch-Irish, French Canadian, Ethiopian American, and folk-revival tunes. Sutherland then accompanies Bernstein during an English hornpipe danced in thick-soled wooden clogs, an English reel danced in traditional English clogging style, two French Canadian social dances performed in two-toned tap shoes, a banjo-and-fiddle Appalachian clogging dance, a jazz tap dance with a jazz combo, and finally a clogging dance to a modern folk-revival fiddle tune. The dances progress in a way that seems to carry Bernstein from sprightly English clogging to immersion in the final fiddle tune, in which the daring and rambunctious energy of an American boy shine through.

Bernstein and Sutherland are clearly leaders in the ongoing folk-music revival that keeps alive one of the few indigenous music and dance forms white people in America have had. Perhaps their hope is that by finding a cultural definition for themselves, white people will no longer have to oppress other cultures. Whatever its political agenda, it’s clear the folk movement is consciously creating a new form of theatrical dance. These artists’ energy, creativity, and musical inspiration can only be applauded.