Just what is a nice Jewish girl from Hyde Park, a graduate of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, doing working as a flamenco dancer in Hispanic clubs in Miami? And how did she get to be one of the handful of female professional flamenco guitarists and an expert on all forms of flamenco performance?
Little Cece Richman didn’t go to Madrid as a student abroad and get sucked into the glamorous life-style of the dancers and musicians she observed. She didn’t see Jose Greco dance downtown and decide she wanted to be just like him. No, at the age of 12 she fell in love with the flamenco music her guitar teacher gave her to play, and at 20 she fell in love with a flamenco guitarist.
Until she had her first baby two years ago, 32-year-old Celia Clara (her stage name, which she prefers to go by, derived from her given name Celia Clare) lived entirely absorbed in the world of flamenco. “When we weren’t performing, we were watching others perform or getting together with other musicians in one of our houses to play, sing, and dance together, working until three in the morning, going to bed at six, getting up at three in the afternoon.”
Now, with a second baby, she says “I’m sleeping nights with my babies and going to the park and doing all those mother things. It was complete culture shock at first.” But she hasn’t given up the life of the flamenco. She’s not about to. She’s already gone back to work one night a week in a club and is rehearsing with a dance company that performs every three months or so. And she’s got a long life of dance before her. A flamenco dancer, she says, can work at least into his or her late 40s–“if she’s famous and people let her get away with a little, into her 60s and 70s.”
In Chicago to visit her family, Clara donned her costume, danced a bit for me, played a tape of one of the great flamenco singers, Antonio Mairena, and told me her story.
Flamenco guitar is a little-known art in the U.S. A child falling in love with it will have a hard time finding a teacher. Richman had been taking guitar lessons for four years when her teacher, who taught mostly folk and classical guitar, gave her a book of flamenco songs. She couldn’t teach Clara the technique, but somehow Clara learned the rudiments with the help of a record from her father’s collection. “I loved the technique,” she says, “the rasgueado,” as the strumming is called. “It twirls the sound, makes it dance, makes it vibrate.” Trying to re-create the rasgueado with her voice, she lets out a deep, melodious, emotional, extended “burr” sound.
She finally found a teacher, at the now-defunct Lyon and Healy Studios downtown, and studied with him for about a year, but his instruction was limited to only a small part of the repertoire. “I knew I had to go to Spain,” she says.
At 18 Clara went off to college the way nice Jewish girls from Hyde Park do, but after only one year, she says, “I decided this wasn’t what I wanted.” She came home to Chicago, got a job as a pool lifeguard, saved her money, and in the fall went to Europe, first to Germany and then to Barcelona.
On her way from the train station to her pension she came upon a little square behind the cathedral where several groups of guitarists were playing. She listened and watched for a while, and then approached one group. “I play too,” she said in English. “Let me play with you.” They spoke no English, she recalls, but one of them gave her his guitar.
It was on the same square three years later that she met her husband, Paco Fonta. By then she had acquired her own guitar and was reasonably fluent in Spanish, having spent the equivalent of nearly two years in Spain on and off over three years. She was playing in one corner of the square and Fonta was playing in another. “All of a sudden, he was standing over me and staring at me. He couldn’t believe a woman was playing a guitar and even playing well. We played together and talked and that was it.”
Instead of going home as she was scheduled to, Clara went with Fonta to France, where he was touring with a Spanish dance company. Clara’s eyes were suddenly opened to an aspect of flamenco of which she knew nothing. She had heard flamenco singing in the streets of Barcelona, but she’d never seen dancing. The clubs, called tablaos after the wooden plank the dancers perform on, are not accessible to young girls in Spain. They are far too expensive, Clara says, and women don’t go to them alone. Besides, she thought they were too touristy.
It was a year before she started learning to dance, but once she started she devoted every minute to it. She’s spent the last seven or eight years working steadily in tablaos.
After Fonta finished his tour in France, he and Clara went to Madrid and lived briefly with his family, sleeping in the hallway of their little two-room house in a poor section of the city.
After a few months of studying and working in the clubs, Clara decided to return to Chicago. On her earlier return home she had enrolled as a Spanish major at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and she had one year of schooling to finish. The young couple moved into a little apartment a couple of blocks from her family. Clara worked as a waitress to pay the rent, and on weekends Fonta played guitar in a restaurant called the Toledo in Lincoln Park.
At the end of the year, after Clara graduated, she and Fonta were married, secular Jewish-style mixed with flamenco dancing and music, at the Drake Hotel. Then they returned to Madrid. Slowly Clara’s life was enveloped by the flamenco. She traveled the Andalusian countryside to learn the lore surrounding the art form and some of its intricacies. She played and danced in the Madrid clubs and continued to study for a couple of years. But the competition for gigs was rough. While there are lots of clubs in Spain, there are also many musicians; there is practically no work for flamenco players outside Spain. (The strange exception is Japan; Clara says half the students in flamenco classes in Spain are Japanese.)
Then, unexpectedly, Clara and Fonta were offered a job in a club opening in Miami. Clara was on tour in Switzerland, dancing with the Swiss National Circus, and Fonta was playing in Valencia. One weekend, when he happened to be back in Madrid working on the tiny attic apartment they had bought to renovate, Fonta ran into a friend on the street, a singer he had met in Chicago. “Paco, Paco,” the singer said, “I’ve been looking all over for you.” He was opening a tablao in Miami and wanted Fonta and Clara to work there.
That was five years ago. Fonta still plays regularly at his friend’s club, Cacharrito’s Place; he also plays for Ballet Flamenco la Rosa, the company Clara has worked in since the birth of her first baby. They have put down roots in Miami–they have a condo in Miami Beach–and they expect they’ll be able to work there as long as they choose. Unlike the five or six other flamenco clubs that they’ve lived there, Cacharitto’s remains open and busy, at least partly, Clara says, because Fonta is acknowledged as the best guitarist in Miami. But one of these days, she says, they will return to Spain. It is, after all, where the life of flamenco is nourished.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.