In The Studio

In The Studio: How Flamenco Vivo Uses Dance to Enrich Underserved Communites

Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana Photo by Christopher Duggan

Inside the Center for Flamenco Arts, you can hear the rattle of castanets and the sounds of Spanish guitar as Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana works on their upcoming tour of Navidad Flamenca, a holiday show they perform every December in each of the five boroughs of New York City. Their outreach spreads from seniors to children with disabilities and working with young girls and women in empowerment workshops.


We caught up with the Center's director and company dancer, Leslie Roybal, to get an inside look at how Flamenco Vivo continues to reach new audiences through community engagement:

Community outreach is clearly a very integral part of the company's foundation. How did that get started?

Carlota Santana and Roberto Lorca who co-founded Flamenco Vivo in 1983 always felt strongly about arts in education. Carlota would take her boom box with her when she traveled and perform for whoever would engage with her. So now we not only do outreach in schools but with different senior centers and community centers in the New York area, as well as internationally.

Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana Photo by Christopher Duggan

Why do you think flamenco has that ability to make change on a social and even political level?

Right now there's such a need for this type of outreach, especially because of the changing demographics of the United States and the large population of Spanish-speaking people. And flamenco ties in all of those cultures. It is an art form comprised of Latin American, African, Jewish, Christian and Arabic cultures, and we're all unified by that language.

It's really enriching on all levels because it's not only the dance that touches people but it's the singing and the music that we do that expands the ways in which we can engage with our audiences.

We recently wrote a story on where to find the best flamenco in Spain. Where would you say the best flamenco is in the United States?

There's a such a thriving community of flamenco here in NYC. Any night of the week you could see some form of flamenco! Outside of NYC there are communities emerging everywhere from Minneapolis to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Navidad Flamenca performances are December 3–9, and are free and open to the public.

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"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

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In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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