Seattle’s flamenco community has a reputation. When visiting artists travel from other cities or even from Spain to give workshops, they rave. Jackie MacLin, Executive Director of the flamenco nonprofit Espacio de Arte, hears from visiting artists like Juan Paredes, who told her, “You have something fantastic here.” She also says artists like Belén Maya and María Bermudez have commented on Seattle’s scene. “They are surprised at how much we know and at the skill level in this community.” It should come as no surprise. Rubina Carmona, the flamenco dance matriarch of Seattle, has been teaching, performing, and mentoring in multiple aspects of flamenco art for 30 years and it is largely thanks to her and the ripple effect of her work that Seattle’s flamenco dancers have learned and grown so much.
When MacLin first began to teach flamenco in the Seattle area after moving from a strong dance community in Santa Barbara, Carmona reached out, not to provide warnings or explain the rules of sharing “turf,” but to provide encouragement. Carmona remembered what it was like to be new, arriving to an almost flamenco-less Seattle several decades earlier, after living in L.A., San Francisco, and Spain. MacLin cites that one act, of a then-acquaintance reaching out, as being fundamental for building her own confidence and providing a model of how this professional community interacts. “She touches everyone and has a relationship with everyone,” says MacLin.
Carmona’s support of others has not faded over time, in fact, it has probably grown. “She gives her dancers opportunities to choreograph. If you really want to get into it she’ll connect you to other teachers, and singers. She coaches, and works almost as a partner. She’ll even help you find gigs,” says Dani Serrano, one of Rubina’s long-time students and a partner with MacLin at Espacio de Arte. Carmona encourages her students to go out and try their work, and create performances on their own terms. “I’m excited to see students putting their own things together; most people in town have studied with me at some point either singing or dancing,” says Carmona of her legacy. Similarly, her husband Marcos Carmona has taught every professional flamenco guitarist currently performing in Seattle. Says Carmona of their early days in Seattle, “There were people who did flamenco but they didn’t get others involved, but we worked very hard to get people involved.” In 1994, Carmona and her husband Marcos created La Peña Flamenca de Seattle to give performing opportunities to student dancers and musicians who otherwise would not have the opportunity to work together on stage: a combination of dance with live music and singing is rare unless you are in southern Spain and the streets are crawling with flamencos. They produced annual or biannual shows that included dozens of performers. The Carmonas’ final Peña production was in 2017. It had finally become too much—Rubina Carmona was ill.
In 2010, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease clarified symptoms that had begun three years earlier, and though her dancing was not yet compromised, it began a long process of drug treatments and lifestyle changes. Parkinson’s is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time, and is linked to a reduction of dopamine production in the brain, causing abnormal neural activity. Muscle stiffness, tremors, and affected speech are only some of the symptoms; none of these are things a professional dancer wants to hear. What if your spine no longer bends and spirals, if your legs no longer swing, and if you can’t hold a pose or a line due to trembling? What if everything starts to hurt? Parkinson’s forced Carmona to change, but not to quit. She ended up spending a year as an assistant teacher in “Dance for PD”, a national program started by Mark Morris Dance Group with Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group, and is now teaching again at a new dance studio, Seattle Performing Arts, where she limits herself to beginning and intermediate students, as she cannot demonstrate advanced moves. She is determined to continue her dance work.
To that end, she has recently undergone an important surgery that implanted two electrodes in her brain, connected to a chest implant. It’s called a deep brain stimulator. There is a remote control that allows her to set the level of brain stimulation, and it should reduce her dependency on medications to manage her symptoms. She awaits the “activation” of the battery system to see how it will begin impacting her daily life. Carmona keeps a light heart and sense of humor, and much gratitude. She laughs, “I’m happy I’ll be getting my batteries activated!” If this all sounds like a massive undertaking, it is. And Seattle is rallying.
MacLin, and a whole team of volunteers, is producing a benefit show for Carmona on March 10 at Club Sur. “This is where Espacio de Arte comes in, we feel like it’s a perfect way to give her back something,” MacLin says. Serrano adds, “We think she knows, but we really want her to know how much she is appreciated.” They are giving all the proceeds from the show to their mentor and friend, in hopes that it will ease some of the financial burden of taking on such a massive medical procedure. The set list includes nearly all of Seattle’s flamenco professionals, a feat in itself, as well as performers from out of town who were able to travel from Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C. to help celebrate and honor Carmona. “I’m extremely humbled, and very deeply touched,” was Carmona’s reaction. Flamenco de Raíz, Oleaje, and Oscar Nieto are just a few of the nearly twenty-five performers involved. MacLin and Serrano emphasize that this kind of production is a unique opportunity to develop new flamenco fans and expand the audience for it here in Seattle; the variety of performances in one night is definitely rare and will give viewers many angles and styles of flamenco to appreciate. Fittingly, it is the Carmonas’ son, David, who will MC the evening and also perform – he is a talented percussionist specializing in flamenco rhythms, having grown up in his parents’ world of rehearsals, gigs, and constant sound. It is a powerful representation of a living flamenco legacy, bringing more art to the public in honor of his own parents. For those who have never experienced flamenco in Seattle, this just might be the place to start – with a whole community gathered, and an homage to its matriarch.
The benefit concert will be March 10, 2018 at Club Sur, in Seattle. Doors open at 5:30 and the show runs 6:30 to 8:30. An informal “Juerga” (party) follows until 9:30. Silent auction included, food and drink available. Click here for tickets. For more information visit Espacio de Arte’s website and Facebook page.