A Latina Teaches Dance and Awakens Ancient Culture

A Latina teaches dance

It was in a beautiful house at the corner of Candelaria and Edith in Albuquerque, N.M., that Eva Encinias-Sandoval grew up. From her childhood home emanated the sounds of guitar and the Spanish Gypsy Cante Hondo, when visitors and locals gathered with her family for music and song far into the night. Accompanying these rich sounds was flamenco dance, an art form that Sandoval’s mother taught to hundreds of youngsters and to her own children in a studio connected to their house.

Today, as full-time professor of flamenco at the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) Theater and Dance Department, Sandoval has shared her rich upbringing with countless students. They’ve awakened to the passion and culture of flamenco in her dance classes, which date back to her first days teaching at UNM in 1976. In addition to her work at the university, the ambitious professor has built a world-renowned National Institute of Flamenco, established in 1985. Today this institute includes a popular flamenco conservatory, three performance groups and an impressive Festival Flamenco Internacional that draws performers and audiences from around the world to Albuquerque each June.

When Sandoval teaches, she lifts her head up high and stands proud – at times calling out “Olé” – demonstrating to her students the passion, grace and ferocity of a dance form that has evolved from as far back as the 1400s in Spain, when Gypsies migrated to the Iberian Peninsula. “This dance and song became a voice and expression for the Gypsies who were prosecuted,” she tells her students, reminding them that flamenco is an art form that carries a deep history of culture on its back.

These persecuted people established themselves primarily in Andalucía, Southern Spain, where the Arabic influences were strong and blended with the forms of expression the Gypsies had already brought with them from faraway lands. First came the Cante, a powerful cry out of longing, in the 1600s, and then the flamenco guitar and dance that accompanied the song. These art forms were performed privately in Gypsy caves, out of fear of persecution for their political undertones, before finally becoming popularized in the 1800s, Sandoval explained. “Flamenco became like the blues in the way that these African spirituals in this country became popular.”

When the UNM professor speaks, she does so with a love and fervor far different than that of an academic who’s spent years studying and researching a subject matter. For Sandoval, her teachings come from her blood, from generations of flamenco dancers and singers in her family. She carries with her a lineage that has maintained a profound connection to the old Spanish culture through centuries of New Mexico roots. “My family has been in Albuquerque for hundreds of years. It is clear that we were one of the first families that came to this area when it was settled,” she said. “In the time of my grandparents in Albuquerque, Spanish was the main language spoken here. And I am sure that Spain was part of my heritage, but I don’t know how and when.”

For Sandoval, knowing exactly where her family came from in Spain or elsewhere seems less important, though, than carrying on a Spanish tradition that clearly connects her with her ancestors. She still recalls how her mother would sing old Gypsy songs as she did chores on the patio of their house, or how her grandmother would sing Cante Hondo from her wheelchair.

“It was a part of our family’s history. My mother was dancing flamenco in the 1940s, and I assume that tradition came through my grandmother, Juanita García. She was a Rezadora and would sing for funerals,” she said. “As far back as I can remember, my mother also had students. I started performing when I was about 6 or 7 – my brother and sisters and I would take classes with my mother, and we’d do state functions and public gatherings. I can’t remember a time when flamenco wasn’t a part of my reality.”

Sandoval was so immersed in that world of Spanish song and dance that when she began attending public school she was actually shocked to find that other children weren’t living the same way.

“I remember when I went to school it was traumatic. I realized that there were a lot of people who didn’t dance. ... Before that, I assumed everyone danced,” she said. “It was very odd for me because all my cousins and people in my family were involved with song and dance. We often had musicians living with us, and so we had an opportunity to practice a lot, singing with the guitarists, studying guitar and dancing.”

Since then, she has taken the seeds given to her by her mother in her early years and planted those far beyond her childhood home on Candelaria Street.

While living at home, she performed flamenco with her mother and traveled throughout the U.S. and Mexico to study with flamenco artists. But then, by her early 20s, Sandoval founded her own dance company, “Ritmo Flamenco,” and began studying dance at UNM. While studying the more common dance forms such as ballet there, her incredible talent in flamenco became apparent.

“I was two years into my dance program, and UNM asked me to start teaching for them. They realized I had been dancing all my life in a form they were curious about,” she said. “That was a fantastic experience – to be exposed to the way dance is taught in a university. It helped me prepare myself for when they asked me to teach.”

Today the program focuses solely on flamenco.

“Every year, hundreds of students are exposed to this art form. It opens up a world for them,” she said. “When people come here from Spain and realize that we have this program, they are blown away because they don’t even have anything like this in Spain. People come from all over the world for this.”

Flamenco is considered a new art form in these university circles, explained Sandoval. And it just started to be set down in a teachable fashion in the ’50s and ’60s, and it isn’t like ballet or tap that have had a history as curriculum of study in universities.

Sandoval teaches up to four classes a semester at UNM, including flamenco history and musical improvisation classes. She instructs both introductory classes and high-level courses, while attending the usual academic meetings and taking on committee activities. “I teach at all levels of the university.

“I like to work with brand new students coming in from engineering or other majors who decide to take the class just for the fun of it. Eight times out of 10, these students want to continue to study. They start to find that they are moving out of earth tones and into more vibrant colors, and they begin finding that part of themselves – the red, the yellow, the crimson – that they hadn’t tuned into yet. They enjoy being abandoned for a while and feeling OK with that,” she said. In her lower-level classes, she said, “I get students to be comfortable working out of their comfort zone. Flamenco should never be comfortable. It should always be putting you on the edge. We as Americans are reluctant to be overly emotional and to show any extreme emotion, especially the young people. But they come here, and they enjoy that.”

When her students are first introduced to flamenco, Sandoval finds they often arrive with a stereotypical idea of this as a sensual female dance. Although this is true, this art form is more than that.

“Flamenco is a social and cultural experience that opens up students’ eyes to how grand something can be. They see how accessible something as exotic as flamenco can be for them,” she said. “It can create in them an energy and focus that many of them don’t have any idea that they have. I have studied other dances – modern, African, ballet, etc. – but I have never found a dance form that demands the focus of energy that flamenco does.”

Dancing Flamenco

This “focus of energy” is something Sandoval also teaches in her flamenco conservatory classes for younger children nights and weekends. And beyond her classes, she leads these youngsters in one of the three institute performance companies, the young children’s company, Niños Flamencos, and she conducts a Flamenco Kids Camp every summer. (Her grown children run her other two companies – Joaquín Encinias is director of “Yjastros,” and Marisol Encinias manages “Alma Flamenca.”)

“I hadn’t taught younger children for years, and when we opened the conservatory and I had a chance to teach these kids, I really loved it,” said Sandoval. “I got so much from flamenco as a child, and it revolutionized my life.” Children studying flamenco with her today, she said, “find their self-discipline and sense of self.”

In addition to teaching at UNM, teaching the younger students and running a performance company, Sandoval oversees other aspects of the National Institute of Flamenco programs. Her son manages the institute’s conservatory, which conducts 50 to 60 classes a week, up from six to seven classes a week during the program’s infancy in 1985. But the most ambitious of her projects, the Festival Flamenco Internacional, has taken additional work and money to achieve the worldwide stature it enjoys today.

“When we began the festival in 1997, we couldn’t afford to bring in artists from Spain. We brought artists from the U.S. and had two to three performances a day. For the festival workshops, we offered beginning, middle and advanced classes. It was received with tremendous enthusiasm, and our local audience of that time loved it,” explained Sandoval. “Every year, I’d add another artist and workshop per day, and little by little it kept growing. The first five years, we had U.S. artists, and then for our fifth anniversary we invited one artist from Spain. The audience went crazy. So I knew I had to keep pushing the envelope, and eventually it became a two week festival with two weeks of performances.”

Sandoval maintained that growth for five years, and then, when times got a bit tougher, she shortened the festival to eight days. But they were still bringing in 30-plus artists with 20 workshops, and up to 50 artists from Spain. Unfortunately, the institute had to cancel the festival in 2009 – two summers ago – because of the economy.

“The festival is the most costly of endeavors. Every year, we lost money to be able to make this available to our students and students around the country,” said Sandoval. “But we figured that loss would take a dramatic rise in 2009. We figured most people from out of state would have a difficult time coming. That became a dangerous endeavor to put on.” “We brought it back last year and shortened it a bit. We had fantastic artists and a great turnout!” she said.

Although Sandoval has traveled many times to Spain, to Andalusía, where flamenco took root – and where the physical similarity between the Spanish and New Mexican land and people is “striking” – she has made New Mexico the most popular home away from home for flamenco in the United States.

“We have really tried to build flamenco here.” In New Mexico, she says, people “understand flamenco on a deep level as a form of expression and not just entertainment. When world-class artists come here from Spain, they always note that there is something about our audience here that has a reverence for this art form.”

“I take seriously being a teacher, and teaching people about themselves, helping them realize themselves in ways they’ve never known. I think my mother would be proud to see what she nurtured.”