Friday, December 10, 2010

Ole! Flamenco by George Ancona

Dancing with the Stars has brought much attention to dancing in the US in the five years it has been on the air (even my local YMCA has started ballroom dancing classes). The same year Dancing with the Stars premiered (2005), the film Mad Hot Ballroom was released documenting the New York City public school system's ballroom dance program for fifth graders. I loved this movie and if you haven't watched it yet, it's a great movie to watch with the family over the holiday break. You can see the children in the film literally transformed over the 10-week period of the documentary, culminating in a city-wide competition.

Each of the dances highlighted in these shows,  such as the tango, foxtrot, swing, rumba and merengue, have a deep cultural history and when adults and children alike perform these dances, they join in the origins, history, movements, music, and performance of the generations who have gone before them to bring the dance to where it is today. I believe that is why watching the children transform in Mad Hot Ballroom was so moving for me.

I think children's books can bring to the forefront the cultural background and history of many types of dance. I believe that reading and deep discussion of culturally specific literature increases students' ability to examine the values, beliefs and events in their personal and collective lives and the ability to view literacy as an empowering force in the classroom. So, of course, I was thrilled when I received a copy of Ole! Flamenco written and photographed by George Ancona and published by Lee and Low.

Ole! Flamenco explores the history and practice of Flamenco, an art form that incorporates dance and music. Flamenco is "the dramatic Spanish art of song, dance, and music." George Ancona became interested in flamenco many years ago when he visited a small village in the south of France and watched an annual gathering of Gypsies in honor of their patron saint, Sara-la-Kali, Sara the Black. At this gathering, he discovered flamenco and, along with his childhood study of flamenco guitar, the idea for Ole! Flamenco was born.

The book follows Janira Cordova, who is studying flamenco with her dance company, Flamenco's Next Generation, as they learn the tools of their art in preparation for their performance at Santa Fe's annual Spanish Market.

Ancona's photographs document Janira from rehearsal to performance while integrating the cultural history of flamenco through a powerful combination of photographs and narrative. For example, the left hand page of one spread displays a montage of pictures showing the many hand movements, facial expressions, attire, and body movements that flamenco dancers use to perform. The text reads, "A dancer's face is never still. Along with arm, hand, and foot movements of flamenco, the face shows what the dance feels through expressions such as a frown, a glare, or a smile." The opposite page is a full page photograph of a dancer in mid-motion--face intense, dress flying, hands moving--while the guitar player sits in the background. Together, the double page spread provides the reader with an understanding of the many layers that go into a well performed flamenco dance.

The release of Ole Flamenco is timely since flamenco was inscribed  in  2010 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity which includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

The UNESCO site is a good resource for learning more about flamenco including a slideshow and video (see below).

 An interview with George Ancona is on the Lee and Low site.

Ole! Flamenco is an excellent addition to the school and classroom library for many reasons. An important aspect of the book is that it provides a link to the cultural heritage of the dance while also showing how the dance is performed today. But, it will also interest kids who are familiar with the dance and also those who want to know more. As a child, I remember being fascinated by the beautiful dresses the women wear when performing the dance and would have been intrigued by a book that provided more information.

Ole! for Ole! Flamenco!

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