Spanish Steps

Esther Suarez, flamenco dancer, is explaining her art form. "Flamenco is improvised, first of all," she says. "So what you always hear first is the guitar start, then you hear the singing." The singing, she says, is often about profound loneliness or loss, and the dancer must somehow find the equivalent in her movements. "You have to interpret what you're hearing, so it's not just a rhythm," she says. " ... Everyone is improvising off everyone else, it's very much like jazz. Then it's the dancer's turn to do footwork — I do very intricate footwork. Finishing the footwork, you go on to the next element of whatever rhythm you were dancing, it usually has a certain pattern. ... And every time you hear it, you're in a different frame of mind, so you're going to interpret it differently. ... That's the way flamenco is, it changes every time you perform it." I'm talking with Suarez, 41, in anticipation of her appearance Oct. 26-Nov. 3 in Landscape in Motion, the autumn concert of the USF Dance department. Suarez is taking part in a multimedia piece called Recuerdes del Camino (Memories of the Road) choreographed by Jeanne Travers and inspired by the Gypsies of Andalusia. The piece analyzes Gypsy culture in three elements: Indian, Balkan and Spanish. The Indian aspect includes a live singer/ percussionist; the Balkan features a live violinist; and Suarez's Spanish component includes Jose Moreno, her husband, on guitar. Also performing in the concert will be dancers Erin Cardinal and Elsa Valbuena of the Moving Current Company, and Kristi Spessard, who's usually based in New York. There'll be five other dances on the evening's program, but Recuerdes del Camino looks to be the most interesting — and complicated.

Suarez further explains flamenco: There are two types — jondo, "deep," often on the subject of loneliness; and chico, "light."

"And sometimes you're feeling very inspired today, and maybe you want to dance very jondo-type flamenco," she says. "And you'll start a program and then you realize, the audience isn't feeling the way I'm feeling, they need to see something much more light, on the flamenco chico aspect. So you may change in the middle of something."

And even if your audience is willing to experience the darker tones of flamenco jondo, it's not unusual for a piece about, say, melancholy and solitude to end with buleria, a word that means, approximately, "making fun of."

"So you make fun of the things that cause you loneliness, that cause you solitude," Suarez says. "It's very much in keeping with the Spanish mentality, if you will. They're not people who sit at home and mope. They're just not that type of people. Yet they're very deep, so their dancing and everything else will reflect that. But then at the end you know, it's up, it goes into buleria, make fun of all of that and let's end happily."

Suarez should know something about the Spanish mentality. Her parents are of Spanish background, and every summer she and her husband return to Spain to perform in a celebrated tablao, a kind of night club. But it was in Tampa, where she was born, that she started down this road. She began dance lessons at age 4 and made her first professional appearance at 13. She majored in dance at USF but left the school when offered an apprenticeship with the Milwaukee Ballet. Since then she's danced as a soloist with ballet companies in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Texas and Puerto Rico. She's studied classical ballet, flamenco and classical Spanish dance with teachers in Madrid, Cordoba and Seville, Spain, and toured the world with Jose Molina's Bailes Españoles.

In 1991, she and Jose decided to return to Tampa, where Suarez's family still lives. Their goal was, simply enough, to make a living in the practice and teaching of their art. Suarez taught first at the now-defunct Classical Ballet Center of Tampa, then with the West Florida Ballet. Eventually she opened her own studio on Hillsborough Avenue, where she currently presides over five classes a day of ballet and flamenco. (Her husband also teaches guitar there.) As for dancing, "Well, it's hard, but like I said, this is what we live for, this is what we do."

She and her husband perform two Saturdays a month at Cafe European in South Tampa, and at public schools for the Hillsborough County Arts Council. So the return to Tampa worked out after all: "We're very fortunate that we're able to do and make a living out of what we love to do," she says.

Having focused on the improvisational nature of flamenco, Suarez directs her remarks on the importance of rhythm: "You can be a wonderful interpreter and be terrible at keeping rhythm, and there's not a guitarist or a singer that would want to work with you."

But if you can master flamenco rhythm, you can last a lot longer than dancers in other forms: "We don't have the aesthetic either in flamenco that you might have in ballet, where there's a certain line that needs to met, or your legs need to be long, your feet need to be arched just so much," Suarez explains. "We don't have that in flamenco, and certainly your career is much longer because of that. You have people in their 60s and their 70s who still perform. ...

"What it all comes down to is, are you really, really good at keeping this rhythm and then can you interpret on top of that."

And one other thing: "How much passion, how much inspiration can you bring to those watching you." The Esther Suarez Moreno and Victor Moreno Academy of Dance and Music is at 7028 W. Hillsborough Ave., Tampa. Call 813-886-8414.

Movin' on Up There's been some good news recently for a couple of local theater artists. First, Kissy Vaughan, who's delighted audiences in several cabarets at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, has landed a role in the first national Broadway tour of The Lion King. Vaughan will perform the part of Nala in the tour that eventually (2002-03 season) includes Tampa. On the writing end of things, Gulfport resident Gil Perlroth (Sex & Sensibility) has won a $5,000 Individual Artist Fellowship Award from the State of Florida's Division of Cultural Affairs. Perlroth's winning musical is called Thom & Sally, about the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Perlroth's no newbie; this is about his 15 musical.

Congratulations Vaughan and Perlroth. And don't forget: we knew you when.