Duende is generally considered one of the hardest words in Spanish to translate into English. The term refers to a kind of magic and passion that happens in the best flamenco performances.
The art form is rife with technique and closely counted rhythms, but no one can ever excel at it without understanding it instinctually—by trying to tap its soul, its duende.
As Rosario Ancer and Victor Kolstee reflect on 25 years of teaching flamenco in Vancouver, you get the feeling it’s that passion that they’ve most passed on to their thousands of students, and the city at large.
“It’s about understanding what flamenco is and that it’s not just getting up and making noise with your feet and clapping your hands,” explains Kolstee, the flamenco guitarist who met the Mexican-born dancer Ancer in Spain, before training with her in Andalusia and then marrying her and bringing her to his hometown of Vancouver.
He’s sitting with his wife in their atmospheric studio on Alma Street, a subterranean space with warm wood floors, a bright-red wall, and artistic touches that conjure the sunbaked southern reaches of the Iberian Peninsula.
“We lived and worked in Spain for years and we picked up all these nuanced things that if you are removed are hard to pick up. And we are lucky to be acquaintances with great artists,” says Ancer, who still teaches advanced classes at their school, though she is cutting back these days from its six- to seven-day-a-week commitments. “Unquestionably, you need technique to do flamenco, but if it’s only technique it’s not enough. So it’s more about understanding flamenco. That’s what you get through our experiences—we want to pass that knowledge.”
The dark-haired dance artist, who still looks every part the flamenco bailadora, adds with flourish: “You have to show the poetry when you dance. You have to find the extra thing.”
When Kolstee and Ancer arrived on the West Coast just over a quarter-century ago, flamenco was not nearly as popular as it is today. Kolstee, who’s holding his ever-present guitar, laughs to remember that a lot of people thought it was just “something you do in restaurants”.
“Now it’s everywhere; it’s a different time—but I’m so glad we started when we did,” he says. “Now everybody’s into ‘Internet flamenco’. We are in a culture of ‘easy’, and ‘I want results now.’ People do expect quick results, and I’m glad I’m not starting in the age of the Internet, because the mystique is gone.
“Back then, there were hardly any books about it,” Kolstee recalls of his days as a young musician discovering the art form here. “Most of my information I got from the back of album covers. I saw these pics and it inspired me to go there [to Spain]. And the first time I saw a guy sing, I got goose bumps.”
Centro Flamenco has never been about instant results for Ancer’s students, who range from six-year-olds to septuagenarians and will be showcased in a special anniversary show called La Cosecha this Saturday (June 20). Ancer carefully built a progressive curriculum at Centro. Meanwhile, she set up the separate Flamenco Rosario Company for professional training, and eventually founded the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival, which takes place each September.
“There are no shortcuts!” she says, smiling and snipping her fingers like scissors. “It’s work, work, work. We are very strict and are trying to instill a respect for the art form.”
Early on, the reputation of Centro’s programs spread by word of mouth; flamenco was then a novelty in the city, Ancer supposes. But the school grew along with the form’s popularity. Today, Centro Flamenco offers everything from introductory courses in palmas (flamenco’s handclapping) to advanced classes in dancing styles like bulerías and alegrías. It also brings in celebrated guest artists for workshops, with Spanish star La Moneta coming to Centro for an intensive next month.
With Centro Flamenco’s evolution came a wider respect for the art form in this city, which is now home to several schools that teach it.
“In the beginning, when Rosario started to ask for grants, it was hard to find room at the table,” Kolstee reflects. “That’s been difficult. She’s been one of the ones that’s been fighting for recognition.…It was a process; you had to keep your foot on the gas to keep that going.”
The results of all that hard work should be clear in the celebratory La Cosecha, which features performances by Kolstee, singer Jafelin, percussionist Davide Sampaolo, dancers from Centro Flamenco, and special guests from the Flamenco Rosario professional-training program: Kara Miranda and Katia Flores, in works choreographed by the likes of Seville’s Leonor Leal and Madrid’s Marien Luevano.
Though she’s developed her reputation on rigorous training, Ancer says that, 25 years into her teaching here, she is always proud to see the progress her students make and the passion they show on-stage. “It’s amazing to see the transformation. You bring joy to people—and not just those who want to be professionals,” she says.
And flamenco itself? Clearly, it still speaks to Kolstee and Ancer’s souls and ignites that duende after almost a lifetime of studying and teaching it.
“We are still moved to tears,” Ancer says.
Centro Flamenco presents La Cosecha at the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday (June 20).