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Italian-born and middle-aged, her gray hair sculpted in a mohawk, Chiara Mangiameli admits she is an improbable flamenco dancer.
Yet here she is, in the American Midwest, welcoming aspirant flamenco students to Studio Mangiameli, 614 Dempster St., sharing her passion for an intricate, demanding and deeply Spanish art form in an Evanston space that formerly housed a florist and a children’s resale shop.
Flamenco is associated with the Roma (gypsies) of the Andalucia region of southern Spain. It is thought that the roots of flamenco lie in their migration from their origins in northwest India through the Middle East to Spain between the ninth and the 14th centuries. They carried with them songs and dances and such instruments as tambourines, castanets and bells. In Spain, the Roma encountered the rich culture of the Moorish conquerors, the Berber and North African Muslims under whose tolerant reign Roma folkloric traditions could blend with Arab and Sephardic Jewish elements. Here the art form called flamenco flourished.
Tribune theater critic Chris Jones called Ms. Mangiameli “a formidable flamenco dancer.” Art Intercept praised her “elegant persona” and her “drive and desire to share her passion with her students and community.” Yet she worries that her hair, along with her Italian heritage, might make her less “true” in an art form that is entwined with a culture she is not sure she can claim. In her blog,
Ms. Mangiameli addresses “My Struggle with ‘Authenticity.’”
The hairdo she adopted several years ago made her feel free and empowered. But it also set her apart from native flamenco dancers who, without exception, wear black hair slicked back in a bun and decorated with a rose.
In fact, flamenco, which includes singing, guitar, playing, dance, vocalizations and chorus clapping, handclapping and finger snapping, is at heart the expression of a wandering, outcast people. With the late 15th-century decree that everyone convert to Christianity or be banished, the Spanish Inquisition put an end to Moorish diversity.
Gypsy songs, many of which had always been characterized by profound emotion and themes like death, anguish and religious doubt, became the plaintive cries of people “with nowhere to go,” Ms. Mangiameli says.
Flamenco existed mainly as song until the mid-19th century. After that, the focus turned to the dancer, who was accompanied by the beat of a guitar and a stick that kept time on the floor.
Present-day female flamenco dancers use fluid movements of the torso enhanced by sinuous arm, hand and finger sequences reminiscent of classical Indian dance. Women and men alike perform complex footwork and machine-gun-like heel tapping that, when amplified by the mournful cry of a singer, percussive guitar and hand clapping by other performers, can accelerate to an emotional pitch.
Ms. Mangiameli does not remember when her interest in flamenco began, but she still has a figure she drew at age 14. She started her flamenco studies in Chicago in 2002 and continued there and in Seville and Madrid. She opened a studio in Chicago in 2011, then married and moved first to an Evanston home and then, in 2018, to her current studio space to shorten her commute and give her more time with her first child.
Learning flamenco “requires a long time,” Ms. Mangiameli says. Many students drop out within six months, she says, lacking the patience needed to learn this “tremendously complex” art form. Those who do best are those who enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Calling herself impatient, she insists patience can be learned.
She suggests to students that taking pride in the smallest of movements, polishing one small thing in a sequence, is the route to satisfaction and achievement.
For a taste of the ultimate goal, Studio Mangiameli offers monthly performances called OFFSTAGE. On March 22 at 7 p.m., a dancer and singer from Seville will show how it is done. Tickets are $35; the event is BYOB.