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On the Town

Flamenco Steps Out

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page WE05

THE FIFTH ANNUAL Flamenco Festival winds up Saturday at Lisner Auditorium with "Crossroads," a program that traces the evolution of flamenco from its origins in Andalusia to more modern, avant-garde styles. Festival organizer Miguel Marin brings many of the world's best dancers to Washington every year, and if stars like Carmen Cortes and Sara Baras have piqued your interest in flamenco -- or if you weren't able to attend any of the concerts -- there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy Spanish music and dancing locally.

Tiny Cafe Citron (1343 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-530-8844) seems worlds away from Lisner Auditorium, but on Mondays, the Dupont Circle club is a hotbed of flamenco. With flickering candles lighting much of the room, vocalist Gerard Moreno and guitarist Michael "Miguelito" Perez take seats on a low stage set along the back wall. Moreno sings upbeat rumbas and plaintive ballads while Perez's nimble picking alternates between propulsive rhythms and delicate melodies.

Sara Jerez performs flamenco accompanied by Michael Perez, center, and Gerard Moreno on Mondays at Cafe Citron. (Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)

But all eyes are on dancer Sara Jerez. She flashes across the spotlit stage, her thick black hair flowing behind her, heels tapping out percussive cadences. Jerez's arms sweep through the air as she turns sharply, gesturing passionately with a red fan that matches her dress. She pauses, clapping sharply to accompany Perez, before beginning a new sequence of steps.

"I've never been to Spain," Perez says later, "but my friends tell me [Citron] is more like the real flamenco" in Spain, when people get together and dance in restaurants and nightclubs.

Perez fell in love with flamenco 14 years ago while studying classical guitar at California State University at Fullerton. The Los Angeles native spent summers in Washington with his mother after his parents divorced, and on one visit home from college, he decided he wanted to learn more about the local flamenco scene. "I called up the Spanish Embassy and asked them where to go," he says. "Who would you call if you wanted to know about Spanish music?" He was directed to the Spanish Dance Society and began to accompany dance classes at George Washington University -- recitals, student shows and eventually professional gigs.

Cafe Citron's flamenco night started in September 2001 and has been a fairly regular event ever since, but even Perez admits the setup is far from perfect. Unless you're somewhat close -- dining at a table or sitting in one of the prized seats at the end of the bar -- it's hard to see dancers on the low stage, and the intricate footwork, the swishing skirts and graceful arm gestures are blocked by heads and bodies. Regulars know to make reservations for tables near the stage or arrive early and stake out a spot near the end of the bar before the two performances, which begin around 8 and 9. (Don't worry: sangria and caipirinha specials help time go faster.) Flamenco dancing is about the nuances in every movement. Unlike most dance forms, flamenco fits the music around the dancer's steps.

"You watch what they do with their choreography, you create music on the spot," Perez says. "Then they hear what you do, and they respond to it."

The vocalist, too, is improvising, playing with melodies that come from a long oral tradition; flamenco dancing was only codified in the 18th century.

This unspoken conversation between the dancers and musicians, Perez says, "is what makes flamenco so alive: It's based on the energy of the moment."

Throughout the night, the musicians switch between various styles of flamenco, from quick-stepping numbers to a slow, dramatic style called solea.

For an unobscured view of dancers, Las Tapas (710 King St., Alexandria; 703-836-4000) may be the best place in the area. General Manager Douglas Bolanos says the Old Town restaurant has been hosting live music for more than six years, and the dining room has a large, high stage for performers. (While you can watch from the bar, it's separated from the dining room by brick arches, which may block the view.) On Tuesday and Thursday nights, a guitarist (either Perez or Richard Marlow) accompanies two dancers, who take turns wowing the crowd. Shows begin around 7:45 and 9; reservations are recommended for the earlier show.

The restaurant offers more than 60 varieties of tapas and some decent Spanish wines, and while the dancers and musicians are excellent, bright lighting and chatter from other patrons dull the mood. On Friday and Saturday nights, local group Duende Cameron provides an excellent evening of rumba and flamenco music in a style influenced by the Gipsy Kings.

Jaleo is best known for pioneering the local tapas craze, but the restaurant has also hosted live Spanish dancing longer than any Washington area restaurant. Each of Jaleo's three area branches features a night of dance performances: Sundays in Crystal City (2250-A Crystal Dr., Arlington; 703-413-8181); Mondays in Bethesda (7271 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-913-0003); and Wednesdays at the original restaurant in Penn Quarter (480 Seventh St. NW; 202-628-7949). Chef Jose Andres and his partners named their restaurant after John Singer Sargent's mammoth painting "El Jaleo," which depicts a flamenco dancer in full flight, and all three branches of Jaleo feature large murals inspired by Sargent's work.

"[Hosting dancers] didn't have so much to do with entertainment as bringing the cultural life of Spain into the restaurant," Andres explains. "Spain and flamenco are very much associated."

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