Washington Park dance company receives Mayor’s Award

Flamenco Fantasy Dance Theatre has been in the area since 1968

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In a small house off Emerson Street near Washington Park, a small group of dancers rehearse flamenco — a Spanish dance that celebrates a melting pot of cultures of southern Spain, accompanied by smooth guitar music and the swirl of colorful skirts and costumes.

The living room space of the house has been converted into the dance studio of Flamenco Fantasy Dance Theatre. Walls on one side are lined with mirrors, so dancers can carefully watch their footwork while working on choreography. The other side is dedicated to musicians. The dance group’s founder and choreographer René Heredia can be found here, plucking away at his guitar along with a drummer, singer and second guitarist.

Diane Lapierre, a principal dancer and executive director of Flamenco Fantasy, leads several dances during the rehearsal. Lapierre said she always loved to dance, but for her Flamenco is special.

“When I found this art form, it really just spoke to me. I enjoyed it so much,” Lapierre said. “It’s just a visually stunning art from as well.”

Lapierre, who also goes by her stage name, La Diana, has been dancing with Heredia for more than 20 years. She had studied ballet and jazz and, in 1996, joined her sister for her first beginner’s flamenco lesson in the house studio on Emerson. Since then, she has traveled throughout Colorado performing with Heredia and the rest of the company.

At the back of the studio is Heredia’s office, where he also teaches guitar lessons. The walls of the house are lined with photos spanning his career — playing music for famous flamenco dancers and performing for royalty and politicians around the globe.

The Flamenco Fantasy Dance Theatre has been in Denver since 1968, when Heredia decided to make his permanent home here. The company moved into the Emerson studio space, 602 S. Emerson St., in 1974.

Born in Granada, Spain, Heredia grew up in the gypsy culture, learning the world of flamenco from a young age. He began performing at age 10.

Early in his career, Heredia said he would spend 10 to 12 hours a day practicing, adding that to do something that much, you really have to love it. He joked he was called the “godfather of flamenco” when he first performed in Colorado.

“I planted flamenco here (in Denver), ‘cause when I came here there was only folk music and jazz,” Heredia said. “It’s part of me. I love playing the guitar, I love flamenco. It’s what I do, I’ve been doing it all my life.”

Last year, the dance company received the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts and Culture, given annually to orgnanizations or individuals making a lasting impact on the arts in Denver.

“I’ve put a lot of time and years into Denver, but it’s also rewarded me,” Heredia said. “All of this that I have here, I won it with this wooden box and six strings.”

Four years ago, Lapierre took over as executive director of Flamenco Fantasy. She hopes to continue to promote Heredia’s artistic legacy and the history of flamenco in Denver. Learning from Heredia was a large part of the reason she enjoyed flamenco so much, she said.

“A lot of it is the history and the rhythms and, quite frankly, a lot of it is René,” Lapierre said. “The fact that we have somebody like him in the community to learn from is amazing.”

The music for Flamenco Fantasy, as well as all the dances, are created by Heredia. He likes to draw from the more traditional flamenco dances, which started in Spain in the late 1400s. Flamenco evolved from a mixture of four musical cultures: Castilian music from Spain, Arabic music, Sephardic Jewish music and the gypsy music, Heredia said.

While the modern styles of flamenco have been innovative, Heredia said he prefers the older traditions. Both the music and dancing of modern flamenco has started to incorporate other styles and genres. Costumes have also changed. On the dancing side, Heredia said more acrobatics have been added. Sometimes dancers pause on the stage to catch their breath.

“You break the aura of the dance when you do that, and I don’t agree with that,” he said. “They want to be innovative, but they’re not really creative.”

The challenge, he said, is to create something new within the traditional “circle of flamenco.”

Women dancing the flamenco wear long skirts and ruffled sleeves, along with scarves and shawls. In performances, the women will also wear hair ornaments such as roses. Polka dots on the dresses are very symbolic in gypsy culture, Heredia said. Dancers wear polka dots to symbolize the moon. Other symbolism comes from the gypsy flag.

“The top of it is blue, the bottom of it is green and in the middle there’s a spoked wheel there, because gypsies used to travel in wagon wheels,” he said. “The blue is the sky and the green is the Earth. The moon is very important to the gypsies because at night it’s the only light they had.”

Accessories are also used in Heredia’s choreography.

Handkerchiefs and fans wave along with the melody of the guitar. An important element of flamenco is also the collaboration between dancers and musicians, Lapierre said. The heels on women’s shoes create a beat along with the music. Dancers also sometimes carry castanets, small, hand-held instruments also known as clackers, which they use to create a rhythm as they move their hands.

“You’re moving your body to the music, but you’re also making the music,” Lapierre said. “Whether that’s clapping or snapping, your feet, you are part of the rhythm and the music.”

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