Meet The Miami Native Whose Love For Flamenco Music And Dance Span Beyond Spain

Jun 20, 2019

Flamenco remains a quintessential component of Spanish culture. It is both song and dance and originated with gypsies in the Southern region of Spain called Andalusia. Some of the greats include Paco de Lucía, Camarón de la Isla and Federico García Lorca. And now Rosalía, who's combining traditional flamenco with new elements like hip- hop and pop and different beats.

For Miami native Ilisa Rosal, her love for Flamenco began in Granada, Spain. After living there five years, she returned to Miami and started a company, "Ballet Flamenco La Rosa." She's been teaching the future generation of dancers here in Miami for over 40 years. "This is my art form because it combines theater, poetry, literature, the guitar and everything that I love into one art form," she said.

A couple years ago, Rosal was severely injured and diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She recently returned to teaching for the company's upcoming performance called "Fuerza Flamenca," which means power of flamenco. The performance will be Saturday, June 22, at the North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach.

Rosal spoke to WLRN's Alejandra Martinez about flamenco's history in South Florida, the future of flamenco and why she decided to open a company:

WLRN: When did you first get exposed to flamenco music?

Rosal: I was traveling in Spain with my family. I was in Granada and I saw an old gypsy man teaching a young girl to dance in a shadowy courtyard. I got chills and I thought I was observing some wonderful moment.

Describe those movements. What is it that she was doing that you gravitated toward?

Well, interestingly enough, it wasn't even the footwork, which is what flamenco is often most known for. It was the intensity of the upper body showing the emotion and the center from, which the spirit of flamenco comes.

Miami native Ilisa Rosal dances flamenco.
Credit Ilisa Rosal / Courtesy

When did you realize that you needed to do this?

I was really in love with Spanish and Hispanic culture from very early on because it was very dramatic and intense. That really spoke to me. Then I saw a Spanish Dance Company right here in Miami and there was one dance. I'll never forget it. It was La Caña (performing) cante jondo — that deep song, that lament that comes from deep in the soul. And I said, "This is mine." This is my art form because it combines theater, poetry, literature, the guitar and everything that I love into one art form.

And you talk about this long dress, the attire, the elongated movements and the footwork.

There's so much to the costuming and the technique. It starts with the footwork. The dancer is actually a percussionist — interacting with the guitarist and singer. And then you have the guitar and you have las palmas, which is the hand clapping. The hand clapping is keeping the rhythm. There's sordas, which is muted and then there's agudas, sharp. So depending on the moment, you clap your hands in different ways.

This is kind of a coming back for you as well. A couple of years ago you had a complication with your health, right?

Yes, I fractured a bone in my foot and then I fell and fractured another bone in the same foot. It was intensified by the fact that I have MS (multiple sclerosis), as well. I've had MS for a very long time and that's something that worsens. It's something that I have to manage.

It made the healing process slower and the pain much more intense. I was in a wheelchair each time for five whole months. And then I started physical therapy once the bone had healed and then it was three months of very painful difficult physical therapy. It's just part of the lifestyle of a dancer so I don't give it too much weight. I don't think about what I can't do. I think about how can I still do my art.  

How have you seen flamenco music evolve throughout the years of your teaching here in South Florida?

When I first started, the main influence that was happening was with jazz. And then we had that whole world music phenomenon were many influences came in.

I think about younger generations and what their exposure will be to flamenco music. An artist that comes to mind is Rosalía. She is redefining this new version of flamenco music, combining new elements of hip hop, pop and different beats. What do you think is the future of flamenco music?

I think it's a pendulum as it always has been. New artists are experimenting with how far they can go to bring new life to the art form. And when they go too far they realize it ceases to be flamenco anymore. Then they come back. And there are a lot of young dancers now who are seeking the roots of Flamenco and doing very, very traditional flamenco. So I think there's something in flamenco for almost all tastes.