When Monica Herrera traveled to Spain when she was 12, she saw flamenco for the first time in a restaurant with her grandparents.
Herrera said: “I couldn’t even believe what I was looking at. I’d never seen anything like it before and I was just drawn to it.”
At 16, Herrera began taking lessons in Philadelphia. Years later, she is a part-time flamenco dancer. She dances in a variety of locations, including bars and restaurants.
Seven years ago, the 40-year-old Herrera became a flamenco teacher in Philadelphia. When she is choreographing for her class at the 945 Dance Movement Collective near Eighth and Girard streets, she draws on many influences.
“I always try to think about how I felt when I first saw it,” Herrera said about the powerful flamenco performance she had seen in Spain.
Herrera said flamenco itself is a mixture of many influences. The songs can be sad and heartfelt or even happy, but in every dance and song, you can see and hear the passion that is emblematic of Latino culture.
“Lots of it is very deep. They call it ‘cante hondo,’ deep singing,” Herrera said. She also described flamenco as rhythmic with hand motions similar to those found in Indian culture.
Patrick Jurado participates in Herrera’s intermediate class. He has been dancing for 27 years.
“Flamenco is an expression of your soul, of yourself,” Jurado said. “It incorporates an array of feelings.”
Many of Herrera’s students have been with her for years, a sign that her classes are fun and helpful to those trying to learn flamenco.
Elisa Makoon-Singh, also a student in Herrera’s class, said she began dancing in Herrera’s class after she finished college.
“Our families were friends and we just grew up together,” Makoon-Singh said. Her mother, from Spain, sparked her interest in flamenco.
Herrera said flamenco can be modified for all ages and abilities, which is why it is hard to define the average flamenco dancer.
Because Herrera has taught all levels and ages, she appreciates different aspects of each group.
“I just did a show at my daughter’s school,” Herrera said about one of her recent classes involving young children. “They were fantastic and they did everything that I gave them.”
Due to scheduling conflicts, Herrera doesn’t teach children as much anymore but focuses her attention on her ongoing intermediate class.
Herrera said there is no common denominator between the people who participate in her class.
“I love flamenco because it’s the kind of dance where you don’t have to be rail thin and fifteen years old,” Makoon-Singh said.
In April, Herrera is starting a series of workshops for beginners with little to no dance experience. She said she hopes these workshops may increase flamenco participation in Philadelphia.
At present, she said the flamenco scene in Philadelphia is consistent and everyone is familiar with the other people in the community. Though the participants in her intermediate class are regulars, they do not perform shows together.
“Real life gets in the way,” Herrera said. Setting aside the time to practice for a private party or other flamenco event is difficult to schedule. Instead, when she performs, she calls in professionals from New York.
Herrera has developed a network of resources that she can call on for assistance. She has connections to professional dancers in New York as well as flamenco dancers in Spain. She schedules master classes and workshops with her connections so her students can receive instruction from others in the flamenco community.
Makoon-Singh said: “I have taken workshops that were hosted by other flamenco dancers and it adds to the whole experience. They teach you a different choreography but the core is the same. It shows you how authentic the instruction [from Herrera] is.”
Herrera takes workshop classes in New York to enhance her knowledge of flamenco. If she meets someone at a class and would like him or her to visit her students in Philadelphia, she invites them to stay at her house in exchange for a workshop with her students.
Herrera said, “They come once a year and if you hit it off with that person, they return.”
Herrera said this technique to finding professional dancers is not as difficult as it sounds. The flamenco community in New York is larger than in Philadelphia.
Another way that Herrera builds her network is through educational classes that she teaches. She has one coming up in Pittsburgh. It is a combination of lectures and demonstrations.
“I never studied dance in an academic setting that way,” Herrera said.
During college, she studied health at Temple University. In addition to being a part-time flamenco dancer, she works at a dialysis center in Philadelphia.
Herrera noted that her life would be calmer without dance. She has toyed with the idea of not dancing especially after her daughter’s birth but said that she would miss it if she gave it up. She has also considered making dance her entire career but decided against it.
“I wanted different things and I don’t know how easy that life would have been,” Herrera said.
As a part time dancer, Herrera is still able to work, dance and be a mother to her 5-year-old daughter, something that would be much harder with dance as a full time job.
“I never really wanted it to be work,” Herrera said. “Now when I do it, I appreciate every minute.”
For more information, visit philadelphiaflamenco.com.