The lights are dimmed and a hush falls over the plush auditorium in Albuquerque. When the stage lights come up, a statuesque dancer stands motionless. Behind her, a guitarist slowly begins to strum the soulful first notes of an impassioned song. As the guitarist picks up his pace, a singer opens his mouth wide and lets out a mournful sound, almost as if he’s crying.
Wearing a ruffled, ankle-length dress and a loose braid down her back, the dancer begins slowly twisting her wrists and swaying her hips. As the guitar and singing intensifies, the dancer’s movements become quicker and more percussive. She snaps her fingers, claps her hands, and stomps her feet at an impossibly fast pace. Her face contorts with the full spectrum of emotions: Visceral pain, love, fear, and joy all burn in her eyes.
She throws her gold embroidered shawl onto the ground, dancing around it like a scorned lover. Members of the audience sit on the edges of their seats, shouting words of encouragement: “¡Guapa!” “¡Olé!” It’s a flamenco tradition known as jaleo.
An hour passes, then two. With my eyes wide, I watch other dancers, singers, and guitarists until late into the evening. It’s my first flamenco performance and I become swept up in the raw emotion, the energy, and the sheer drama of the back-and-forth between the dancers and musicians, as the dancers are translating the music into movement.
Albuquerque may be best known as a stop along old Route 66, or as the setting of AMC’s hit TV show Breaking Bad, but the New Mexico city also has a rich flamenco culture. In fact, Albuquerque is world-renowned for flamenco, an Andalusian art form with historic origins.
It makes sense that flamenco thrives in Albuquerque, an eclectic, multicultural hub in the American Southwest founded in 1706. Residents embrace the arts and value the city’s diversity, acknowledging its Spanish and Native American roots with the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, and other similar museums and initiatives.
“We were under Spanish rule and Spanish traditions have influenced this community greatly,” says Eva Encinias-Sandoval, founding director of the National Institute of Flamenco in Albuquerque. “At the same time, we have such wonderful other cultural influences: the Native Americans, the cowboy culture. All of these things together have influenced the flamenco that you see here in New Mexico. Flamenco is a very important part of our cultural identity.”
The flamenco community in Albuquerque wouldn’t be what it is today without Encinias-Sandoval and her family, who emigrated to the United State after the Spanish Civil War. Her mother, Clarita Garcia de Aranda Allison, taught dance classes at a humble Albuquerque studio during the 1950s, inspiring students with lessons in everything from ballroom to ballet to flamenco. Her nine children, including Encinias-Sandoval, grew up dancing.
Later, Encinias-Sandoval toured the country as a professional dancer and began teaching the art form at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She wanted to expose her university students to the wide spectrum of flamenco interpretation, so she brainstormed a way to bring the world’s best flamenco dancers to Albuquerque. Encinias-Sandoval founded the nonprofit National Institute of Flamenco in 1982.
“I wanted my students to have more access to some of these beautiful artists,” she said. “They love flamenco, but that wasn’t a time when you could get on the internet and see all these incredible artists. The only way was if you invited them into your community.”
In 1987, the institute began organizing Festival Flamenco Alburquerque, an annual gathering with dozens of flamenco performances, workshops, and events. The name is not a typo—it acknowledges the city’s Spanish roots with the traditional spelling of Albuquerque.
Today, the festival is considered the most important flamenco event outside of Spain and the largest in North America. Locals have embraced it, too, filling the seats at the festival’s many performances and cheering on the performers. Along with organizing the festival, the institute offers flamenco training programs and classes for all ages. It also hosts visiting artists and serves as the home of Yjastros, a flamenco repertory company.
At the University of New Mexico, Encinias-Sandoval also helped spur the creation of the world’s first bachelor of arts in dance with a flamenco concentration. Today, there’s even a guest professorship in flamenco. Looking back on these many accomplishments, Encinias-Sandoval says she was driven by the desire to make her hometown a world-class hub for flamenco that could rival other larger cities.
“It’s my home and as a young artist, I didn’t want to go to New York or Los Angeles or even Spain to develop,” she said. “I wanted the opportunity to have incredible flamenco around me here.”
Flamenco is for everybody
You can catch passionate flamenco performances on the main stages of auditoriums in Albuquerque, but the city is also home to a number of more intimate flamenco performances, called tablaos.
During a tablao, you might sit around the edge of a small room with 20 other people, drinking wine late into the night as one or two dancers, accompanied by a guitarist and singer, improvise a performance right in front of you—so close you could reach out and touch the ruffles of their colorful skirts. That’s the experience at Casa Flamenca, a nonprofit education and performance center located inside a small house in Albuquerque’s Old Town neighborhood.
“One of the things that is so unique about Albuquerque is that it offers you the two major forms of viewing flamenco,” says Raquel Lopez, a longtime flamenco performer, choreographer, and costume-maker who now volunteers with Casa Flamenca. “There are these large, theatrical productions, but then there are these more intimate tablao performances, which are very common in Spain.”
Casa Flamenca brings Spanish flamenco artists to Albuquerque during the summer months through its artists-in-residence program. The nonprofit also tries to make flamenco accessible to underserved local communities through its dance lessons.
“Flamenco is for everybody,” says Valeria Montes, executive and artistic director for Casa Flamenca, whose nickname as a dancer is La Chispa (“the spark”). “When you see our classes, you’re going to see people of all sizes, kids with disabilities, and people who are 80 years old.”
You can also attend a tablao at Tablao Flamenco Albuquerque, which opened in 2016 inside Hotel Albuquerque. The intimate venue, reminiscent of a small jazz club, serves traditional Spanish tapas, along with wine and cocktails.
Because of these diverse performance venues and the top-notch flamenco instruction throughout the city, developing artists from all over the country travel to Albuquerque to study the art form. Without a doubt, flamenco is firmly embedded in the city’s fabric.
“It’s a big draw for people outside of New Mexico as well,” says Leslie Roybal, an Albuquerque-based professional dancer and the program director for Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, a New York City flamenco organization. “You can’t think about Albuquerque without thinking about flamenco. It’s part of who we are as New Mexicans.”