The most common reaction to trying something new is saying the word ‘no.’ It’s normal after all because it means getting out of your comfort zone, which can be scary. The uncertainty that comes with a new experience is the reason why people don’t take the leap of faith. Refusing the exchange of risk for what’s familiar may be the safest option, but it may be one that will cause regret. After all, saying ‘no’ has never gotten anyone anywhere.
One Lasallian almost uttered the dreaded word. Russell Wisden, a DLSU double major student, was close to not pushing through with a certain Spanish performing art called flamenco. However, after a change of heart, Russell pursued flamenco, not only as a performer, but now as a teacher as well.
Russell’s love for flamenco began the way a kid’s trip to the dentist would: his mom made him do it. “We started off because my mom wanted us to have a dance na you can actually dance until you grow old,” shares Russell on his entry to the performing art. He recalls getting into the dance because his mother supposedly purchased a 12-session package for Russell and his siblings, which he later on found out to be untrue.
“I think I was seventeen or eighteen when I started… [it was] before first year college,” says Russell. He recalls hating flamenco early on because he was the only male student in the entire class. It was only on his last session when things started to change. “On the 12th session mismo, that was the only time I saw another male…there were four siblings naman two males and two females…. nung napanood ko sila [I realized], ‘Ah hindi pala ‘to pang baklang dance. Like there’s a really masculine form pala in the dance.’ I was inspired.”
After taking flamenco classes here in the Philippines, Russell travelled to Granada, Spain, the birthplace of flamenco with the hope of uncovering its secrets. “When we left, we were in the beginner’s level but when we got back, we jumped to the advanced agad. Two weeks lang.” Russell’s brief stint in Granada sparked his inner passion to become a true bailaor.
Barely five years into flamenco, Russell has had numerous performances both in and out of the Metro. With annual shows in Singapore, weekly dances in local Spanish restaurant Barcino, and, not to mention, over a year of teaching the art under his belt, Russell is well on his way to becoming a world-class flamenco dancer.
From student to teacher
Russell explains that his visit to Granada showed him how much flamenco is lagging behind in the Philippines. This problem is something he aims to address. “When people would talk to me about flamenco, agad agad, ‘Ay lola ko nagfaflamenco! Kilala mo yung tita ko na nagfaflamenco?’” says Russell.
The perception that flamenco is for the older generation is one of the common stereotypes associated with the dance, a belief that Russell considers untrue. “I did a small demo in a [dance] school in Paranaque [for] twelve, thirteen, fourteen year olds. There were about sixty or seventy of them tapos they realized na it’s not an old folkloric type of dance but rather the flamenco that they are actually doing now is actually more inclined towards the youngsters [because of the] faster paced dances.”
Being a young budding flamenco instructor, Russell has experienced the other end of the student-teacher paradigm. The population of his flamenco class is made up mostly of older professionals like Dr. Leni Garcia and Dr. Raj Mansukhani, so we ask Russell how he relates with his students. “It started off very weird kasi I would have called them all ‘ma’am,’ ‘miss,’ [and] ‘sir.’ Tapos in class they would call me ‘sir.’ Parang hindi ba dapat nagcacancel out nalang?” jokes Russell.
Despite the age gap, Russell believes that flamenco serves as an outlet for his students to be away from the duties and responsibilities that come with their professions. Having the task of leading distinguished professionals is not only a privilege but a responsibility for Russell. “You could be dominating over them at those times. Pero I realized na as a teacher, you don’t really help anyone when you put them on the wrong path… everything has to be restrained for the sake of teaching them what’s supposed to be taught.”
Flamenco only started to be documented a little over 200 years ago. Its place of origin is Andalusia, a region in Southern Spain. The art form, which has been known to be the outlet of the maltreated, traces its influences to numerous nationalities and is known to be a product of African, Jewish, Indian, Spanish and Arabic cultures.
Russell expounds on this, and gives examples of the different aspects of flamenco, which had similarities to art forms from other countries. For instance, he cited that the hand gestures of flamenco resemble that of traditional Thai dances. With regards to the instruments, Russell says its origins are more complex.
This art form is not only about dancing, and the instruments that accompany it; there are also three other components to flamenco. Specifically, the five are: Cante (voice), Baile (dance), Toque (guitar), Jaleo (sounds of encouragement) and Duende (the supernatural and mystical part of flamenco).
Despite its rich cultural history, flamenco has a tight-knit community here in Philippines. With Russell’s aim to reach out to more people, Flamenco as an art form is sure to grow in the years to come.
Pursuing something that others consider to be unorthodox comes with its own share of ups and downs. For starters, the constant feeling of disapproval from people around you might seem like a sign for you to quit, but according to Russell, “Just keep doing what you’re doing and hopefully someday you’d reach a point [where] you’re satisfied and [when] you look back hindi ka magsisisi sa ginawa mo.”
While he may have initially wanted to close the door on his potential flamenco career, an extra push from his family helped Russell find his niche. Backed up by hard work and dedication, Russell has come a long way from the struggling flamenco student he was years ago. His story of finding excellence in an unexpected place is a reminder for all of us not to judge things at face value. Keep an open mind and give things a chance because you never know, you might have just found the next big thing.