David Castellano appears first on the portable wood floor stage — or tablao — set up in Malaga Restaurant on Lalor Street, the border line between Trenton and Hamilton.
Dressed in a tight shirt and slacks and with sandy hair pulled into a ponytail, he takes his place at one of the three armless chairs, cradles his rosewood guitar in his arms, and lets the tips of his fingers release a pulsing and magnetic sound.
As his intricate musical patterns silence the diners seated in supper club style, two shapely and exotically dressed women in body-fitted dresses and with their black hair pulled back take the two remaining stage seats.
Proud and poised, Laura Castellano and Monica Herrera greet the audience with a confident gaze and then turn to the guitarist. He silences his instrument, smiles, and firmly says, “We are Flamenco Flavor, and we will perform two sets for you this evening.”
As he resumes playing and sings yearningly, the two women respond first by clapping before rising, moving toward, and filling the audience’s eyes with rhythmic body movements and the ear with zapateado — the general word for a variety of percussive patterns made with the feet.
And so continues a regional phenomenon: Malaga Restaurant’s long running once-a-month Sunday presentation of a musical and dance performance firmly rooted in the ancient flamenco tradition — yet not bound by it.
Malaga Restaurant belongs to Angela and Ramiro Rodriguez — Spanish-born siblings from a family of Spanish and New Jersey restaurateurs. Their place has been open for 27 years.
“We’re from northern Spain, Galacia,” says Angela, who lives on the same block as the restaurant named for a popular Iberian city. “We wanted people to identify us as authentic Spain,” she says, noting that the restaurant’s kitchen uses the traditional recipes her parents and grandparents used.
Yet years ago there was a missing ingredient. “We wanted music, the spirit of Spain,” she says. “This group came by and suggested Flamenco Ole from Philadelphia,” a flamenco company under the direction of Julia Lopez.
If the inclusion seemed natural, it also proved to be popular. The nearly 20-year monthly tradition frequently fills the 80-seat dining-theater area with audience members coming from as close as Trenton and Hamilton and as far as Philadelphia and the vicinity. “Within an hour distance,” says Angela.
While FLAMENCOflavor — that’s their official written name — has been the house group for the past year, there is a long time connection to the venue, as the married Castellanos and Herrera shared when they talked by telephone from Jersey City about their art, company, and presence in both the Mercer County region and in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.
“It is flamenco and with Latin roots,” says David. “It is giving people a flavor of flamenco, not but straight up. The traditional forms of flamenco are pretty complex. We’ve studied it, but it is not mainstream. We all have a strong base in flamenco. We still study it, but we’ve decided to take a new turn with it.”
That includes blending in sounds associated with music and rhythms from Puerto Rico and Cuba. And while purists may protest, the flamenco blending is not really new.
As noted flamenco guitarist Paco Pena told U.S. 1 in 2013, flamenco reaches back to the ancient Phoenicians, Romans, and Moors and has elements of Indian dance, Jewish chants, and African rhythms. The style emerged from the gypsies in the Andalusia region of Spain, found its way into private homes in the late 18th century, and into performance spaces in the 19th century.
The name, incidentally, is connected to the Spanish word for the people of once Spanish-ruled Flanders and, according to one argument, thought to come from an Andalusian habit of labeling a thing by its opposite — here giving the name for someone tall and blond Dutch to a short and dark gypsy. No matter the origin, the name now is synonymous with the passionate and colorful dance and sound.
Another new turn is the way the group of dancers — each with more than 15 years of experience performing and teaching — work. “In flamenco in Spain and in the United States, it is common practice that you’re a freelancer and working with everyone else. We’ve done that and worked with everyone in the scene. The benefit (of a group) is that we create a lot of new material together. When you’re freelancing, you’re not so much creating,” says David.
The catalyst to organize came from the loss of fellow musician, Carlos Revolla. He was a common denominator among FLAMENCOflavor members — including their Mexican-born Los Angeles partner Cristina Moguel. The closeness was so keen that Revolla’s Brazilian-made guitars are used in the shows. It may also be the reason why the group prefers to speak as a unit.
“After Carlos passed away (in 2014) we didn’t want to bring someone else in. We had chemistry. And we had a drive to do something different than what other people were doing. Now people are starting to recognize our name and know what to expect,” says David.
That includes their colorful costumes, or vestidos. “They’re not traditional flamenco dresses,” says Laura. Designed and made by her and Herrera, they have a “more revealing cut and are modified to have a more Caribbean look.”
Herrera says flamenco dresses combine tradition and fashion trends. “When flamenco started to get more commercial in the 1920s, it became more body conscious. Polka dots are very traditional. A wide skirt is very traditional. We use the movements of the skirts.”
Then there are the shoes — and their history. “They’re for flamenco dancing only. We happen to like a certain brand, Senovilla,” says Laura. “They are only made in Spain, imported from Madrid. Traditionally women didn’t add as much footwork, but then Carmen Amaya in the 1920s made footwork a part of her repertoire. Every shoe has a metal flank and rubber bottom and a wooden heel. They all follow the same form, but different companies make shoes that sound and look different.”
About the sound, or the zapateado, Monica says, “There is a name for each different sound. You have about five or six different sounds. And that is all under the label.”
It is that sound — along with the rhythm of castanets — that adds a tonal and rhythmic depth and cuts to the art of the dance. “Flamenco is very improvisational, but it is within a structure. If you know it well enough, you can work with anyone,” says Laura.
With the female presence dominating the stage, David calls FLAMENCOflavor “more sensual than a traditional flamenco show. The female dance is what this group is about.”
Yet the dance is more than the body. “It is a chance to feel empowered, passionate, and feminine,” says Laura. “What is so appealing and gets to people is (a dancer) can be very powerful and feminine at the same time.”
Herrera — a former ballet student — says flamenco is the opposite of ballet, where the female projects an image that is more external and “deals with reaching and dancing for other people. Flamenco is more internal and more organic. It is really hard because we both teach and when we get ballet students, it is hard to ‘unteach’ the ballet. There are ways they swerve their arms and head, and it doesn’t look flamenco at all.”
Herrera says their confident flamenco stage presence “is really our personalities. We’re having fun and going for it. We’re both pretty strong women with a lot of energy,” says Herrera.
They are also all connected by similar backgrounds brought together by music and dance.
“My father comes from Granada (Spain) and mother from Cuba,” says David, the son of a plumber and secretary. “I was born in Weehawken and am the first one in my family to ever tackle flamenco. I was brought up listening to it. At first I didn’t like it. It was too sophisticated for me. I gravitated to rock and roll. When I was 15 or 16 I took an interest in learning flamenco guitar. I studied with a guitarist in Queens — Juan de La Mata. I learned the fundamentals with him and infused it with Latin rhythms. That was about 25 years ago.”
Laura, who met her husband 20 years ago while the two worked on a show, was born in New York City. “My mom (an opera singer) was born and raised in Mexico City and my dad (a mathematician) was born in Paris. My dad came (to New York) to escape the Second World War. My mom came with her parents. My grandfather was a foreign diplomat.”
She started flamenco class at age six. “My mom was taking flamenco lessons and brought me along to watch. I liked the class so much that I started to dance on my own in the front of the class. I loved it so much that I kept taking class ever since. I also studied ballet from the age of 7 to 12 years old, but I liked flamenco more so I stayed with flamenco and stopped ballet. I went to Spain for the first time to study when I was 15 years old, and returned every summer to study through 2004,” says the mother of three.
Herrera’s story follows a similar pattern. “I was born and breed in Philadelphia. My parents are both Cuban. Dad was an electrical engineer and is now in real estate. Mom went to the University of Cuba and was a textile designer. She makes a lot of my flamenco dresses.”
Herrera says she fell in love with the dance style during a trip to Spain with her grandparents. Classes in Philadelphia led her to become a performer and teacher.
Herrera says she met the Castellanos through the dance scene. “I would come to New York to study. I met Laura at a show involving my ex-husband, a flamenco guitarist,” says the mother of one child. “We became friends — we just liked one another and started hanging out, taking classes, and working together. We met because of the scene. And one of the first companies I worked for hired David.”
FLAMENCOflavor’s website highlights areas around New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Los Angeles, where former East Coast colleague Moguel moved and connects them.
Their presence at Malaga has roots. “The first dance company I worked with, Julia Lopez, was at Malaga,” says Herrera. “She passed the torch off to me. I brought in FLAMENCOflavor.”
David adds, “Angela has had Monica there for years and she’s had traditional flamenco shows. She saw our show and loved it, saying that this is something new and fresh.”
To capitalize on a resume that include performances at Lincoln Center in New York City, NJPAC and Prudential Center in Newark, Teatro de Bellas Artes in Puerto Rico, the Tropicana and Borgata casinos in Atlantic City, and private celebrity parties, the group has strengthened its online presence and secured a booking agent.
Talking about their performances in northern New Jersey and a recent presentation at D’Espana in Princeton — a connection made through the restaurant’s New York City location — David says, “We want to bring more to the Princeton and central New Jersey audience. We feel there is a market for this. It’s just getting to the venue. We know how American audiences and Latino audiences and what they like. I think people can connect to this.”
Angela Rodriguez agrees and says FLAMENCOflavor has those intangible qualities that make flamenco come alive. “You have to have the grace. The guitar player has to respond to the dancer. It is not easy. When you get into it, it’s a lot of details. They have to know what they’re doing. It’s not something they can do after one night” — even for one night each month.
FLAMENCOflavor, Malaga Restaurant, 511 Lalor Street, Hamilton. Second Sunday of each month. April 9, 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., dinner plus $10 to $15 performance cover, reservations strongly suggested. 609-396-8878 or www.malagarestaurant.com.
For more information on FLAMENCOflavor, visit www.flamencoflavor.com.