The fiery rhythms and fancy footwork in flamenco dance can quickly dazzle an audience.
But behind all the flamboyant display is an art form that is highly individualistic, says Maria Benitez, whose seven-member Spanish Dance Company will perform at 7 p.m. Sunday in UC Irvine's Fine Arts Village Theatre.
"Individual feeling is very much the key," Benitez said in a recent phone interview from her home in Santa Fe, N.M, the company's base. "What makes a great flamenco dancer is the ability to communicate a personal expression to the audience.
"There isn't that much dance vocabulary per se in flamenco. We can't go flying through the air or do things on the floor as in ballet or modern dance. And it never really works well performed in a mass or in a chorus line because it is so individual. So it all depends on the dancer's personal style.
"Of course, the technique has to be there, too."
Benitez, who has been performing for 20 years, traced the emphasis on individuality to the unwritten tradition of flamenco music.
"Flamenco is an an oral tradition handed down from generation to generation," she said.
"A guitarist must learn from another guitarist, and so inevitably he will change things. Even when he plays the same rhythms, he will create his own melodies. So it's never the same thing twice in a row. That is how the art evolves."
Correspondingly, she said, flamenco dance is not all that tightly choreographed.
"There is room for more spontaneity. The actual steps can change from one performance to another. It depends on how an artist feels at that moment," Benitez said.
On the other hand, classical Spanish dance, which the company also will perform during the UCI concert, "is always done to music that has been written down," she said.
"The music is always played according to the written notes, so all the musical interpretations are pretty much the same because that writing has to be followed. As a result, classical dance is tightly choreographed because the music is strictly written.
"Of course, dance must have spontaneity whether it's tightly choreographed or not."
Benitez, who said she "would never tell" her age, began taking classes in her native Taos, N.M., when she was 15.
Like all students of flamenco, she started out learning castanet work, graceful arm positions and rapid, percussive footwork. Gradually, these skills were combined with brilliant turns to create sweeping movements across the stage.
"Footwork and upper body positions have to go hand in hand," she said, rejecting the popular notion that flashy footwork is the dominant element in flamenco dance.
"But in flamenco, you have to not only have the technique to express what you want, but also to know the rhythms, which you can dance either very simply or in very complicated ways.
"Either (style) can be effective."
Benitez formed her own company in 1972. Since then, the group has toured 47 states and several European cities. Currently, the company includes four dancers, two guitarists and one singer.
The UCI concert will include a solo by Benitez called "Solea."
"The word means 'aloneness,' and the dance reflects many of the things that I speak of in Spanish dance and the whole Spanish character," she explained. "It is very strong, passionate, earthy and fierce, but at the same time some sections are very light."
It doesn't take an aficionado to appreciate flamenco dance, Benitez said.
"Like anything else, if the audience comes without preconceived ideas and with an open mind, they will have a good time. They don't have to be experts in the art form."
But one thing she does feel is critical is the audience's enthusiasm:
"I always look for and want to receive something back from the audience," she said. "I want to involve them emotionally, not strictly on an entertainment level. Every flamenco performer wants that enthusiasm."