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PALM LATITUDES

CLOSE-UP : The Flamenco King

January 02, 1994|Martin Booe

If it hadn't been for Carmen Amaya and Roberto Amaral's mother, there would be a lot less flamenco in Los Angeles.

Amaral was 14 when his mother took him to see Amaya, the legendary flamenco dancer, perform. "I couldn't take my eyes off her," he says. "I didn't understand what I was seeing, but I knew immediately that I wanted to do it."

Today, 30 years and many trips to Spain later, Amaral is arguably the leading figure in Los Angeles' flamenco scene. His 9-year-old Fuego Flamenco is the oldest exclusively flamenco dance troupe in town. And at his Roberto Amaral Dance Studio in Van Nuys, a steady influx of students keeps the instructor/performer/choreographer on his shock-absorbent heels six days a week.

Today, he says, there are two flamenco clubs in town: El Cid restaurant, in Hollywood, and La Masia, in West Hollywood. "Flamenco was very popular here during the '50s and '60s. There were a lot of clubs and a lot of great artists coming through town. In the '70s, it started dying down. But since then, you've had movies like 'Carmen' and groups like the Gipsy Kings (who, Amaral says, play rumbas, a slightly different form of music), as well as the Olympics and Expo in Spain to revive interest." Not to mention the flamenco-flavored records of popular New Age guitarist Ottmar Liebert.

Amaral, who is of Brazilian and Mexican descent, has had little formal flamenco training. He began studying it at 15, spending two years learning the basics at a local school. After high school, he went to Spain and "experienced the real thing for the first time." Amaral says he learned "the spirit of flamenco on the spot" as an itinerant dancer with various companies in Spain and the United States.

"Basically, I begin with a very pure form of flamenco," he says of his choreography. "From there, I create and expand, and that's what makes it a personal statement."

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