With its wood-beamed ceiling, dim lights and brick walls plastered with posters of flamenco greats and 16th century heraldry, El Cid remains-after 40 years-the flagship of Los Angeles' flamenco club scene. Five nights a week the restaurant's lead dancer, Angelita, shuffles across the faux-villa wood stage, a pained expression on her face, her petite body engulfed in ruffles of black silk and red lace.
Flamenco may be hotter than it's ever been in Los Angeles. By many counts the annual number of professional performances here has doubled in the last decade. But for restaurants like El Cid, which rely heavily on flamenco's popularity, the rising tide doesn't seem to be lifting all boats.
Once a sold-out magnet for Hollywood's flamenco-hungry stars, these days El Cid sometimes draws only a dozen patrons looking for a Spanish dinner and flamenco dance show. The club still hosts enough tour groups and regulars to keep its finances in the black, but 20 years of shrinking crowds are telling of a changing Southland flamenco scene.
The public's interest in flamenco as dinner entertainment seems to have reached a plateau, and yet the number of fans taking a longer-term interest in professional flamenco has dramatically increased. As a result, the dominant clubs and restaurants-many of which have closed or diversified to include other Latin American shows-have been displaced by larger-scale performances in theaters. Local talent once headlined such concerts, but now high costs and competition demand bringing in big-name out-of-towners.
"Flamenco goes in circles. It will be popular, then it goes off the radar screen until someone uses it in a commercial on TV, and then suddenly everyone wants to take classes," said Juan Talavera, a flamenco teacher in Whittier. He was one of El Cid's original owners and danced at the club from 1963 to 1989. "Most of the time when a flamenco company comes to town, the audiences go out and see it. The interest is there, you just have to scratch and dig and pull."
The corridor from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego now forms the country's most active flamenco community, according to Roberto Amaral, a 30-year veteran of teaching and performing flamenco in Los Angeles. The four cities house about 200 dancers, dozens of flamenco guitarists and a handful of singers, estimates Amaral.
Any current popularity boost around Los Angeles is often attributed to California-based performers such as La Tanya, who invite Spanish companies to tour the region, sometimes with American performers.
To counter the rising costs of organizing such visits, foreign flamenco companies are expanding their schedules and seeking larger audiences.
While concerts and special events with famous dancers, such as this week's New World Flamenco Festival in Irvine, help bring flamenco to the mainstream and provide workshops with top-notch performers for locals, some say that in a saturated market they can push out local artists.
"There was a period from 15 to seven years ago when very few companies would come from out of town. There was maybe one big concert here every year, and it was often the National Ballet of Spain that would come," Amaral recalled. "To fill the void, local professionals would self-produce. But this has died down ... and we're taking a back seat to outside professionals these days."
And with increasing wages, higher advertising costs and fewer grants "trickling to ethnic dances," Talavera says, putting on a show is expensive and risky.
"When you self-produce in L.A. you are taking a huge chance, because even if you have a full house, how much did you spend to get it?" he noted. "I produce a show every two years, but I am scared to try every year. I don't want to overextend my audience."
Clubs, restaurants and the dancers who perform there do not face the same pressures. For these "flamencos," who are often students with little professional experience, the club schedule provides consistent work and enables them to develop their style and build a following. For restaurant owners, student dancers willing to perform for little or no pay, serve as an inexpensive entertainment, according to one dancer.
One of the current obstacles to the success of home-grown flamenco for concert and club performers alike, however, is flamenco's roots in and dependence on the Spanish roma (gypsy) culture. By definition flamenco is imported, and performers not born in Spain usually spend years studying there. Los Angeles is in short supply of native gypsy singers, all of them in high demand, note several performers and producers. Yet they are critical to the dance.
"It's not the real thing without a singer," said Cecilia Romero, a dancer from Spain, who, after four years in Los Angeles, is returning to Madrid out of frustration with the staleness of the local flamenco scene. "You miss the story and interaction between the singing, guitar and dance."