San Francisco, with its tiny population of barely over 800,000, boxes way above its weight class in many ways, leading the nation on issues of social justice and the environment, on the cutting edge of technology, and sparking pioneering collaborations and collisions in the arts world. Still, it is somewhat surprising to learn that the Bay Area is home to a unique and vibrant Flamenco tradition, with deep roots in Spain, and branches grafted from other music and dance traditions.

Karensa DeMars © Agnes Riviere
Karensa DeMars
© Agnes Riviere

In the 1950’s and 60’s, the rural Andalusian town of Morón dela Frontera, home to the legendary Gypsy guitarist Diego del Gastor, became a magnet for bohemian Californians attracted to the music and lifestyle. One of del Gastor’s renowned protégés, Berkeley-born David Jones (later known as David Serva) ignited a local passion for Flamenco; growing numbers of artists travelled back and forth from San Francisco to Spain, and a local Flamenco community sprang up around The Old Spaghetti Factory in the Italian North Beach district.

Today, the two-way pilgrimage between Spain and the Bay Area continues and, inevitably, the diverse cultural influences around the Bay Area have infiltrated Flamenco music and dance.

Kerensa DeMars exemplifies this spirit of fusion. A San Francisco-based dance artist, DeMars was performing with Berkeley-based Harupin-ha Butoh Dance Theater when she discovered American Tribal Style® Belly Dance. Conceived and taught by Carolena Nericcio, this modern style of belly dance deliberately distanced itself from classical beledi styles, and became hugely popular in the Bay Area, eventually fanning out to conquer the globe.

DeMars embraced this new form of dance and joined Nericcio’s FatChanceBellyDance troupe, before she encountered and fell in love with Flamenco.

© Karensa DeMars
© Karensa DeMars

Keen to master this new art form, she moved to Spain in 1997 and, while immersing herself in Flamenco, introduced American Tribal Style® there. She also visited Morocco and Turkey to further her studies, and co-founded the Madrid-based group Querencia, known for its unique fusion of Flamenco, North African and Middle Eastern traditions. The Middle Eastern influences show up mainly in the armwork and turns, as well as in the veil technique when working with the manton (shawl), in the occasional use of finger cymbals, and also musically, incorporating instruments often used in Arab music, like the violin and flute. Querencia performed throughout Spain from 1999 to 2003. 

Since her return to the Bay Area in 2004, DeMars has taken over the artistic direction of the Flamenco Room, founded originally by Carl Nagin and Patricia Velasquez, friends of David Serva. She has masterminded numerous fusion projects, often including artists from overseas who have collaborated with local performers to explore the Moorish roots of Flamenco, and the real and imagined intersections between Flamenco and other traditions.

Flamenca is one of her recent projects: a collaboration of seven women artists that incorporates different instruments such as harp, violin and flute in addition to Flamenco singing to create a unique backdrop for the Flamenco choreography. DeMars called it “a celebration of the feminine spirit,” of the many sides of the “flamenca,” or Flamenco woman. This is an ethnic music and dance form that gives women “the opportunity to be wholly expressive of the feminine archetype – from coquette to crone, from sublime grace to raging passion,” claims DeMars. “This is what initially attracted me to Flamenco – that powerful prowess and command of the flamenca.” It is also what continues to inspire her today as she plans Flamenca 2 for 2015, with new female artists. 

Since the initial flowering of the local Flamenco community in the 1960’s, DeMars says there has been continued strong enthusiasm among local audiences for Flamenco and for live shows in particular, although presentation of shows and festivals has declined due to increased funding challenges. “When I was first getting started in Flamenco, you could see live Flamenco shows in San Francisco four to five nights a week,” she marveled. “Now there is only one weekly show in San Francisco... The decline has been tremendous. The economic downturn has had a great impact on smaller venues like restaurants and clubs and on their entertainment budgets – yes, there used to be entertainment budgets!”

Karensa DeMars © Raymond Van Tassel
Karensa DeMars
© Raymond Van Tassel

On the theatrical side, shrinking grants mean fewer shows. “It has also become more difficult and costly to bring artists from Spain,” DeMars notes somberly. “But the interest is there: Flamenco shows regularly sell out in both clubs and theaters. The Bay Area is one of the most supportive communities for Flamenco in the world, and visiting artists from Spain are often astonished at the level of enthusiasm and 'aficion' for Flamenco here.”