Carlos Montufar’s passion for flamenco is evident every time he graces a stage, as his turns, claps, stomps and facial expressions are fueled by a fervor he’s had since he was a child, and that has since made him one of the most prominent flamenco dancers in the Valley. The 31-year-old Phoenix resident studied the classic Spanish dance in New Mexico before bringing his talent back to the Valley, and now you can see him on stage with local flamenco company Flamenco Por La Vida (FPLV) Wednesday nights at Gallo Blanco and Saturday nights at Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix.
Montufar works as a teacher’s assistant for Madison Rose Lane Elementary during the day, working for the special education department, converting print to braille. He also works as an instructor with FPLV, teaching flamenco Monday nights at 5th Row Dance Studios in Phoenix — find more information here. Read on for why Montufar loves flamenco, and to hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.
What brought you to Arizona?
I was born in Monterey Park, California and moved to El Paso, Texas when I was 6. I came to Phoenix when I was 17 to study drafting at High-Tech Institute. I wasn’t a fan of the school, so I transferred to Glendale Community College to get my associate degree in arts and humanities.
What’s your earliest memory of being interested in flamenco?
Living in California, I remember being 4 years old, and my mom worked for KWKW radio station. She’d get tickets to go see shows, and she got tickets for a flamenco show at La Placita Olvera in L.A. She took me, and I remember seeing this dance and, at a very young age, feeling the pull of what this dance was. I had such an emotional connection – it was like a calling, almost, to do it.
Ever since then, it was something I always talked about. My mom would tell me stories about me not shutting up about what flamenco was and wanting to learn. Because of my family’s culture, with the machismo [masculine pride], the values we’re programmed to learn, she never pushed it.
I started dancing late, when I was 19 years old. Growing up in El Paso, the arts weren’t pushed, though I paint and draw, as well, and was recognized in high school for painting murals and art projects, gatherings and societies. In high school, if you were a male dancing in anything, you’d get picked on, and I didn’t want to be the center of that attention.
A friend of mine in high school told me she was going to start taking flamenco, and I was so jealous. She invited me to my first juerga, which is a flamenco fiesta party. I clapped along with them, not really knowing what to do, but it was something innate in me I wanted to be a part of.
When I moved out here, I was on this rage of wanting to find where flamenco was, since in El Paso, people would call it “flamingo” and didn’t know what it was. They would think feathers, and that wasn’t my type of dance or what I had in mind. When I was at Glendale Community College, I worked for the high-tech center there, and my boss referred me to the woman who dealt with the Latin community, who referred me to my first teacher, Laura Moya. At the time, it was Laura and Lydia Torea who brought Spanish, classical flamenco to Phoenix. I studied with Laura, who was in her 80s. I met more people connected to flamenco through her, and what turned out to be just a hobby I did whenever I could has turned into my career.
What was your flamenco training like?
I started taking classes in Phoenix and realized what I was learning in class wasn’t the same as what I was seeing on stage. Now, being a teacher in a classroom, I know you have to see all the levels and find a medium, but with me, I wasn’t satisfied with what I was learning in class. I wanted to learn more and wanted to branch out.
Flamenco dance company Yjastros came to Phoenix from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and performed at the Herberger around the time I was 23 or 24. The moment I saw them, I said, “That’s what I want to do. That’s where I want to go.” I had met someone from there before and reached out to them about what I needed to do to be a part of their company. I scheduled a meeting in Albuquerque and moved out there the following summer after I received a full scholarship to study under choreographer Joaquín Encinias and dance with the company for two years.
Talk about not knowing what I thought I knew. We had rehearsals from 2:15 in the afternoon until around 6, and then took class until almost 9 at night. I was working full-time, so in order to survive there, I was working from 6 in the morning until 2. It was the hardest thing I ever could have done for myself, but also the most rewarding. It wasn’t just dancing – my instructor Joaquín took it into a more emotional, philosophical point-of-view. He would describe the movements referencing your body as a machine and where your weight placements are – it was very technical. Being interested in math and physics, I could totally relate as I started to mix the physical with the emotional.
Class was grueling but so satisfying, because it’s what I wanted to do. I’d go through four different shirts because I’d sweat so much. It was amazing to me, because not knowing as much as everyone else knew, they would welcome me so easily. Each of my classmates would take their own time and take me into a private studio and break down everything I needed to know.
While I was in New Mexico, I got a call from [singer/performer] Charo in Las Vegas, who needed to feature a flamenco dancer in her show at the Riveria, and I took the job. Lydia Torea had used to dance with Charo with a man named Felipe De La Rosa. Felipe called a singer, Chayito Champion, asking her for male dancers. She referred my name to Felipe. He called me, but because of my schedule in Albuquerque, I didn’t have time to call back. Charo called me and said, “Hi, Carlos, I don’t know if you know who I am,” and I’m like, “Yeah, we all know who you are.” I felt with her personally calling me, I didn’t need any more signs.
I finished our season show in Albuquerque, and within a week, I went to Beverly Hills, Califonia to rehearse and stayed with her. From there, I came back to Phoenix, got my things, and went to Las Vegas. I was there for about four months, but she injured herself. We did the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon at South Point casino, and at the end of the second day we did it, we all bowed, and Charo looked back to wave at the orchestra and fell backstage and was injured.
After that, we were kind of left hanging, not sure if there would be a show. Eventually, they told us to go home, but for me, I didn’t have a home, so I came back to Phoenix.
How did you get involved with Flamenco Por La Vida?
When I moved back to Phoenix around five years ago, Angelina Ramirez, a friend I had met in Phoenix and who had also studied with Yjastros, called me about this vision she had to start a student flamenco company and asked me to help her. We started our own curriculum, and it was nice to come together and teach having the same base.
What is it about the flamenco art form that makes you so passionate about it?
For me, it’s the community, and working with a singer, guitarist and percussionist. You’re a composer, but you still have to be open to all these moving parts. It’s a team. There might be anywhere from two people to 300 people in the audience, but you look back and see your team. It makes me a little emotional. I’m creating something with my team for the community.
Audience members come up to you with tears in their eyes. We had this Native American woman come up to us and kiss our feet in the middle of the show. You and the audience share this energy together. It’s an inspiration to them, and it’s an inspiration to me. With the way my body is and how I’m getting older, I could have stopped two years ago, but because of that moment and the relationships I have with the flamencos in Phoenix, that’s what pushes me forward. It’s a culture more than a show.
Why do you think dance is an important art form?
It’s beauty personified. It’s emotion in the clay, and you’re molding what people feel into something visual. We’re very visual beings, so once you see it, connect and feel, it turns into this circuit. I see it as a circuit for healing, the answers you’re looking for, and letting go of that resistance.
What’s your advice for aspiring dancers?
You have to go by what you feel, because in me, I felt something. If it moves you, take a class, experience it for yourself, and follow your passion.
Take care of your back with lots of core exercises and stretching. Yoga helps a lot, and staying healthy and getting sleep is important because you’re breaking your body down. If at any point anything hurts, stop. We have to listen to our bodies. We’re taught to push through the pain, but there’s a difference between a sharp pain and an achy pain, a muscular pain and a nerve pain. Be very watchful of your body, because it’s the only one you’re going to have in this lifetime. It’s best to take care of it, and early.
Why should people consider taking a flamenco class?
It’s not just a flamenco class. It’s an exploration of your soul. It’s learning a new language, because in flamenco, you learn to listen to the singing and the guitarist, and you learn this respect for it.
It forces you to watch yourself and pay attention to what you look like in your poses. If it’s your desire to become a flamenco dancer, you have to know your body. You can’t look at your body and be ashamed, because in all of dance, you have to respect yourself and be naked on stage. If you can’t approve of yourself or are insecure with your body or how you’re dancing or moving, it’s going to read. People are going to know. It’s a lot of dedication, but even if you do it as a hobby, you’ll be able to connect with that flamenco community.
What are your goals?
I would love to go back to school. I love the arts and have given dance so much of my time, I’d love to focus on painting and drawing. I’ve had it in my head to create a children’s book and incorporate flamenco into that. It’s nice to have all these experiences, and I want to document it in a way that is an easy read. I want to give children something beautiful and leave a connection to my life.
In dance, I’m going to continue to work with FPLV and help it grow. I’d love to grow myself as an individual artist and create my company. I love hip-hop and always wanted to get into that and incorporate it into my flamenco and make it a little funky. I love watching dance in general, including belly dancing, social dances and watching others enjoy it.
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