Photo: Julie Galle Baggenstoss
Julie Galle Baggenstoss worked as a journalist before she took the plunge and followed her passion. Now she’s bringing flamenco to a wide variety of audiences in the United States. She has performed and choreographed Flamenco with the Atlanta Opera, Georgia State University’s School of Music, The Latin American Association, Coves Darden P.R.E., and at universities and museums from the Southeast to the Midwest. She also teaches flamenco for Emory University’s dance program and for organizations such as the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, the Foreign Language Association of Georgia, and Georgia Public Libraries. She spoke with me recently about her work, flamenco’s rich history and about following your passion. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
How do you explain flamenco – real flamenco – to a general audience?
I tell people that Flamenco is an improvised art form based on poetry that was most likely first composed extemporaneously during a gathering of family and friends during late-night hours. That usually stops people in their tracks and gives them pause, because they normally envision a wild-haired woman in a low-cut, polka-dotted dress doing this animal-like dance with castanets. The setting straight goes on from there with a quick history lesson about how immigrating Gypsies covered the old Spanish ‘romances’ (sung poems) to begin forming a musical expression in Andalucía that eventually gave way to Flamenco. Along the way, the Gypsies as a group faced discrimination, prejudice, persecution, and this gave them much to sing about. When their lifestyle was finally embraced during the period of romanticism in the 1800s, poets and impresarios brought Flamenco to the limelight to be celebrated in literate and on stages around the world. What we have seen on stage since then is the expression of those same poems through song, music, and dance. Sometimes the expression veers far from its original form, such as a line of topless men clicking their feet in unison. Sometimes the expression is very much in line, when we see a solo singer, a solo guitarist, and a solo dancer conversing non-verbally while the people around them clap their hands rhythmically and shout cheers of encouragement. That is the expression that brings the goose bumps, and that is when you know you are seeing the real thing.
In what ways has your background in journalism aided you in your ability to share flamenco’s story with a variety of audiences?
My journalism background helps in three ways. First, I am fortunate to know how to conduct research, including interviews. I primarily work as a teaching artist, meaning I use Flamenco as a vehicle to teach toward curriculum goals, such as Spanish language, geography, history, team building, problem solving, and communication. My shows are based on literature and real people who became legends in Flamenco. I routinely dig way beyond the stage to get information that reveals the Gypsy culture and Spanish history that makes Flamenco what it is and has been.
My role as television and Web producer gave me experience in coordinating live bodies, production equipment, managers and talent. The same rules apply to live theater production, except there are no live signals to route – yet!
Finally, years in the newsroom taught me what matters to the media. I know how to write a press release, because I know which ones I ignored when I was on the receiving end of them. I know how to build a database of qualified contacts for public relations, publicity, promotion, and sales, and I know the difference between those roles.
Why did you make the leap from journalism to flamenco and what were the biggest challenges you faced in making that leap? How did you overcome those challenges?
I leapt at a time when work as a freelance writer was not fulfilling and the phone was ringing off the hook for a Flamenco dancer. The jobs for Flamenco were exciting, and I began to work with interesting musicians. I thought I would cross the two pursuits. That eventually happened, but not as I expected. And, that was frustrating at first. I thought I would sell stories about the back roads of Spain or the unknown treasures of the big Spanish cities to which I traveled to study Flamenco. At first it was a setback that I was not selling work this way. But, later I realized that I could tell stories about Flamenco, Spain, and the wonderful real-life characters whom I encountered. And, with this, I became a teaching artist going to work in schools, lecture halls, and universities. I kept up the dance training to stay employed in the typical dance setting, as well.
A major challenge was figuring out the markets for Flamenco, because at the time that I began working, there was not much shape to Flamenco arts where I lived in Atlanta. There was not much precedent for programming, pricing, market segmentation, quality, etc., specific to Flamenco, because so few people had taken the path previously. I received guidance from some professional musicians, dancers, and talent agents, and then applied the rules of their industries to Flamenco. I shaped the market for myself and just didn’t look back. I created a number of products to leverage Flamenco to serve markets, such as schools and social organizations, rather than the traditional American Flamenco employers, such as restaurants in need of live entertainment.
In what ways has your life as a flamenco teacher and performer changed since you first began?
I am now deeply interested in the history and cultural significance of Flamenco and how the past influences the present. I came into Flamenco as a dancer, wanting to learn to move in a new form. Along the way, I took classes from a teacher who taught me about the music. I discovered how the dancers are musicians, right along with the guitarists and singers. I traveled to Spain to study, where I met some of the icons, descendants of legends, authors whose work I had studied, artists whom I adored on stage. Their support through friendship and teaching, led me to want to explain the human stories that created – and today sustain – Flamenco. So, that is part of the work that I do in education and performance.
Also, as a business owner, I have learned to be headstrong and well-prepared in pursuits that seem like unreachable dreams. Business strategies aside, I have learned to look up, because that is direction of faith and success.
How have you built a community of people and groups that are as interested in and passionate about flamenco as you are?
I formed a grass-roots marketing company called jaleolé in 2004, with a partner and a team of very dedicated, passionate volunteers. Now that I look back, I will boast that we shaped the Flamenco scene in Atlanta for nearly 10 years. The company promoted Flamenco events to Flamenco aficionados, as well as the general public. We motivated some big players to talk about and present Flamenco in Atlanta. As a result, there are now teachers and performers in Atlanta working on the base that we put in place. I lectured, wrote, published, produced, placed performers in all kinds of performances from sidewalks to theater stages, and put students on stage annually as part of my role as co-founder of the company. The energy of that work is still circulating, and the evidence is everywhere.
Since 2009, I have facilitated a ‘cuadro’ class that provides education and a weekly jam session for students of Flamenco guitar, singing, and dance. Prior to this concept, Atlanta was a city of dancers without accompanists. To know Flamenco is to know that dancers and guitarists exist in the art form to accompany the singing. So, a silo of dancers – without live music – was unfulfilling. Five years after the first workshop, the students of the program are playing guitar and singing in classes and performances in groups across Atlanta. It is satisfying to know that Flamenco is taking shape in such a holistic way.
How have you engaged Spanish artists in your mission to build interest in flamenco? What have you learned from them in your efforts to teach, perform and lecture about the art?
The answer to this question is unending.
I have presented some of the top Flamenco artists in Spain in performance and education. I have asked them to lecture and spend time in fiestas with local aficionados to break the wall of artist and fan. These gracious artists have created electricity, tears, inspiration, awe. But the best moments have been when they have interacted one-on-one with local aficionados, in a casual manner, to shed light on what it means to be a Flamenco, rather than a super star.
I believe Flamenco is like coffee. If you can get it in Spain, or from Spanish Flamenco artists, then it’s a shot of espresso. Outside of that, it’s café au lait: tastes great, but it’s just coffee with chicory and steamed milk. And, chicory as my grandfather used to tell me in New Orleans, is ersatz. The audiences and the students know the difference.
The more I learn about the art of Flamenco, the less I want to teach, perform, or lecture about it. Instead, I just want to put the Spanish artists out there to do it. I am continually humbled by the people whom I meet through research and study. They are incredible artists, but that’s not what stops me. It is that their families created this, and they carry with them the spirits of the generations before them, a cultural legacy that includes oppression, perseverance, pride, creativity, innovation, controversy, and misunderstandings of all sorts. The more I know, the more I want to tell these stories, accurately.
What’s a typical day for you like?
My schedule is completely random. At the moment, it looks a little like a jack-o-lantern. Three days a week, I rehearse in the mornings before heading to teach at Emory University, where I instruct students who are earning credit for their dance degrees or to fulfill an elective requirement. Right after class, I crack my latest Flamenco read for about an hour. Then, I am off to class where I am a student of Spanish culture and literature, a base for a graduate degree down the road. I pick up my kids from school; we tackle their homework; we play a game or craft a bit; we cook and eat dinner; I run out the door. Evening classes or rehearsals last about 2 hours in a dance studio, and then it is home for some creative time: a novel, a favorite blog, on a rare occasion a movie. On the other two days (of a 5-day workweek), I am in the studio for 4-6 hours working on technique and repertoire, and I take about 2 hours to handle the “business of Flamenco” for myself. I update my website. order flyers, book shows, write contracts, follow-up with potential clients, apologize for late responses, and of course put out dramatic fires of all kinds. Saturdays and Sundays often turn into workdays, as well, depending on bookings. Several times a month, this schedule is interrupted by arts-in-education performances. I leave home for those at 6:30 a.m., after loading my car with sound and stage equipment. I drive for 30-90 minutes to a school, and then I set up my show. I perform for 1-2 hours, break down, and then return to my neighborhood just in time to pick up my lovely children from school. More than once, I have walked through my children’s after-school scene in full Flamenco regalia because my commute butted up against carpool. My kids just are not aware of it anymore. It’s always a juggling act with the schedule.
I remember one time, I had to do a performance during the last 30 minutes of one of those Spanish culture classes at the university, where I attend class as a student. I walked into the class with all of the stage make-up, hair in a bun, huge earrings, and a ruffled shirt. When the moment struck, I stood up and walked out of the class in the middle of the lecture. I closed the door, and in the hallway swapped my street skirt for my performance skirt. I glided down the stairwell and got into a waiting car outside of the building. The driver took me around the corner while I changed into my Flamenco dance shoes. I got on stage 15 minutes later inside the ballroom at the Georgia Aquarium and performed for a dazzling (I hope) 5 minutes.
Unfortunately, I spend a lot less time on my art that I would like, and I am working the phone and e-mail a lot more than I would like!
What sort of plans do you have for 2014?
I am reaching into markets outside of Atlanta. I am taking my arts-in-ed on the road in Louisiana, Florida, and Alabama. I hope to also perform for adult audiences in those markets, with strong Spanish and U.S.-based Flamenco artists on stage with me.
I am forming participants of my cuadro class into a semi-professional performing group. There’s a very dedicated and talented core of aficionados who are playing guitar, singing, and dancing well. They are ready to go on stage in excellent, very exciting venues.
I will spend more time researching a few interesting characters in Flamenco, including a dancer who caught the eye of Thomas Edison, a homeless man-turned Grammy winner, and the neighborhood of Triana in Seville.
As someone who has pursued her passion for one of the most passionate dance forms there is, what advice do you have for people grappling with whether to pursue their own passions?
A life built on passion is much different than a life built on someone else’s passion. Living for your passion can lead to funny decisions. To that end, I advise the following. Get a good business plan and revise it often. Get a network of honest critics from a variety of backgrounds, and remember that your loved ones should not be part of that because they will always only be positive. Hire an accountant, and realize that $30 in the bank is not $0 or -$30 in the bank. Balance your worlds: work, personal, ambition, family, romance, health. Balance is important. It is difficult to be the navigator and the pilot in the giant ship of entrepreneurship. One feels like everything has to be done now. To address that, create a project management plan, phase product releases, and schedule time for breaks. Take a walk to solve a problem. Have a beer at lunch. Take a day off! Most of all, you must believe always in what you are doing. If you lose your mojo, then you are done.