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La Morena celebrates 20 years of flamenco dance at Carmens de la Calle 

click to enlarge La Morena has been dancing at Carmens de la Calle since 2000. - MATT BYNUM
  • Matt Bynum
  • La Morena has been dancing at Carmens de la Calle since 2000.
Jackie Rodriguez-Navar, who dances under the name La Morena, has been performing at tapas spot Carmens de la Calle since 2000, delivering some of the most exhilarating, live flamenco performances in the Alamo City.

Last fall, Carmens celebrated its 20th anniversary, and its reputation as a live music venue rests largely on the popularity of La Morena’s performances. After being shuttered for nearly a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the downtown restaurant is gearing up to reopen in coming months — and the dancer will be back as a star attraction.

La Morena first began dancing at Carmens as part of an ensemble formed by renowned vocalist Chayito Champion. As Champion built an audience for flamenco at the cafe, she enlisted members of her own family as well as dancers from around the city.

Eventually, owner Paula Sullivan hand-picked La Morena, then just out of her teens, to give her first solo performance as a dancer during one of the restaurant’s Friday night flamenco shows. Guitarist Alejandro Herrera was recruited to play alongside her, and the pair mapped out a 45-minute set.

“I remember I didn’t think I could do it,” La Morena said. “Even with Chayito, I was not a soloist dancer. I didn’t think I could pull it off, but Paula and Chayito said, ‘You can do it.’”

Despite that early hesitation, she and Herrera became crowd favorites. La Morena thrilled audiences with rapid-fire footwork and Herrera with exquisite showmanship. Every now and then, the guitarist would burst from his chair and into a fury of footwork while holding his instrument in the air. The shows often ended with standing ovations.

Setting the stage

Back then, the cover charge was just $5, and Carmens — located off the St. Mary’s Strip until its 2014 relocation downtown — was frequently so packed during performances that attendees had to stand along the walls. Aside from having its own loyal following, the cafe benefited from an influx of bar-hoppers from the nightlife district.

“For a few years, it was just the two of them performing together as one of the featured ensembles,” Carmens owner Sullivan said. “La Morena would dance all night, with no singer, and Alex would play the guitar. They would leave people breathless. La Morena and Alejandro established the momentum that took us into what we are now.”

Over time, other acts joined the roster at Carmens: Austin duo Teye and Belen, Olivia Chacon’s Flamencura, Arte y Pasión and dancers from the San Antonio Parks and Recreation, to name a few. The venue established itself not only as San Antonio’s go-to spot for flamenco. After hosting major jazz players including Randy Brecker, Sam Rivers and Ravi Coltrane, it became a gathering place for fans of improvised music.

While Carmens’ role as a New York-style “listening room” is significant, Sullivan admits it was always the flamenco that “paid the bills.”

Stylistic evolution

To witness La Morena perform today is a testament to her soaring abilities and commitment to the art of flamenco. Her passionate approach leaves audiences in awe.

“When you see people in the audience crying or filled with emotion or joy, it just fills you with joy,” she said.

In her younger days, La Morena had no qualms showing off her abilities, dancing at superhuman speeds and with an aggression unmatched by other local dancers. And Herrera was right there, matching her level of intensity with his guitar.

More recently, though, La Morena has performed with a variety of dancers including Sonya Casillas and with guitarist Steve Arispe. After two decades at Carmens, her shows are decidedly more expressive thanks to a subtlety and authenticity not seen in her earlier work. She credits that evolution to maturing both as a dancer and person.

“I think experience and life changes bring a lot to your performances,” La Morena said. “My performances now are a little bit more grounded. After I had children, and also after having a career as an educator, I just felt more connected to the earth ... if that means anything.”

’Grew up there’

La Morena began dancing at the age of 7 under the instruction of Carmen “La Chiqui” Linares.

“She taught me almost everything I know, all the basics which led to professional dancing,” La Morena said. “She was also a motherly figure who taught me a lot about life, and she encouraged us to learn outside of her studio as well.”

La Morena spent years taking classes at Linares’ private studio and later with her at the San Antonio Parks and Recreation’s dance studio. Under Linares’ guidance, La Morena traveled to Germany and Puerto Rico, where the two dancers further shared their artform with audiences. La Morena credits her mentor with instilling a passion for flamenco that she can’t live without.

At Carmens, La Morena has been able to live out that passion over the course of two decades. As such, it’s a place that holds special meaning.

“I actually grew up there,” La Morena said. “I became a woman there. I met my husband there. I went through college there while performing at Carmens. There was a huge evolution there for me.”

While not being able to perform at Carmen’s during the pandemic brought her sadness, La Morena says she looks forward to working with Sullivan on new projects in the near future. During the COVID crisis, the pair staged several pop-up events around town, some livestreamed on social media.

“I have no doubt that while it may not be every week or every other week, Paula will continue presenting the artform in some way or another,” La Morena said. “Once you experience flamenco, it’s hard to let it go.”

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