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Ole — Fanning flames of flamenco

Laura Onizuka's dance is her passion, pleasure, profession


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Laura Onizuka operates Portland Flamenco Events, teaching and holding workshops at a local studio and organizing trips to Spain.As she writes on her 3-by-5-inch calling card, Laura Onizuka “will never be Espanola; I will never be Gitana. I will always just be Laura, (who will) feel and express this incredible art form, Flamenco, in my way.”

While Onizuka isn’t a native of Spain, nor is she a descendent of the nation’s Romani people (gitanos), she seems a flamenco dancer at heart, which is to the essence of the Spanish culture.

Onizuka, who has operated Portland Flamenco Events (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) for the past five years, wouldn’t shy away from that label. Flamenco has become both her passion and her profession.

“There is something about it I don’t feel able to put into words,” says Onizuka, 38. “There’s just a feeling it gives me that is hard to describe.”

Then she tries.

“I’m drawn to the emotive quality of it,” the Beaverton High grad and Southeast Portland resident says. “We come from a culture where we don’t express our emotions quite so openly as are expressed in flamenco or in a lot of Spanish cultures. It’s a nice way to connect with your emotions. I like that about it.

“I love the music. I love the movements. I like the juxtaposition of the softness with the intensity. I love the rhythm. It’s like there are little puzzles to figure out with the sound. I’ll figure something out, and then I want more.”

Onizuka, who was introduced to flamenco 15 years ago, organizes trips to Spain twice a year for area dancers. She teaches and conducts workshops at a Portland studio she rents on a regular basis, stages shows with visiting artists and local musicians, teaches residencies at local schools and posts weekly in the blog on her website, translating a flamenco verse from Spanish to English.

“Laura is a wonderful promoter of the art and culture of flamenco in Portland,” says Danica Sena Gakovich, a San Francisco resident who lived in Spain for 10 years, has been a professional flamenco dancer for 25 years, and performs with Onizuka in flamenco shows on the West Coast.

It’s a labor of love for Onizuka, who grew up in Raleigh Hills and studied Spanish, with a minor in Latin American studies, at Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs. It was in a Spanish class there that Onizuka watched short videos on the country and was given the option to choose a topic to explore.

“As soon as I watched the video on flamenco, I thought, ‘I need to do that some day,’ ” says Onizuka, who had a background in theater but none in dance.

She started with salsa dancing, spent a college semester in Costa Rica “and had it in my brain to someday go to Spain and study flamenco,” she says.

Finally in 1998, while living with her parents and working at a Portland restaurant, Onizuka convinced her sister, Polly, to head for Spain.

“Polly was the dancer in the family,” Onizuka says. “From the time we were little, she was in ballet and everything. She was going to be a professional modern dancer. Then she stopped dancing, and I started.”

Just a hobby

Onizuka took a few flamenco classes in Portland before leaving, but was still a novice. Polly departed Spain after a few weeks but Laura remained, winding up in Seville, where she used her fluency in Spanish to teach English classes. For awhile, she worked as a housekeeper and tutor for the son of a Panamanian family there, and gradually became more familiar with flamenco.

“But I couldn’t handle more than two hours (of flamenco) a week,” Onizuka says. “I had no real background in it, and it was difficult. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be. What was considered a ‘beginner’ in Spain was not what I would think of as a beginner.”

Onizuka began taking private lessons from an advanced student at a dance conservatory and graduated from beginner status. She remained in Spain for nearly a year before returning to Beaverton, where she worked as an instructional assistant with students from other countries in the English as a Second Language program.

At that point, flamenco wasn’t a career possibility, just a hobby for Onizuka, who took occasional classes, then dropped them altogether for awhile. In 2007, though, she attended a flamenco show in town and was “blown away” by the performance of one of the male dancers from Spain.

“It really moved me,” she says. “I introduced myself and said, ‘I wish you guys did some masters classes or workshops.’ He said, ‘I tour often in the states. I could do that.’ ”

Shortly thereafter, the dancer contacted Onizuka, said he was performing in Los Angeles and would be willing to swing up to Portland to conduct a workshop.

“Everything in me wanted it to happen,” she says. “I emailed all my friends who did flamenco, rented a studio, and made it happen. It was so much fun that it completely motivated me. It got me thinking, ‘Hmm, maybe I can do something with this.’ ”

Soon, Onizuka took a leave of absence from her teaching job, began to stage more workshops and teach private lessons to flamenco beginners.

“Things started growing,” says Onizuka, who returned to Spain in 2008 for more training.

“That was necessary,” she says. “I realized in order to keep doing this, I need to keep going back to Spain. You can’t disconnect flamenco from Spain. It’s never going to be here the way it is there. I want to stay connected so I don’t lose sight of the origins of this art form.”

Plenty of diversity

Onizuka has made six trips to Spain, the last two with flamenco groups. There are two more trips scheduled, in the fall and next spring.

“What I would want on a perfect trip is a great tour of the area and a special (flamenco) workshop with a group of people I like being with,” she says. During the two trips with Portland tour groups, “Every day, people were thanking me profusely for the event. It’s really nice to do something with people who have the same amount of passion about something.”

Gakovich, who performs shows often with Onizuka, has seen the effect the Spanish trips have had on those attending.

“Laura is taking it to the next level, providing performance knowledge as opposed to teaching knowledge, which is a totally different energy,” Gakovich says. “It’s a gift she is giving to herself and to her students. It helps immerse them in the culture, by seeing how they eat and live, with lots of live shows and a deeper understanding and appreciation of the country from which this art form originally stems.”

Flamenco dancing is open-ended, with plenty of diversity.

“It allows for all kinds of styles and personalities,” Onizuka says. “There are certain things that are essential. There is a black-and-white technique thing, but a lot of room for individuality. There is room for a dancer with one style and another dancer with a completely different style.”

There are a handful of people teaching flamenco classes in the Portland area, but no one else staging workshops, Onizuka says. To the untrained eye, at least, she is an expert.

“To be a good performer, it takes a lot of dedication,” she says. “If I get to the point where I’m not willing to put in the time that’s needed to put on a good performance, I should back away.”

That’s not where Onizuka is today. “I have bigger visions,” she says. She has considered purchase of a permanent studio. More trips to Spain. The future is uncertain, but for the short term, at least, flamenco will remain an integral part of her life.

“Laura is a wonderful person to work with,” Gakovich says. “There is no drama as there can be in the artistic world. What she says, she does, and she goes for it. She is very good at what she does.”

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