A journey through dance

photo: Junko Hagiwara at a bulerías de Jerez class with professor Ana María López / ANTONIO PÉREZ

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The journey of a unique dancer shows that flamenco is more than a Spanish stereotype and reveals many unknown aspects of a unique art.

The feet stomp , the hands clap, the mouths sing, the guitar sounds: we are in a room of sounds. The dancer rises from her chair in the semicircle in front of a large mirror that reflects on the wooden floor, she grasps her ruffled skirt with her left hand and stands confidently in the center.

“Ole ! Ole !” cheers the group.

Her body moves to the beat . Her torso remains upright while her hands rotate with an energy that extends through the fingers and she moves her waist fluidly. The movement is complicated— clapping her hands to her legs and heels after a jump and a shimmy to the rhythm. With a flick of the wrist, she finishes her performance and leaves her place to the following dancer.

“Hey ! Hey ! Hey !” applaud the others. The dance continues in the relaxed and friendly atmosphere in this class of bulerías, where 12 people participate.

Junko Hagiwara, known professionally as La Yunko, had never worn flamenco shoes before age 18. “I liked dancing since childhood, but I had never learned in an academy, just improvising, until one day I heard a flamenco guitar on TV and I really liked that music. Then I began to look for a school,” she recalls. Junko joined a flamenco club at the University of Tokyo and began a new journey in her life.

Junko came to Seville from Tokyo in 2002, when she was 27 years-old, with a passion for flamenco and the desire to learn more tucked into the suitcase. “In Japan I could also learn the many techniques and choreography of flamenco but… flamenco is here. It has to do with the culture, the environment, with life. If you want to learn it, you have to live here,” she says. The road, however, has not been easy.

Junko had to leave her father Osamu, her mother Kazuko and her younger sister Mikiko in Tokyo, Japan to immerse herself in this new and different culture. “At first, I knew almost no Spanish. Many times I felt alone and frustrated by not being able to express myself,” she says. “If you do not know Spanish, although you dance very well, you’re still outside of the culture.” Today Junko speaks Spanish fluently but has not yet finished learning the language nor culture.

The language was not the only thing she had to overcome when she moved here. “I’m from the outside, I’m oriental, and some part of me feels that the people here are a little closed. Maybe not so much lately, but when I arrived 11 years ago, people looked at me differently… occasionally it did bother me,” explains Junko.

In fact, until 2007, she thought that she would return to Japan. “I didn’t have much money or much work and was planning to teach classes in Japan… I wasn’t considering working here professionally,” says Junko. “There was a flamenco club where I went to dance one day recommended by my teacher… The people were very open with me and I liked the local owner a lot, so I was asked if I would go there to dance every week” Junko remembers. “After that, I changed my decision of returning to Japan and stayed here. Had I not danced at that site that day, I probably would not be here… It was a small space, not more than 10 people. It was not a big theater, but that performance changed my life.“

After this pivotal moment in 2008, she won the “Sarmiento Flamenco Dance Award” as best dancer of 2007-2008 at the peña “La Parra Flamenca” of Huétor Vega, in Granada. Since then, La Yunko has received numerous awards and fellowships and has danced on stage and participated in shows within various cities of Andalusia, such as Seville, Jerez, Dos Hermanas and Marbella, and within Japan as well, in Tokyo and Osaka.

Furthermore, Junko teaches individual or small group flamenco classes, but has more work in Japan, where she goes twice a year, than here. “In Spain there are very few opportunities to work because of the crisis,” says Junko. Instead, when she travels to Japan, a country of great flamenco fans, she usually has a full agenda. There she has become a revered artist and this summer performances await her at Kid Ailack Art Hall in Tokyo and Estudio La Cuna in Osaka. She is also going to teach workshops called “Summer Workshops in Japan 2014” in Tokyo, Tsukuba, Osaka and Fukuoka. Her husband Antonio Perez, a professional photographer and accustomed like her to travel a lot, will accompany her on many occasions.

Still, Junko also knows the glory in the birthplace of flamenco. It is June 14, 2013 and we are in the 33rd edition of the Festival Flamenco Juan Talega de Dos Hermanas, near Seville. Miguel Pérez, playing the guitar, with Moi de Morón and Miguel Picuo, singing. La Yunko in a gown with a black ruffled train and white-fringed shawl, goes alone to the center of the stage. She holds her skirt with both hands and stomps to the rhythm guitar and the claps. The song begins and she extends her arms and looks towards the sky. Slowly, every part of her body is being engaged by the music. “My body is one piece of music, such as singing and guitar,” she says.

She is strong and graceful ; She is elegant and intense. This is flamenco. This is La Yunko.