In defiance of the haters, Yinka Esi Graves is a black-British Flamenco dancer living and working in Seville. After ten years in Spain training, Yinka’s work pushes against the boundaries of flamenco. She reflects on both her black identity and the tradition’s African roots, chatting to Skin Deep’s Courtney Yusuf about what connecting with truths, mental maths, and the black body as a vessel of knowledge.
Courtney Yusuf: Where is home for you right now?
Yinka Esi Graves: The three places I feel most myself and happiest are my mother’s house in London, my house with my partner in Seville where I’ve been living for five years, and my studio. Seville is to flamenco as New Orleans is to jazz. Madrid, where I used to live, has its own flamenco scene, with its own energy, but it’s very technical and I felt I needed to go back to the roots of flamenco, which are definitely in the South. I didn’t think I was gonna stay here for very long but I’ve started putting roots down.
At the same time, I feel extremely connected to England and I go back very often. I need the multiculturality; the ability to exist in a more anonymous way than in Spain where you’re always the odd one out. Also, my family is in England and family is huge for me – that’s why the pull is always there.
CY: Do you come from a dancing family?
YEG: There’s no dancing in my family but there is music on my mother’s side. I was a terrible musician when I was younger, but I think my parents saw that I loved to dance. We used to live in Managua in Nicaragua. One time we went to the carnival in Bluefields, which is the black part of Managua; I was about four. My parents always tell me that when we got back I did all these different dances, ‘and then they did this, and then they did that’ and my parents were like ‘this girl needs to do some dancing!’ So they put me in dance classes. I did ballet, jazz, modern, and some Senegalese dancing. They saw that my body desired to move and they facilitated that, but I was so resistant for many years. There was this external pressure – not from my family, there’s always been a lot of support there – but I remember when I was eight somebody saying, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be a dancer?’ and I was like ‘er… no’, because in my head that wasn’t a serious job – would you believe it! There’s also this stereotype that all black people can dance, so I I felt like I didn’t want to fall into that, I’m gonna be something else. But I’m glad I didn’t.
You know, black bodies are the ones that hold knowledge – it’s how we’ve been able to keep hold of our history. That doesn’t mean that everybody loves dancing, but one has to appreciate that we are vessels of knowledge and that took me a very long time to accept.
CY: What is it that drew you to flamenco in particular?
YEG: There was something in the act of doing it when I first went to a class thinking ‘wow, this feels good and makes sense.’ I came into it blindly in pursuit of this sensation that just takes you on an endless journey. Sometimes I find it hard to even say I’m a flamenco dancer. I mean, I am. But, I feel like it’s such a big thing; there is so much knowledge around it. Flamenco is its own universe where there are different styles or palos, which have their own lyrical, melodic and rhythmic worlds. You’ve got to learn how to create and embody these different parts of the dance. And of course, it’s not just you by yourself. It’s a three-way thing. You have to learn how to respond to the guitar and the singing – you’re trying to find moments of cohesion. That’s what’s addictive about it. When you’re performing there is so much going on in your head! I would most liken it to maths. You know when you’re doing an equation and you finally work it out, and you’re like ‘that just worked!’ It’s amazing. I feel like flamenco accesses something profound. Maybe it’s because you’re not dancing to the music, you’re dancing with it.
Another thing that attracts me to flamenco is how becoming a flamenco dancer is such a long process, almost like a rite of passage. It’s very old school. Nowadays, before you even do anything, you’re a star on Instagram, a self-proclaimed artist, writer etc. Whereas flamenco feels medieval – like when you had to be an carpenter’s apprentice for ten years and only then could you graduate and make your own table. There’s no faking it. I think there’s something in that that connects to a different kind of energy, a different place, a resistant to this world.
CY: Do you feel being from the UK and being a black woman add to the layers of imposter syndrome?
YEG: This has been an incredible journey in self-acceptance. I think all dance does this because you have to stand in front of the mirror every day. There is a lot of politics around the idea of ‘pure’ flamenco – the idea that foreign people can never really do it. But flamenco is an art form from the 19th century. For 500 years Europe was in contact with Africa and the Americas – there was a constant flow of information. In the same way that jazz was born out of America, salsa out of Latin America, flamenco was born in the south of Spain where, between the 15th and 19th centuries, up to 10% of the population was black. That gives me shivers. I feel like regardless of the narratives that we are fed, this dance is more connected to my heritage than anyone thinks it is.
When I first got to Seville I was invited to perform in a film by director Miguel Ángel Rosales, called Gurumbé: Canciones de tu memoria negra. Miguel is someone who was going into the archives, reading, and looking at all the scholars who are talking about the history of black communities in Spain. And you start to see it everywhere. The film gives a scientific and historical basis to an intuitive sensation which can be so difficult to explain.
This has been a huge journey for me. I cannot pretend to be a gypsy woman or to dance like people who grew up here, because I didn’t. I have a whole other set of experiences in my body which come into my dancing, and now I feel in a better place to allow all of that to happen.
CY: How does your particular practice and approach to flamenco fit into that story?
YEG: When I see and hear what is deemed as ‘traditional’ flamenco I die because I think it’s the most beautiful thing on the face of this planet – there’s no question. But that’s not my reality. I did not grow up listening to my mother singing or seeing my father dancing. I’m in search of some sort of personal truth that means something to me. The idea of copying doesn’t make sense.
There’s an amazing dancer called Rocío Molina, a young woman from Malaga who is a real pioneer. She started dancing when she was three. Technically speaking she is incredible. But people will go to her shows and spend the whole time discussing whether it is or isn’t flamenco. And I’m like, seriously, after what we’ve just seen, are we really discussing what is considered part of the genre?
Obviously, as a black person, I’m aware of the reality of appropriation. But in my experience, most of the people who are in dialogue with flamenco, in its different forms, come from a place of utmost respect. It is such a complex art form – it takes over your thoughts and your life. The best dancers are the ones who are performing on the main stages, living and experiencing the dance on a day to day level, and are directly connected to its source. You can’t wiz through and claim it’s yours – that’s just not gonna happen with flamenco.
CY: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a flamenco dancer?
YEG: First and foremost you have to really enjoy it; find something it in that gives you the energy to keep going and harness that. It’s so difficult not to compare yourself to others, and it’s not gratifying in many ways – economically for one. All those other things, like which path to take or which amazing dancer to learn from, are different for everybody. Flamenco is so personal – you will learn so much about yourself.
CY: What does the future hold for you?
YEG: When I was living in Medellin I visited Quibdó, the capital of El Chocó in Colombia, for a month. El Chocó is extremely poor in comparison to other parts of the country and totally neglected by the government. I was working with the Afro-Colombian community there and the different groups who use dance as a space of conscious learning, especially amongst the young who are just coming to terms with their Afro-ness, because for a long time that’s been something that nobody wanted to accept. The talent there is incredible but not valued at all. How can we learn to appreciate the things that we hold already? I really hope that I can continue this journey with dance, but beyond that, what’s important is the ability to share my experiences and help people work with their own talents and connect with their truths.
If you’re in the UK, Yinka will be performing with Mbulelo Ndabeni at Dance Umbrella on October 6th. You can find out more here. For those In the US, you can catch Yinka on tour from October 14th to November 12th. You can find more information here.