Vancouver International Flamenco Festival showcases the beauty and complexity of flamenco culture

Local performers Jafelin Helten and Bonnie Stewart discuss the art form’s diverse history

Collage of two flamenco performers: one mid-routine and the other posing for camera
Flamenco is more than dance — it embodies singing, rhythm, and culture. Photo of Bonnie Stewart (left) courtesy of Tara McGill; photo of Jafelin Helten (right) courtesy of Jafelin Helten

By: Charlene Aviles, Staff Writer

Get ready to transport yourself to Spain, because the Vancouver International Flamenco Festival (VIFF) is back. In an interview with The Peak, two of this year’s performers, Jafelin Helten and Bonnie Stewart, described their love for flamenco and its unique history.

Growing up, Stewart tried different dance styles before discovering she was most passionate about flamenco. In her 32 years of experience with the genre, Stewart gathered knowledge about flamenco history. Through oral tradition, the art form spread throughout Spain. Between the 9th and 14th centuries in Spain, flamenco developed through cultural influences from the Moors, Roma, and Sephardic Jews.

Helten, who sings flamenco and Latin music, said a performer’s job goes beyond just singing or dancing.

“Learn about history a little bit, where [flamenco] is coming from, and acknowledge the culture. Respect the culture to the maximum, because you don’t want to see anybody destroying your roots,” she said.

To preserve flamenco’s rich cultural history, Helten draws inspiration from her travels in Spain, where she further immersed herself in flamenco culture. 

Similarly, Stewart reflected on Spain’s flamenco history, explaining how different styles are more common for specific celebrations or regions. In Andalusia, for example, Catholics sing religious flamenco songs or saetas during Holy Week. And in Seville, Andalusia’s capital, the sevillana — a style characterized by folk songs, simple rhythms, and pair dancing — includes flamenco influence.

At VIFF, representing the diversity in flamenco and “the form’s universal message of humanistic tolerance” is paramount. This year’s performances, taking place online and in-person, are no exception.

For Helten, the most important part of performing is to “connect and give everything you have to the people [ . . . ] through song.” She explained flamenco is more than dance, because it brings those in the audience together.

Looking back on her flamenco journey, Stewart emphasized the importance of teamwork. She explained balance among performers is important to the performance’s success.

“In the schools, they teach choreography, but choreography is not you. Choreography is the technique that you have to follow [but] technique will never overpass feelings,” Helten said.

She added choreography should be used as a guide but should not restrict dancers’ creative freedom.

Stewart recognizes there’s a learning curve in flamenco dancing, but recommends other dancers be patient, especially when practicing dance techniques.

“It’s like buildinga house on a sound foundation. The foundation is your technique, and that’s what will sustain you and hold you,” Stewart said.

For more information on VIFF’s programming, visit their website.