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A GOLDEN TOUCH WITH FLAMENCO

With hair the color of corn silk cascading down her shoulders, Debbie Ray looks like the very antithesis of a fiery Flamenco dancer. But Ray, or Rayna as she is known when she performs the proud and passionate Gypsy dances of Spain, has never found her natural blond hair to be an obstacle to success.

“When I was 14, I won a scholarship to work with Jose Greco,” America’s leading exponent of flamenco dance, Ray said. “He insisted that I wear my hair long and flowing. He said it looked like gold. But I was the first dancer he ever allowed to perform with blond hair.”

Ray so captivated Greco in her first audition that he agreed to become her guardian (since she was under age for traveling with the troupe), and a year later she was performing regularly with Greco and his popular touring company.

Flamenco dance remains a vital force in the 31-year-old Ray’s life.

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Ever since the opening of Bazaar del Mundo, Ray has been a fixture in Old Town. Her Sunday afternoon al fresco dance concerts with members of her own troupe (Rayna’s Spanish Dancers) have entertained a steady stream of tourists, as well as a rapidly growing number of local fans. So it’s not surprising that the Bazaar del Mundo’s six-day celebration, to commemorate its 15th anniversary as an international marketplace, will include a weekend of performances by Ray and two of her dancers.

“I started at the bazaar for the grand opening celebration, and I’ve been there ever since. My children have grown up there,” she said. “We’ll be performing Saturday and Sunday. Each performance will be different, and each show lasts approximately 20 to 25 minutes, so we’ll be dancing most of the pieces in our repertory during the weekend.”

Ray describes the dances as traditional.

“They’re traditional in the sense that there is a definite sense of style,” she said. “I take the basic flamenco style and make it more modern. But there is no set choreography. Flamenco dances are improvised, and they last as long as the performer wants them to. The dances are spontaneous.

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“You can only do that if you have live music. I have a guitarist, and he has to pay close attention to what I’m doing. In flamenco, the musician always has to respond to the dancer. The dancer has total control.”

Along with guitarist Yiris Leltins, Ray will have Charo Botello sing during the weekend performances. Botello’s emotion-charged chanting provides a dramatic framework for the earthy flamenco. But as Ray pointed out:

“The dancer has to keep her emotions in--under control. But you have to be a good actress. (Projecting) is the hardest thing in flamenco. You can teach someone to do just about everything, but you can’t train them to feel. And that’s what flamenco is all about.

“Flamenco dances are often very slow and very sad, because they’re about the suffering of the Gypsies. People often ask me why I don’t smile more when I dance. But it’s what you feel that you have to communicate. You can’t just smile because the audience wants to see you smile.”

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The intricate barrage of heel and toe tapping that spells out the complex rhythms of the dance also create aural designs while the dancer swirls her ruffled skirts defiantly.

“It’s different than tap dancing. Here, the feet take the brunt of the body weight,” Ray said. “There are five different parts (of the foot) used to make the sounds, including the ball and the heel, and the end of the toe. We also pound the foot straight down and use a scuffing pattern. It’s hard on the knees, and arthritis sets in eventually.”

Nevertheless, Ray is determined to continue to dance flamenco as long as she can embody its zesty spirit.

“I don’t think there’s an age when you have to stop,” she said. “You just have to be smart enough to stop before it’s too late. Jose Greco danced recently in Los Angeles, and he got very bad reviews. I think it’s too bad . . . and I just hope people don’t forget him (the way he was at his prime). I hope somebody drags me off when the time comes.”

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