Freedom Through the Form: A Conversation with Danica Sena | By Maya Kitayama

In anticipation of ODC School 10th Anniversary Party on August 30, the school celebrates its faculty by publishing one interview each day until August 30. Today’s interview is with Danica Sena.

Danica Sena performing (center). Photo courtesy of Danica Sena

Danica Sena performing (center).
Photo courtesy of Danica Sena

Maya Kitayama: Briefly explain your training and performance experience.

Danica Sena: My training is in all forms of dance. I studied ballet, jazz, Afro-Haitian, contemporary, theater. I’ve done most forms of dance at one time or another. Actually, I was trained in ballet, contemporary and folk dancing way before I started Flamenco. I’ve been dancing as part of my heritage; my first dance experience was as soon as I could walk. I’m Serbian, which means dance at all kinds of events; you just learn how to dance by just watching and listening, rather than going to a class. My next formal training was in Afro-Haitian, jazz, ballet, contemporary, and theatrical dance, which came along with that. I started formal training late in life, I didn’t start until I was 17, but when I did start I was simultaneously getting stage experience. I got into Flamenco after my junior year abroad at the University in Madrid, at Complutense University. That was where I started getting tickled by the Flamenco bug, and Spanish dance and folklore Spanish dance. One of the interesting things is that I’ve always loved dance and music, but I never really thought it was what I was going to do. I just started following my gut, and it’s brought me to where I am today.

MK: What is one thing you hope to communicate to your students?

DS: Authenticity. Authenticity in the sense of the form that they’re learning. I want them to go as deeply as possible within the form to understand everything that they possibly can, from the inside, not from the superficial, “simply movement” standpoint. Also, authenticity of themselves meaning, you’re in a class, and you’re learning from an instructor, and you’re copying the instructor and you’re absorbing the information as much as you can. But I really encourage them to, via the form that they’re learning, become comfortable enough that they can then let their own expression come through because that’s really what Flamenco is about. It’s about the individual interpreting a particular musical form that includes guitar, hand clapping and voice. Really, the only way that one can become authentic is to understand all of those elements or try to understand them as best as possible. Now I know that in group classes that’s very difficult, but that’s what I strive to achieve.

MK: What is something that you’ve taken away from teaching?

DS: I’ve found teaching to be extremely rewarding because I’m eternally watching the unfolding of people. They’ll walk into a class, sometimes not even knowing what kind of class they’re going into, and I watch them go from a moment of zero, to moments of little breakthroughs that turn into bigger breakthroughs when they’ve stuck through it. And not just through dance, I’ve seen some amazing things with their own personalities and their self-confidence. To me, the most rewarding thing is to watch people who’ve never danced and suddenly one day you’re watching them, and you’re thinking, “this person is a dancer, how did this happen?” The main thing I’ve learned is people learn in many different ways and absorb information in many different ways. I think that’s important for a teacher to understand because some of the frustrations that we think we have come from not understanding the other person’s point of view. Some people are more visceral, some people really have to learn in a more auditive way, some people really have to count and draw pictures, other people need to just be there and it’s interesting because you have to address those issues and not just come from your perspective.

MK: In terms of new students, how do they approach or react to trying Flamenco, and how is it different from learning other classical techniques?

DS: I always preface teaching Flamenco with the warning that it’s going to be very challenging and daunting in the beginning because it’s everything all at once. What I try and do first of all is expose them to the two basic rhythmic families and then tell them that it’s going to take a while, they’re going to be basically copying. I’m trying to get them to find some connection as quickly as possible to the rhythmic base that they’re hearing even if they don’t really understand why they’re clapping, what they’re clapping or what these rhythmic bases are. It’s very accentually-based, which is the hardest thing. In a regular dance class for example, you go in and it starts really slowly. In Flamenco, you’re dealing with the beat of the music, you’re hearing music in the background, you’re hearing instruments and voice and then you’ve got to move your arms and your hands. You’re not just doing a port de bras, you’re doing other finger and hand movements, head movements, torso movements and footwork, which is completely the antithesis to how you would move your feet. All of that at once, but at some point in the class, when we talk about combinations, all of that is going to be there. If you don’t have that kind of patience to go with that, you want the sweating, you want the bright shiny object, you’re not gonna get it, so it’s definitely not a mainstream form.

MK: Is there a specific moment or memory from teaching at ODC that you found particularly inspiring?

DS: There are many moments. I talked about this at the National Dance Week: hearing a student basically tell me that dance has saved their life. That’s poignant, that’s one of the most incredible things you could possibly hear, as well as the idea that they feel comfortable enough sharing with you, because I know what that means. Another moment was a recent moment when I did a comedy piece. Because I’m a dancer and a performer and I’ve trained in all these different musical and movement styles, I bring that to my work. It’s kind of unorthodox, it’s not the classic ruffles and polka dots, the furrowed brow. I like to keep it fresh for myself, and so I like to keep it fresh for my students. We did this comedy piece, and I had one student that walked into my room several years ago said “I’m never gonna perform.” She always takes my workshops and  says, “oh no, I just want to take the workshop and stand in the back,” and she was the focal point, she was the main character in this comedic piece that involved a bench and she was amazing. To watch her in front of 80 or 90 people, a full Studio B; nonchalant, as if nothing was happening, saying, “oh I’d love to do that again.” What can I say? You can’t put a price on that, you can’t wish for that to happen, it just happens.

MK: What have you found that sets ODC apart as a dance center and school?

DS: There are many things [that set ODC apart]. First of all the organization, I know how difficult it is, there are lots of irons in the fire, there are lots of cooks in the kitchen, at ODC and every place else. First of all, it’s a beautiful campus. It’s aesthetically beautiful and it’s clean. That is welcoming to anybody. I love the foyer, the lounge, the screen where you can watch old movies of dance, and you can see teachers, you can see publicity for their upcoming shows or who they are, you can just sit and watch for hours, it’s extremely inviting. I think communication comes from the inside, and I consider myself a very communicative person, so I enjoy communicating and saying hello to all the faculty and all the staff. I love the staff lounge; I love being able to use that. It’s just extremely inspiring, the people there are inspiring and they have visions. To be part of an institution that had and has—for the future—such a large and expansive vision is beautiful, where there is only room for growth; it doesn’t seem like this is it. One of the things I love is it is open to my ideas. I’ve experienced beautiful things with other faculty members being open to my ideas and receptive and letting me try things and not squelching my creativity and I’m very blessed for that.

MK: Any other additional comments?

DS: I think that ODC offers many opportunities for its faculty and the staff, and it’s a place where I feel that not only am I imparting knowledge to my students, but I’m also educating the other faculty members on what it is that I do. It obviously comes from Spain, it comes from a totally different country, and yet here people are open to learning about it, and saying “wow I didn’t realize that this had this connection,” always looking for the connections, not the disconnections between things and people. I feel like there are many opportunities, and I love when I am privy to those opportunities because I take advantage of them as much as possible, whether it be a discount to another faculty member’s show, or another event here, or a class, or a special workshop or lecture, I feel there’s so much that’s available to me and I get to grow that way. I think that if you have a place, not only where your faculty members feel comfortable, but they feel challenged and they’re constantly learning, then the student body can grow and vary, and only more educational opportunities and higher educational opportunities can come out of that. As opposed to squelching and stifling and saying, “well this is it, this is what we have, we’re comfortable with the teachers, we’re comfortable with everything that is surrounding us.” I don’t think a lot of places that I’ve experienced around the world have that.

Danica teaches at ODC several times a week, including an intermediate/advanced technique and choreography class on Monday nights at 8pm and 9pm respectively. She teaches a mixed level technique and choreography class on Wednesday nights at 7:45pm and 8:45pm respectively, as well as a Saturday Flamenco performance workshop at 4pm. 

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