Why Don’t More Women Play Flamenco Guitar?

After recently spending time at the Fearless Women’s Summit in Calgary and winning a Fearless Woman Award, I found myself thinking about what the award means to me. I normally avoid gender politics, at least publicly, but I feel strongly that there are some pieces we’re missing in the larger conversation about women and equality. The first thing I want to acknowledge is that it’s complicated. As I consider one point of view, an equally true opposite one crops up. The whole topic seems to be minefield of paradoxes and I certainly don’t have all the answers from my singular viewpoint.

In our society there seems to be a strong emphasis on talent, rather than the understanding that craft is essential; it takes time to develop and maintain. On the flip side, there’s the idea that we can do anything we put our minds to, so we try to do everything. None of these commonly held beliefs are true. I also believe that we, as a society, hold an unrealistic mentality about the energy it takes and the commitment that naturally comes about with raising a family. We need to recognize this, stop beating ourselves up for it and savour this beautiful part of life. I think a big part of the struggle is that, as the world is being redefined, we’ve ended up rebelling against some basic truths, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still true. It’s natural to want to put our children first, but I think a lot of times people don’t know that until after they’ve had kids.

The fact that society seems to underestimate and undervalue the amount of time and effort every worthwhile endeavour requires means that we believe we should be able to simply and easily manufacture success in any and all areas. If we don’t do exactly that, we either believe that we’re failing personally or the whole system is sexist and unfair.

Playing flamenco guitar is arguably one of the most technically significant things in all of flamenco, and requires many, many hours. For many of the greats in Spain, this means having an entire clan behind them and their success. The culture is one that values the group over the individual, and when those players succeed, they often share financially with the family that helped them get there.

I haven’t put 40,000 hours into my art form as all the Spanish greats have done by adulthood, but not having had a family has allowed me to focus when I chose to. In my 30’s, my biological clock was ticking as it does for many women. I valued the freedom to pursue my path enough to think carefully, to talk to others first and to look for examples of others who were able to pursue their art while giving fully to their families. Part of me was skeptical about doing it all, probably because I’d suffered from chronic fatigue in my 20s and the perfectionist in me wasn’t sure I had enough energy to balance everything. As it turned out, the people I saw either gave their families top priority and did what they could with their art, or they gave to their art first but their children appeared to suffer in a way that didn’t seem fair. By the time I was newly single and 40, a wise, older confidante and staunch feminist told me, ‘If you want to have kids, find a nice, professional man who wants to support the arts. And then realize that you’ll still be making a sacrifice for your children.’ I knew that coming from her, these were the straight goods. That wasn’t what I wanted, so I gave up on having kids with no regrets.

When I look at the few other female flamenco players I’ve met, none of them has kids, either – in fact, they also keep primary relationships at bay. I see that taking care of my own daily needs is challenging enough at times but it would be impossible if I had family responsibilities. On the other hand, women sing and dance; is playing guitar really so much harder than the other flamenco elements? I don’t truly know, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s also serious physical commitment for me to play the way I do. My daily workout routine is essential for me to handle the rigours of rehearsing and performing, which is something the male players I know don’t seem to have to do to keep playing.

Coming back to the Fearless Woman Award: I feel grateful as I reflect on the life and the opportunities I’ve created for myself. I believe that flamenco has taken as much time and energy as a child would have. I didn’t start out knowing this, but I feel blessed that this became clear to me in time to choose as I have. I don’t believe that I’m any more important than women who have raised families. I just spent my energy on something different. I humbly accept the award, knowing that the public acknowledgement helps give my music wings.