Filipino-Canadian in Focus: Echavez Siblings

By , on September 14, 2013


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Echavez siblings Lee, Anja, Mia, and Gino aren’t just performing artists, they’re Flamenco dancers. And while not everyone might not be as familiar with this style as they are, they share their passion for Flamenco through every cante (singing), every toque (guitar playing), and every baile (dance).

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“A Happy Accident”

Born and raised in the Philippines, the Echavez family enjoys your typical Pinoy family activities. But it was one fateful day at the mall in year 2000 that changed their lives for good.

“I always maintain that our immigration was more or less a happy accident,” said Gino.

“We were having a leisurely time in the mall – the boys had the toy store to hang out in, mom and the girls had clothes shopping to do, but dad had nothing in particular in mind,” Lee recalled.

“Papa walked into a Canadian Opportunities satellite office in the mall for some information, he walked out having paid a small fee to get his application started. Come 2008 we had our immigrant visas and had to leave everything behind. We came to Canada and stayed for two months to get our immigrant cards and went back to settle personal affairs… We came back [to Canada] one by one in 2009,” he continued.

The siblings also recounted their struggles and triumphs when they first moved to Canada — like adjusting to a new lifestyle and culture.

“I find that it is a lot more laidback here than in Manila. Although such a small thing, one example is that most stores and restaurants close so early compared to Manila. It took us a while to get used to that,” Anja explained.

Gino agreed. “Lifestyle was a major adjustment but it was very nice to discover that Canadians are very welcoming and friendly,” he said.

Another area where the family had a little difficulty with is gaining employment.

“We had to gain employment that required no Canadian work or volunteer experience whatsoever,” Lee shared.

“However, we made sure those jobs helped us gain skills we needed for more promising future employment, skills such as cash handling and customer interaction,” Lee added.

Though struggles and obstacles exist, the Echavez siblings learned the ropes in no time with the help of the people around them.

“[Another] obstacle was building a productive network,” Lee remembered.

“It was only by coincidence that we found the Ateneo Alumni Association of BC, which has been our network since then, and the wonderful people we have met, in one way or another, have helped us gainful employment in our respective fields today,” he continued.

Gino gratefully remembered those who helped them out while they were starting out in Canada. He said, “We’ve met a lot of really good people and we will always be thankful to them for helping us when we were still trying to get our bearings.”

“I also had to establish new relationships and make new friends. It was difficult because I didn’t share a lot of their experiences because I grew up in a different country. Going back to school for a year helped me make new friends and get back into a normal rhythm. I felt more adjusted after I went back to school and started an office job,” explained Anja.

It’s true, Filipinos thrive and flourish in the midst of adversity, and the Echavez siblings’ triumph over their neophyte struggles in the Great White North can be summarized using Lee’s words: “In whatever country you find yourself, it’s true that going through life is all about making the most of the little windows of opportunity that all of us receive.”

Just this June, their youngest sister Mia moved back to the Philippines to pursue her education.

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At a tender age

At a time when Flamenco was still “unheard of” in the Philippines, their loving mother signed them up for class that changed their lives forever.

“It took our mom years to find a Flamenco school in the Philippines and back then, it was always difficult to get support outside the Flamenco community,” Gino said.

“When our mom saw a flamenco teacher featured and interviewed on TV, she immediately asked us to try flamenco,” Anja recalled.

The siblings recall their mother being “obsessed” with flamenco since she was young. This passion for the performing arts gave life to three children who grew up giving performances during family reunions. And while their mother might have been responsible for enrolling them in that Flamenco class, it was their innermost calling that made them stay.

“We ended up liking [Flamenco] because it was challenging and it was not your usual art form,” said Lee.

“We were unsure what it was but we were excited to try something new. Right after our first lesson, we already knew that we would love it. I find it very unique,” Anja shared.

Before learning the art of dancing Flamenco, Gino recalled competing as a martial artist, which he also considers as an art form.

“I found that the drive, passion, and motivation I used to feel when I was still competing translated very naturally to Flamenco and performing on stage,” Gino said.

Now, tons of years and experiences later, the siblings have formed a tighter bond than before. And while some families might find it a bit odd to perform alongside another family member, the Echavez siblings have learned to love and make the most out of their situation.

“There are four of us Echavezes doing Flamenco and we make a quaint little company just by ourselves,” Lee said.

“There are no disadvantages whatsoever as long as you’re all equally proud of your work as a family; the advantages are immense, from as tiny a concern as remembering choreography better to big concerns like overall morale and improving as individual dancers by working together,” he added.

“Each one of us have different strengths and personalities as dancers too. It is such an advantage to learn from each other if you want to improve on a specific technique. It’s so easy to point out what the other can improve on too because we’re so comfortable with each other,” Anja seconded her brother.

“[Performing with them is] not weird. It’s actually weirder not having them around. It’s really nice to have built-in collaborators in your house when you’re working on dances!” Gino said with a laugh.

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Behind every movement

Such a passionate and expressive art form like Flamenco is best performed with a deep-seated ardor for your chosen style, as well as a vast source of inspiration and motivation. For the Echavez siblings, this wasn’t a problem.

“Our inspiration comes from sheer passion for the art. We just found something we really like and we strive to be better and better at it,” Lee shared.

For Gino and Anja, other dancers provide them with inspiration and motivation to keep on pursuing excellence.

“Our idols inspire us too. We watch youtube videos and get pointers on how to move better and dance stronger,” Anja explained.

“Everyone has their own story and everyone has their own style. It’s inspiring to see the creativity and courage that goes into a dancer’s performance,” Gino added.

Gino also added that performing isn’t just about being a part of a grand production nor does it need a stage.

“[Performing] is essentially just a person with the intent of showing something to a perceived audience. Performing, sharing the things I love to do with others, is just something I’ve always found joy in,” Gino explained.

For Anja, Flamenco isn’t just another kind of performance art, it is “home.”

“ I feel “at home” when I dance flamenco. It elicits intense passion through dance and allows the audience to feel the same emotions as what the dancer is experiencing. It’s a very beautiful art form,” said Anja.

“…Once I step on stage and start dancing, nervousness goes away and I just feel completely in my element,” she added.

“The feeling of knowing you’ve delivered the emotion you intended to through your dancing is what makes it exciting and what we like best about Flamenco,” Lee chimed.

“For me dancing is an intensely personal, vulnerable moment,” says Gino.

“It’s a very double-edged thing: on one end, you’re doing something that people admire you for, but on the other hand you’re also showing people your innermost expressions and asking them, “what do you think, is this good enough?” It’s thrilling but is also somewhat scary. That’s what keeps me dancing,” he shared.

Just like most successes in life, being a great performer comes with its share of trials and victories.

“We have put a lot of time and effort into Flamenco even before we came to Canada and we came to Canada already possessing the bare minimum of the required skills to perform in the professional level,” Lee said.

For Gino, the struggle isn’t just for the artist but for the art itself.

“I think the major struggle not just for us but for most Flamenco artists is that the art suffers a degree of anonymity when it comes to mainstream culture, except maybe in Spain,” Gino explained.

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Preparing for greatness

The Echavez siblings has performed in critically acclaimed stage productions that earned raves from the audience. With such an intimate performance style and the nerves of performing in front of a great crowd, how do they prepare before stepping on that stage?

According to Lee, preparation makes up the most of the performance.

“Preparation is 90% of the whole performance. It comes from at least a year of practicing the choreography and even more years before that of perfecting the required techniques to properly execute the choreography,” Lee explained.

Recently, the siblings finished performing in “Peter Pan” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

“I played Tiger Lily for the ‘Peter Pan’ show,” says Anja.

“One of my favorite scenes was when Tiger Lily danced with two other Indian princesses. I distinctly remember feeling like I was dreaming while dancing yet so aware of what I was doing on stage,” she beamed.

“The mermaid scene was also beautiful. It was a classical flamenco dance and the lighting and smoke effect added dramatic effect to the graceful dance,” she added.

“Personally, I felt a lot of pressure having to play the titular role (‘Peter Pan’) and I just kept telling myself to seize the opportunity and do my best not only during the performance but also during rehearsals,” Gino recalled.

“My favorite piece was when Peter dances with his shadow. It was technically demanding to dance and was a lot of fun to do. My favorite scene as a spectator though would be the Indian Princesses. It was just a very moving demonstration of élan,” he continued.

“[For ‘Sleeping Beauty’], we practiced about 3-4 days a week after work to polish our group dances as well as our individual dances. Practices before our show were intense but they’re so much fun!” Anja beamed with nostalgia after having performed ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in June.

“For Sleeping Beauty, I got to play Maleficent (the evil witch), Gino as Prince Phillip, Mia as the Fairy Merryweather and Lee as King Hubert,” she added.

“Performing [in Vancouver] was different because we had to do a lot of acting and character development. The experience is a bit different that way because not only do you have to focus on performing flamenco, you have to make sure you accurately portray your character in the story,” Anja explained when asked about some differences in their performances.

And although the siblings were already decorated with accolades for their stunning performances, they still dream of bigger things.

“We all dream of sharing the stage with any of our Flamenco idols Farruquito, El Farru, and Sara Baras,” Lee said.

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Filipinos for Flamenco?

In an effort to get more Filipinos acquainted with Flamenco, the siblings regularly participate in Flamenco performances when they occasionally go home to the Philippines.

“I hope more Filipinos get into Flamenco. Flamenco as an art form is deeply rooted in the sentiments of an oppressed people… It is a sentiment Filipinos are familiar with, which we think is the reason why us Filipinos excel in Flamenco,” Lee mused, to which Anja agreed.

They both believe that Filipinos excel in the arts, especially when it comes to conveying one’s emotions through any art form.

“I’d like to see more people supporting the performing arts,” Gino said.

“I want people to be more interested in Flamenco, too. I hold the same hopes for Filipinos and the Philippines,” he added.

“Whenever we go home to the Philippines, we make sure to perform with the company we were part of, the Grupo Centro Flamenco of Centro Flamenco Philippines. They have yearly shows staged around the end of November and have regular shows every two weeks at Barcino in Makati City,” Lee said.

“We’re really lucky to have a great flamenco family back in Manila,” Anja beamed.

“That’s where we started and developed to be the dancers that we are today. We’re just always happy to plug ourselves in and perform with them in any of the shows they are working on,” she added.

“They come up with very powerful themes. It would be fun to perform with our Manila flamenco family again,” Gino hoped.

The Echavez siblings have a few words of wisdom for aspiring performance artists.

“Take time to find and research schools or institutions that will help you hone your skills. Don’t be afraid to meet new people who share the same passion as you do because that’s how you will develop yourself further. Lastly, always enjoy every step of the way because there could be times that you will feel discouraged and those experiences will help you remember why you love what you’re doing,” said Anja.

“It’s never too late to start. If you decide you like something, go after it! Don’t think twice. Never stop learning and never be too proud to admit that you’re lacking in something when you are… Always have a clear direction and never stop moving. Last of all, have fun! It’s not supposed to feel like a chore when you love doing something,” Gino explained.

“Love your art and live your art. Love it enough to dream of it at night and live it until the passion for your art echoes in how you live your everyday life,” Lee said.

All photos courtesy of Anja Echavez.