"You feel it, and you live it!" Vanessa Barry says as she rises from the table at Borders to demonstrate. Barry and her best friend, Kembral Barrera, are coincidentally both wearing pink shirts, black pants and heels. They turn slowly to face each other, arms outstretched, hands working and feet stomping in time to imaginary castanets. Jackson's only two flamenco dancers come from very different backgrounds, yet their passion for Spanish culture—and particularly this ancient dance—has brought them together.
Barry, 29, grew up in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where she began studying flamenco dance at age 4, and danced with the Girondina Flamenco Dancing Academy until 1999, when she moved to Jackson. While studying political science at Jackson State University (she graduated in 2005), and now as a full-time MBA student at Ashland University, Barry has continued dancing. Since 2001, she has been a regular at the annual Latino Festival and has also performed at Casino Magic in Biloxi and the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson, among others.
"I am so grateful for all the opportunities Jackson has brought to me," Barry says. "I love this place, I feel like it's my own, so I feel like I have to give something back to the society." All her performances are benefits, and have gone to help organizations working to cure cancer, diabetes, epilepsy and others.
Barrera, 27, grew up in Braxton, Miss., and she, too, began dancing—jazz, tap and gymnastics—at an early age. She continued dancing throughout high school and grew fascinated with Spanish culture and dance when her family hosted a high-school exchange student from Madrid, Spain. Barrera began her serious study of Spanish language and culture at the University of Southern Mississippi. She studied abroad in Madrid for a semester, then in Pueblo, Mexico. For the past few years, she has been teaching Spanish in Simpson and Rankin County public schools during the day, and nights and weekends, she prowls for spots in Jackson where she can salsa with her husband, or she practices flamenco with Barry.
"Anybody can jump up and say, 'I want to go dance flamenco,' but it takes hours in front of the mirror," Barrera says.
Barrera and Barry are always looking for more opportunities to perform around Jackson, and this year they will begin teaching flamenco to the Mississippi Hispanic Association's Folkloric Dance Group. "I think Jackson has come a long way since the time I've gotten here," Barry says about the city's arts and culture scene. "Every year, I see new things that just make me so proud of being part of this place, so I am trying to help a little bit to push it to a better place."