On Tuesdays, University of St. Thomas genetics professor Alexandra Simmons drops her daughter off at school early in the morning. She arrives at the University at 8:30 a.m,. ready to attend committee meetings, host office hours, catch up on her latest research project, and teach her students about genetics or ecosystems.
But after all that, she heads to Hunter Dance Center, because Tuesdays–and Thursdays–are the days Simmons teaches flamenco dancing as well.
She loves the switch from teaching science by day, flamenco by night.
“I actually like that there is not a whole lot of connection between the two; that’s what keeps it fresh,” Simmons said.
Simmons has been teaching and performing flamenco for over 25 years, although never competitively. She is the founder and current director for Hierro Forjado, a local flamenco dance troupe.
Simmons says her students are people from all walks of life who are a fun, chatty group. Her flamenco classes are mostly filled with women, although two men attend her class.
Simmons said she feels responsible for teaching her students every aspect of flamenco, correctly. There are many different kinds of “palos,” or types of flamenco. Some palos include singing, or dancing to different types of rhythm; other palos tell folk stories that have been passed down from generation to generation in Spanish gypsy culture. On Tuesdays she teaches them a flamenco-style tango.
Despite her prowess, Simmons considers herself an outsider to flamenco culture because she did not grow up as a gypsy in Spain, and so she strives to bring a certain delicacy to her flamenco lessons.
“You have to really be very humble as you’re looking into this amazing culture and learn it by little bits,” Simmons said.
She said she feels the same responsibility when teaching genetics. The technical vocabulary and all of the tiny aspects that go into genetics mirror the complexity of flamenco.
Born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, Simmons was first introduced to flamenco dancing at the age of 14 after seeing older girls dancing in the schoolyard. That day she went home and insisted to her mother that she learn it too. Except for a brief hiatus in college, she has been dancing flamenco since that day. For Simmons, flamenco turned into a passion that embraced her creativity.
Between finishing graduate school in Venezuela and beginning her post-doctoral studies at Baylor College of Medicine, Simmons relied on flamenco dancing to pay the bills. She says she loved that time in her life, but what she really craved was the intellectual challenge of science. Genetics in particular provided the challenge her brain desired.
Simmons said she was always the “nerdy” person who enjoyed science classes rather than other subjects. In high school she was given the choice of a science or a humanities pathway like most Venezuelan students; she chose science, of course. She discovered her love for genetics in her last year of high school and went on to study education for biological sciences in college, where she graduated first in her class.
Nowadays, Simmons sees her teaching of flamenco and genetics feeding off of each other.
“Teaching [flamenco] has informed me of things I wanted to improve in my academic teaching,” Simmons said.
When she sees her flamenco students become intimidated by a new dance or a complicated step, for example, she lightly coaches them through it, enjoying the freedom of the flamenco classroom. The scientific environment is not so easy-going, she observes, and thus she tries to bring some of those relaxed elements into her UST classroom, despite the need for grades and tests.
“I try to bring the more coaching aspect out of the flamenco and into my academic world,” Simmons said.
She said she is adamant about letting her students know that they have her full support and that she will help them figure out different ways to succeed. Her mission is to give her students the best understanding of flamenco or genetics they can have.
UST sophomore biology major, Amna Irfan, said Simmons, in turn, expects her students to show the same amount of effort that Simmons puts into teaching them.
“She teaches a class that really makes people think about their study habits in a way that will really challenge them,” Irfan said.
Additionally, Simmons puts her own personal touches in her genetics class. When she taught students about karyotyping—the number of chromosomes contained in the cell’s nucleus of an organism–Simmons used her own karyotype as an example. She also dressed up for Halloween, something Irfan said she and other students enjoyed.
Simmons said her commitments to teaching flamenco on top of her academic classes has taught her strict time management, because all of her students rely on her.
Simmons said she hopes she never has to choose between flamenco and genetics, since each one nourishes a completely different aspect of her life.
“Science is what feeds my mind,” she said, “and, in a way, flamenco is what feeds my soul.”
A previous version of this story had a number of errors. Simmons has been teaching flamenco for over 25 years, not 18 years, and she teaches at Hunter Dance Center, not Dance Source Houston Studio. She also received an undergraduate degree in education for biological sciences not a degree in biological sciences. We regret these errors.