What do flamenco dancers study?
You might think this a redundant question. To be a dancer you need to learn how to dance - that much is obvious. However, as we hinted at in yesterday’s post there is a lot more to learning flamenco than just learning a bunch of steps.
Take a look at the image below…
This is a very basic overview of what we need to learn to be able to dance flamenco. Under each of those headings and sub-headings there is an infinite amount of information to be learnt.
At this point it is easy to feel overwhelmed - we’ve all been there - but I prefer to just think about sitting back to enjoy the ride. It is much less stressful and loads more fun!
Thanks to the relationship between the flamenco singer, guitarist and dancer a huge part of our study as flamenco dancers is music.
Without this understanding it is impossible to be able to perform flamenco dance.
Although the performances that you see are mostly choreographed, they are never a fixed design. In the moment the singer may change the way they sing a verse by stretching or shortening the syllables of a verse and the guitarist and dancer need to respond. The dancer if they feel it can also improvise and play with the musicians they are with on stage.
Anything can happen and you need to be prepared.
Compás refers to flamenco rhythm. There are many different types of compás which change according to the palo (style).
You can say that someone has or does not have compás (as you would with the word rhythm in english) or you can use the word to refer to the shape of the rhythmic cycle for each palo. You can also use it to refer to what we might know as a bar of music.
Our first job when starting to learn flamenco is to learn the compás and to embody the different flamenco rhythms. The steps actually come second to the rhythm. If you have a complicated step that is out of time (afuera del compás) you are not dancing flamenco. If you have a simple step that matches the shape and the feeling of the rhythm you are dancing flamenco and much better than the dancer with the fancy moves.
Cante (song) refers to the different styles of flamenco song. To be a flamenco singer is a very highly regarded position amongst flamenco aficionados and these artists are highly celebrated for their craft.
We will look more at the different styles of cante in another post but at this point what you need to know is that cante shapes how we dance. There are various styles (known as palos) and within these styles there are many different variations both regional and personal.
There are many singers that you will get to know throughout your flamenco journey but here are a few names in no particular order to get you started.
Toque refers to the playing of the flamenco guitar. The guitarist has the job of accompanying the cantaor (singer) while they are singing and accompanying the dancer when the singer has stopped singing. The guitarist has the hardest job out of all the flamenco artists. Not only do they need to spend hours a day studying how to play the guitar they must also have a deep understanding of the cante and the baile (dance).
The art of playing flamenco guitar requires intense dedication and patience. Although the cante is really the star of the show in the last century there have been some immense artists of flamenco guitar that have changed and help mould flamenco into what it is today.
To get you started here are some names you should know..
The study of technique is a huge part of any study of movement and flamenco is no different. Technique practice builds strength and confidence and gives you all the tools you need to be able to dance and interpret the many different palos available to you.
Flamenco footwork technique forms a large part of any technique class. When you begin you will concentrate on feeling and understanding the position the body needs to be in when doing footwork and also learning how to articulate you feet so you can use them as rhythmic instruments.
Most people have never used their feet in this way so it can feel like an uphill battle for quite some time. You need to start with the basics and give your body time to adapt to this new way of moving.
Once you have some control over what your feet are doing you can start to play with different steps and play musically. I have been studying flamenco for 15 years and I still have trouble when I learn a new step. I know I'll get there eventually but it takes time so you need to be ready to give yourself a break.
The style of the body in flamenco dance is again something completely unique. Not only do you need to learn how to coordinate your body, arms, wrist, head, shoulders etc.. you need to do it at a different speed (probably) to what your feet are doing.
Hello mind meltdown!
Flamenco dancers study the different postures of the upper body along with braceo (arms) which includes the circular movement of the hands, turns (there are multiple styles), and working to understand how to engage the weight of the body and be completely grounded.
Palmas means hand clapping. In flamenco palmas is used to support the singer, guitarist or dancer when they are performing.
All students of flamenco study the different palmas patterns which serves to reinforce the rhythm practice you need to do for your dance practice but also because at some point in your flamenco career you will need to do palmas for someone else.
Palmas is one of the most challenging techniques to learn, just like the guitarist the palmas does not lead it follows. You need to listen to what is going on in front of you and have complete control over what you are doing in order to support whom ever you are accompanying.
I haven't included in the scheme above are the various other elements the dancer can also choose to work with. These are castañuelas (castanets), the Manton de manila (the shawl), and the Bata de cola (a long tail skirt). All of these elements require their own technique and hours of dedication.
Once you have and understanding of the music and you have control of some technique you can start to try to interpret what it is that you are listening to while you dance.
Dancing with a flamenco singer is an experience like no other. For me something magical almost alchemical happens when you feel a connection with the singer and the musicians you are dancing with. If you let it, it will take your movements to another level.
Understanding how this works and how to respect the cante when you dance is part of the study of interpretation. You learn how to show and share parts of yourself but also to let the cante transform and guide you along the way.
It might take you some time to get to this stage but if you are patient it will happen.
In the meantime you can take a look at some of these great interpreters of baile flamenco...
It is really quite something that I hope you will get to experience.
Thank you for joining us for the second part of our guide for absolute beginners! Come back for more tomorrow when we'll introduce you to a few of the different palos that you will learn as a beginner.
Renae & José