Flamenco is such a captivating art form and it enthralls and entices novices to begin a journey of learning it. So, they sign up for a class and then……
FREAK OUT! Why? Who knew flamenco was so complicated! There are the steps, then the footwork and the hand coordination and then that weird 12 count rhythm and all the different rhythms and, and, and….
It can be overwhelming for sure. Realize that flamenco isn’t like learning how to ride a bike. If you think of learning how to dance flamenco more like learning a new language, then it’s easier to digest the whole concept and just enjoy the journey.
But fear not, here is YOUR general guide to flamenco for beginners.
A SUPER BRIEF HISTORY OF FLAMENCO
Flamenco stems from hundreds of years of Andalusian (southern region of Spain) history that interplays with Andalusian, Moorish, Jewish and Gitano (Roma) cultures before and after the Reconquest of Spain (1492). But it is from the Gitanos’ anguished history that much of flamenco’s earliest most profound rhythms come from. In the beginning, the cante (singing) was the center of flamenco and stayed within family settings. By the late 18th century it began to venture into a performance environment and grew to the Golden Age of Flamenco in the late 19th century where the “cafe cantantes” flourished. This is where the dancer became the major attraction of the performances. Flamenco entered the theater in the late 19th and early 20th century where it was criticized for falling victim to commercialism.
FORMS OF FLAMENCO
At its core, flamenco consists of toque (guitar), cante (singing), and baile (dance). The music of flamenco is based on different palos (rhythms). Think of your favorite song and think of others doing covers of it or sampling it in variations. You could hear the chords of that song and immediately recognize it as your favorite song- quick, name that tune! That’s the same with flamenco. There are many rhythms like Alegrias, Guajiras, Tangos, Solea, Fandangos, Seguirilla, etc. They are all identifiable by their own tempo, feeling, melody and chords. Some are danced while others are only sung.
Although Flamenco is highly associated with Spain, it is still an Andalusian art form where it is still taught in homes through an oral tradition and occurs at informal gatherings called juergas. It is also taught formally in dance academies throughout Spain and has become a world wide phenomenon such that it has been declared a World Heritage Treasure by UNESCO in 2010. Flamenco aficionados from all over the world practice flamenco and flock to Spain every year for workshops and studies.
Generally, you’ll see flamenco in three forms- casera, tablao, teatro. Casera (home-style) means the kind of flamenco you’ll find at homes danced by non professionals at parties or juergas. This is where you’ll see grandma get up to do a little pata’a por bulerias at a wedding. Then there’s tablao flamenco which is the type performed at the flamenco restaurants or clubs. These are small venues and tend to be improvised, although there may be some rehearsal for ongoing shows. Finally, teatro (theater) are the big flamenco productions that you see touring with company dancers, a choreographer and many musicians. Much thought is put into costuming, lighting, story and choreography.
From there you could say there are two types of dance styles seen in tablao and theater and it’s from how the dancer learned to dance. Gitano style tends to be taught within a Gitano family home and is more raw and unrefined. Then the “rest” of flamenco styling tends to be quite broad but the general idea is that it’s learned in the dance studios and dancers may also train in other styles such as ballet. One isn’t better than the other, they just have different stylings.
COMPONENTS OF FLAMENCO FOR DANCERS
New beginners will most likely learn Tangos first, which is a fun and light hearted 4-count rhythm, then move on to one of the 12 count rhythms after several weeks. But what do they actually learn?
We start off with palmas, which is the hand clapping that goes along with keeping the rhythm. It’s important to be able to “hear” the rhythm and to keep time with the palmas. Then we move on to learning the hand movements that when done correctly look like beautiful fluttering birds. Then there’s marcaje which are the marking steps followed by pies (pronounced pee-yes, not the desserts) which is any of the rhythmical footwork that can be used as an accent or for a whole footwork sequence (escobilla).
Dancers learn all the various technique but we’re always learning the cante and the compás. We can’t dance without it.
In a live flamenco show, the dancer is in tune with the singer and the guitarist. They’re all playing off of each other just like a good jazz band when they’re improvising. If the dancer brings up the tempo, the musicians follow. If the guitarist plays a falseta, the dancer dances without footwork to let the guitarist shine. When the singer is singing, the dancer dances according the mood. It’s a conversation between all three elements.
The most important element is the compás, which is the rhythm. In the United States, we teachers generally teach flamenco in Spanglish, speaking English while sprinkling flamenco terms in Spanish. For example I’ll say, “You’re dancing out of compás,” which means “You’re dancing out of rhythm. I will also say, “We’ll do this step for 4 compases and then transition.” In this case, compás means a measure- a count of 4 or a count of 12, depending on which palo (rhythm) we are dancing.
Now, compás is the one thing that can truly trip up a dancer. It’s important to be open to enveloping the compás to listen to it, to hear it, to feel the accents. Usually the 4 count rhythms are easier to dance to for American dancers because we’re accustomed to the count. However, it’s the 12 count that is most challenging, but it’s more prevalent in flamenco.
The 12 count rhythm generally starts on 12 and ends on 10 with the accents on 12, 3, 6, 8, 10. Whaaaaaat? Basically, the rhythm begins on the 12 count of the measure and then when it ends, it ends on 10.
12 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10 – 11 – 12 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10
This shows you two compases of 12, with the accents on 12, 3, 6, 8, 10 and then it ends on 10. Do you remember the musical West Side Story? The song “America” is in Buleria which is a 12 count rhythm.
12 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8 – 9 – 10
I – like – to – BE – in – a – ME – RI – CA
LOL. It’s true!
HOW TO LEARN FLAMENCO
The only way to learn flamenco is to get out of your own way, meaning that we can over think things sometimes. Flamenco involves allowing yourself to open up, releasing while there still is a tension. Kind of like don’t over think when you’re simmering in your flamenco energy, getting ready to reach a boiling point! But the other obvious things are to show up to class, practice, listen to flamenco, and watch flamenco.
Sounds like a lot, I know! But when you have the flamenco bug, all of it is a joy and feeds our passions (even when we’re frustrated at not understanding a particular piece of footwork!)