When learning flamenco, dancers can become so overwhelmed with understanding the different rhythms or palos. They think they must learn them all at once. That’s impossible even for you over-achievers!
When I teach palos or the concept of them to my students, I suggest to think of each as one of their favorite songs. For example, imagine the song “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. If you’re a fan, you could hear maybe 2 or 3 notes of that song and BOOM, identify it- even if it’s the jazzy lounge version! Same thing with flamenco.
Each palo is identified by the chords, tempo and overall aire. So, you could hear a few notes of an Alegrias and be able to identify it as such– even if there are different lyrics. (It’s like Stairway to Heaven notes and tempo but with different lyrics!)
There are many diagrams on the internet that show how all the palos are related. A common visual is a tree with big branches being major categories of palos (like Soleares, Cantiñas, Tangos, etc.) Then smaller branches for the various rhythms of that category. Now that’s a LOT of information and can be a great deep-dive study in flamencología. One quick distinction that you can make is if the palo is Cante Chico (which means light hearted song) or Cante Jondo (which means deep song).
However, for us, here, I’m going to breakdown the top palos that I would teach to my students more or less in the order that I would teach them. Of course, there are many more!
This is by no means an intensive study of palos. Again, these are the most common ones I expose my students to in classes. But after reading the description, watch the videos and see if you can hear the chords that make it the particular rhythm.
Fun & funky 4 count rhythm. Can be danced por fiesta much like Bulerías with the dancer going out to dance a little pata’a– a little something and not an entire dance. It can also be used as a choreography with escobillas (long footwork patterns), multiple letras (verses). And to top it off, Tangos is the rhythm that ends all dances of 4 count like Farruca, Tientos, Tarantos.
Solea por Bulerías
Mid to fast tempo with the 12 count compás. It’s basically the letra of Soleares with the tempo closer to Bulerías. The aire is aggressive and sharp which makes this a fun palo for beginners to start with since you can dig in deep with those flamenco feelings. I remember being told by a singer that dancing Solea por Bulerías is like dancing on shards of glass. Ouch! The format of a super basic dance is fairly straight forward: Letras, Escobilla, Bulería. You can read more about the structure of dances here.
Mid to fast tempo in 12 count compás. The aire is happy and light and danced by both men and women. This is such a fun rhythm! Even though the aire is happy, there are many dancers that sink their teeth into it and get funky with it. If you can’t identify it right away, one way to know that it’s Alegrías is when the singer usually starts singing, instead of singing a regular entrada of ay, ay, ay, the singer sings “tiri ti tran tran tran, tiri ti tran, tran, tran……..). Alegrías has a few different elements than other dances: Letras, Subida (tempo build up), Silencio (slow falseta specific for Alegrías,) Escobilla, Bulerías de Cádiz.
Mid to slow tempo in 4 count compás. This syrupy palo is a great one for beginners to try for the slower rhythms that allows for deep expression. The aire is feminine yet grounded and earthy. I love dancing to the palo Tientos because for me it’s so grounded, earthy and sensual. In my former life, I used to be a bellydancer, so the 4 count palos in flamenco bring me back to that spirit of movement. Well, at least that’s my interpretation. The format of the dance is pretty standard: Letras, Escobilla, Tangos.
Mid to fast tempo in 12 count compás. This palo is super feminine, languid and humid. The music originated in Cuba so many of the lyrics mention a beautiful Cuban woman, walking the streets of Havana, smoking a cigar- not necessarily all at the same time. This is generally danced by women, but sometimes you’ll see men dance it with some light energy. Many dancers use a fan or a bata de cola— or even both like this one! The format is standard: Letras, Escobilla, Bulerías (which actually is just a faster version of the letra of Guajiras.)
All tempos in 6 count compás. Now this technically isn’t flamenco but you’ll see it danced plenty in tablao shows. It’s a folkloric dance from Sevilla and a set choreography danced in partners. Besides tablao shows, you’ll see it danced constantly during the Feria de Sevilla in Spring- danced by everyone. There are four set coplas (letras) in Sevillanas, so even if your partner dances it slightly differently, you’ll both dance perfectly together (as long as you’re both dancing the same copla!)
Fast tempo in 12 count compás, sometimes counted in 6. This is fun and funky and improvised. Like Tangos, this is danced por fiesta, meaning that it’s improvised and short. You’ll see this at the end of shows when the entire cuadro stands together and one person at a time goes to the middle to dance a little something, a little pata’a.— including the musicians if you’re lucky. However, Bulerías is also used to end most 12 count dances like Solea por Bulerias, Solea, Guajiras, Bamberas, etc.
Slow tempo in 12 count compás. When I teach the flamenco 12 count to a group of new beginners, I usually start in Solea because it’s slow enough for them to grasp the concept of the compás. But then I move them onto Solea por Bulerias when we actually start learning a choreography. Why? Because Solea as a complete dance is difficult BECAUSE it’s so slow. LOL!
Solea is one of the heavy hitters of all of palos (rhythms) of flamenco. It’s profound, somber and the mother of all palos (imho). A dancer will have to have studied years before feeling comfortable with this palo. Even though it’s slow, the dancer has to have the compás complete secure to be able to dance this slow rhythm and be truly expressive. It also can follow a basic format of Letras, Escobilla, Bulerías.
All tempos in 5 count compás. Also, a very intense, profound palo. Seguirillas (also spelled Siguirillas, Seguiriya, Seguidilla- take your pick!) is an intense palo, considered cante jondo (deep song.) It’s similar to Solea in that it is profound and extremely soulful, however, it tends to be more aggressively danced if the tempo is faster. Otherwise, it can also be danced to a syrupy slow tempo. It follows the same format of Letra, Escobilla, but ends in the Macho.
You got all this? 😂 It’s important for dancers to understand the palos they are dancing. But take it one dance at a time! It can take years to be able to identify any or all of these, much less dance them.
Identifying the palos and understanding the complete structure of flamenco dances really makes or breaks a flamenco dancer. It’s the same as learning a language. Do you understand what you’re speaking or are you just parroting back what your instructor told you?
If you want to be able to SPEAK & UNDERSTAND flamenco, then please join me in the Online Flamenco Studio. I have many lectures that break down every palo so you can confidently dance your own dance with a sense of ownership.