I’ve been dancing flamenco for over 25 years now, but I still consider myself a student, always learning, always trying to understand more. One thing I know is that, as dancers, we all want to dance like Carmen Amaya NOW! It can be such an emotional struggle to get to where we want to be. Add to that the regret we feel if we started flamenco later in life and we dream of more than just dancing in class for fun. (Although, we should always be dancing for fun too!)
We dare to dream of dancing on stage with musicians, taking center stage and feeling the music overtake us as we dance with power and abandon. Some teachers may encourage you and guide you. Other teachers may put you down and tell you you don’t have what it takes to even be in a student show.
Even if one gets to dance on a stage, it’s never enough! We never feel as though we’ve reached that special moment of pure catharsis, being in the zone or duende.
But we forget that there is no destination, just the journey. And the journey is what WE make of it.
With that being said, here are some of the struggles I have had to deal with throughout my years. I hope from reading these that they help you celebrate where you are in your own journey, encourage you to keep going and send some love your own way.
In the beginning it was just a struggle to understand the 12 count compás (rhythm). The 4 count, of course, was easy because it’s the rhythm that I grew up with. I didn’t have to count, I just felt it. But with the 12 count, it was a constant battle of always counting and not knowing to be in step with my counting and the actual compás that was playing. It took some time to internalize the 12 count compás, but it happened!
Listening to a lot of flamenco music, watching videos and playing palmas to them helped me to internalize the rhythm. Whenever you listen to flamenco music, first find the “12”, then see if you can follow along with palmas with certainty. It trains your ears and sharpens your sense of compás, which in turn improves your dancing.
The other battle was with learning choreographies and not understanding how everything fit together within the whole dance and within a letra. It wasn’t because my teacher didn’t try to teach it. It’s just that my ears and my mind couldn’t absorb everything! But it came together slowly, one bit at a time.
First came learning the basic structure of all dances- letra, falseta, escobilla, buleria/macho/tangos. Then came finally seeing how the other elements padded the basic structure. I’m referring to things like how one movement could be considered a cierre (a closing) or a llamada (a calling for something else to happen) depending from which side of the dance you’re looking at it!
After understanding the whole dance came truly understanding the structure of letras in the most common palos (flamenco rhythms) that we use to dance. So, understanding the format of an Alegrías, Solea por Bulerías or Guajiras, for example.
The trick was knowing the difference between natural remates (breaks) and variations on the normal letra structure. What helped was being able to listen to the cante (singing) and following the peaks and valleys of the melody. This is what makes improvising possible. Easier said than done, but any dancer can do this.
Watching other dancers, especially the great dancers from Spain, helped me with structure and its variables. I watched and noticed what they were doing within a dance- llamada, falseta, letra, escobilla, letra, escobilla, palo seco, macho, etc. Also, I would dance to whatever flamenco music I had- see if I could resolve with the singer even if it was only with upper body styling. This helped with learning to improvise.
STYLING VS. FEELING
I remember being frustrated at not looking the way I felt while dancing. I would be disappointed at a video of myself because I didn’t look the way I thought I had. But it takes years to build the strength, mobility and muscle memory, so I was too hard on myself.
I want to be clear that there’s a difference between being an a-hole to yourself and being non-judgmental on improving some skills. One is telling yourself that you suck and the other is saying that you’re ok and you’re just trying to improve. Which do you prefer?
What I realize now is that styling comes from physical skills, which takes time. BUT it’s really the FEELING that you put behind the skill that will make the styling so much more powerful.
So, I still can systematically try to correct whatever I see to work on styling. I do this one bit at a time so I don’t get overwhelmed and discouraged. For example, if your hands look frantic while dancing, practice while paying special attention to your hand movements. If you have a habit of always looking down while you dance, practice dancing while looking at yourself in the mirror.
However, the big difference is in the attitude and the feeling behind it. Do one bit at a time and remember how you want to feel while dancing. You may just have to work on muscle memory to improve a skill, but remembering that you want to feel strong, powerful, expressive while doing it feels much better than berating yourself for not having the skill yet.
I was fortunate in my early years that my teacher was awesome, my schedule was open and I was able to take classes three times per week and practice all the time as well. But now life is a constant struggle to find the time and motivation to practice.
The hardest part about practicing flamenco is WHERE! Ideally, you can practice in a dance studio where you can see yourself, have plenty of room and have proper floors. However, that get’s expensive and you can’t always take the time out to go to the studio, practice, and drive home. Of course working towards a show puts on that added pressure of practicing.
However, since COVID hit, I lacked that outside motivation of getting ready for a show to practice. What saved me was something so simple: scheduling it and having a plan! I have a set warm up that puts me in dance mode as I automatically go through the sequence. Then I work on whatever I had planned- practice one section of choreography only, practice just a particular footwork pattern, etc.
If I can plan 20 minutes of practice without interruptions (hello home schooling and working from home households) then it’s a win!
Of course there have been more struggles and plenty of opportunities for enlightenment. I would love to hear yours. In the comments section, please tell me what you struggle with in learning flamenco and even of your moments of clarity!