So, you want to dance in flamenco tablaos. Well then you’ll have to learn the rules, AKA the rules of engagement!
I’ve been dancing flamenco for over 25 years now (!!!!)– studying, performing, teaching, producing. All of it is exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. But I think the toughest part is learning how to dance in the tablao— That’s performing flamenco at restaurants and nightclubs with little or no rehearsal.
One doesn’t really learn the rules or structure of tablao in the studio. It’s always on the job learning! But at least you can learn some key concepts before you head onto the stage so you don’t have the guitarist shaking his head at you or the singer rolling her eyes at you!
So, HOW DO YOU LEARN HOW TO DANCE IN TABLAO?
First, let me say that I just started performing regularly in tablao again since before the pandemic started and it feels GREAT! Even though I love producing shows and coming up with a tight show, I still just love the energy of dancing with a good cuadro without rehearsal!
But, let me tell you how I started and then you can get an idea of what to expect.
I started in San Francisco with my teacher, Yaelisa back in the late 1990’s. I used to go to all of her tablao shows and got up to do Bulerías every chance I got, because that’s the only way you really learn to dance Bulerías…. by doing it. Then I finally started doing some gigs around town where I just danced Tangos, Bulerías and Sevillanas. Inevitably I’d forget at least one copla of Sevillanas and Tangos was always unpredictable.
I finally got a solo together on my own and performed it at one of her Cafe Flamenco shows- a nice, safe environment with a little rehearsal with the musicians.
But that was just the beginning. Disaster struck when I finally was able to dance a solo in tablao. What I practiced in the studio was certainly never what happened on stage. The singer didn’t sing the way I thought he would, so I’d forget my choreography for the letra. Then I’d feel bad for not being able to improvise or go with the flow. Or I might have forgotten my escobilla, gone too fast to keep up, or worse, gotten out of compás *gasp*.
It totally sucks when you mess up in tablao in the beginning because you have such high expectations for yourself. Or at least I did. But it’s what every dancer goes through when starting out to perform and you just have to go there and learn from it.
When I moved to Los Angeles back in 2003 and started in the flamenco scene here, I danced at all the tablao venues as I could. There were some wonderful experiences of a very strong cuadro supporting me. That was very uplifting and satisfying- when we’re all in tune with each other and feeding off of each other’s energy. Then there were very challenging gigs where the cuadro wasn’t very experienced: the palmas are rushed or absent, the guitar rushes, the singer is out of compás. But I actually learned the most from those gigs because I was forced to keep my act together!!!
But, if you don’t get the opportunity to have a regular show or you’re getting ready to start, here is what you need to know!!!
COMPAS, COMPAS, COMPAS
It’s no surprise that you’ll need a good sense of compás! When everything hits the fan, you’ll need to rely on your sense of compás to stay in the moment calmly. But you also need to know the basic structure of a typical flamenco show AND the basic structure of a typical dance, no matter the palo. And, of course, you should know the structure of your own dance inside and out!
Generally, there might be two sets for the gig. First set starts off with something to warm up the crowd and the cuadro. Sevillanas or Tangos are usually a good thing to start with since it doesn’t take any mental effort, each dancer can do a little dance for warm up before solos.
Then there are the dance solos. Usually, the tablao show crowds aren’t flamenco aficionados, so you’re going to keep the general mood light and not go into the heavy palos. You’ll see palos like Alegrías, Solea por Bulerías, Tientos, Guajiras and not Solea or Tarantos– generally.
The second set can start off with a musical number before more solos. Then you end it all with the Bulerías fin de fiesta, when each dancer comes up to dance a little. If you’re lucky, then the musicians will dance a little too. Some restaurants like you to bring up people from the audience to participate so you dance a little Rumba, which is a fast 4 count rhythm (think Gypsy Kings.)
YOUR OWN DANCE STRUCTURE
Now, when it’s time for your own dance, this is really important: you have to know what you’re doing! 😂
It doesn’t mean that you’re an absolute expert, but it does mean that you should know the flow of your dance. Also you need to be able to transition in between the parts very clearly so the musicians can follow you.
If there is no rehearsal, then everyone understands that flow. If you’re dancing a Solea por Bulerías, then all you would have to say to the musicians is how many letras you want, if you want a falseta and where, and how many letras of Bulerías. But don’t expect them to remember!!! Seriously, don’t expect the musicians to remember your solo! That’s why clean and simple is best!!!
Don’t know the structure of a dance? I teach it all inside the Online Flamenco Studio! But it’s generally- letras, falseta, escobilla, Bulerias or Tangos.
Other tidbits to know:
- You MUST end all of your llamadas with a very clear cierre so the singer knows when to start singing or when there’s another transition you want.
- Really understand the structure of the letra that you’re dancing, meaning that you know when there are remates
- Be prepared to improvise a letra because you forgot your choreography…. which is easy to do if you understand the structure of the letra
- It’s ok to take a few compases to compose yourself after letras or escobilla blocks. Every moment of the dance doesn’t need to “dancing.”
- When you forget what you’ve planned to do, it’s also ok to do simple marcaje.
- Remember how you want to FEEL during your solo. Strong? Sexy? Muy flamenca? Practice feeling those while you rehearse by yourself!
- And most importantly- KEEP IT SIMPLE. If you have to explain your solo because it goes against the natural flow, then you’re setting yourself up for some miscommunication problems.
Ideally, when you’re starting out you have a strong cuadro to hold you up so you have the opportunity to learn. But when the cuadro is also green in experience, that forces you to really hold your own with improvising, being patient, and truly supporting the others. Obviously, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
But if you don’t have the opportunity to dance in tablao all the time, what do you do to get better?
- You still practice in the studio WITH SOLO COMPAS (broken record!)
- You practice your palmas for your compañeras whenever possible.
- You practice improvising letras with whatever recordings you have.
- You practice your escobillas and know them intrinsically in compás.
- You learn how to improvise simple footwork for when you forget your own. Just put on some solo compás and go!
- And most importantly (AGAIN), keep it simple. Don’t think of trying to make things more complex than they need to be. Having a strong simple dance with tons of aire is so much more exciting than a frenetic, complex piece sin peso.
Toma que toma! What was YOUR first tablao experience?
*Image: Painting by Fernando Botero, “Tablao Flamenco”
Loved reading about your personal evolution with tablao dancing and what great tips on how to prep for this when one doesn’t have lots of actual performance opportunities. You sound like a fabulous teacher!
Thanks again Laura. I appreciate your comments. ~Rina
Hi Rina, I found your post thanks to Laura sharing it. I completely relate to everything you have experienced, my start was very similar. A highlight for me was being lucky enough to dance with amazing musicians and Luis ‘El Mono’ de Jerez in London. I danced a Tientos with no rehearsal and while I got through the first letra ok the second completely threw me – I had never heard the structure he sang before and ended up improvising the whole thing. I remember catching my breath after the verse with a falsetta from the guitarist (I think he saved me) and then finished the dance more along the lines I had planned. It was an experience that I can only describe as taking my breath away and I was very thankful that I was able to just keep dancing and hopefully respond to what he was singing.
Ole tu, Renae!!!