Your Flamenco Practice
December 21, 2020
I have just finished a weekend training course for my 300-hour yoga certification. It was really good, and very inspiring. The thing yoga teachers always say to other yoga teachers is, “You have to maintain your own personal practice as a teacher.” They say that when your own practice falls away, you get burnt out. I have to admit, although I do have a regular yoga practice, it’s not something I do every day, and rarely on my own. I like to be in a class. (Of course, after this weekend, I have resolved to do a little bit each day and try to build up my own daily practice.)
I do, however, have my own regular personal flamenco practice. I started thinking about how important that is, as a teacher, as a student, as a dancer, and as a person. Regular flamenco practice is essential to mastering skills, finding new levels of expression, understanding on an ever-deepening degree. It allows you to develop your own style, discover your questions, find your strengths and weaknesses, build endurance, and explore, in general, the many aspects of flamenco.
I think that establishing our own flamenco practice can help transition us from being passive students to being really active learners--studying with curiosity, discipline, and a strong desire to improve.
So, what can a “flamenco practice” look like? Since it’s personal, this answer will vary. The main thing is that it fits your schedule, and is do-able. It does not mean you have to put shoes and skirt on, and practice for an hour every day. That’s great if you can do that, but there are lots of other ways. Here are some that I like:
Like flamenco, which has so many facets we can delve into, our own practice can have many facets as well. This can be a wonderful journey that will lead you into ever-more layers of inquiry. Remember, as they often say in yoga, “the journey is the destination.” We have to enjoy the process and not get frustrated that we are not where we want to be: let us be grateful that we will never reach the end of flamenco, because then it would be boring--let us celebrate the gaps we have in our learning, and seek to fill them in, knowing that we will never be that amazing flamenco dancer we watch in Madrid. That is okay--it can’t be otherwise. But, we can aspire to be our own personal best, to delve deeply, to find our own satisfying way of expressing our unique selves, to find new questions, and new answers, which then lead to more questions. We can be excited to learn more, and to learn well. This is the journey, and it is also the goal.
By Holly Matthews, November 19, 2020
How do we learn flamenco steps? How do we retain them? What is the learning process that we can consciously move through, in order to better master a particular step, sequence, or entire choreography?
I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately: having the opportunity to study with some of my favorite teachers in Spain, as well as trying to retain my choreographed dances during this period of lockdown (not much rehearsal, no performances) has given me some insights into this. I am going to talk about some different ways we learn. Hopefully, you can apply it to your flamenco studies, maybe to only one particular step, to start. But, that exercise might start a whole new practice of understanding, that you can apply to many aspects of flamenco.
Visual: many of us are predominantly visual learners. We need to see something, whether it is movement, or written instructions, or something else, in order to feel a sense of understanding. I definitely use this mode of learning a lot. So, we watch, and begin to feel a sense of movement, a flow, a logic of steps or movements, and then we can start to learn it in other ways. Seeing it helps us create a mental picture that we can then try to find in the body. This is our visual sense.
After using our visual sense, we may start to try to feel it, kinesthetically, in our bodies. Again, definitely something I have to do when I am trying to learn any kind of movement. If I only watch a step, there’s no way I will get it. I have to do it, and begin to feel the movement logic in the body. This is called our kinesthetic sense, or, our sense of movement.
Another important way to learn flamenco is through listening. Using our auditory sense helps to reinforce what we have seen and felt. We absolutely have to use our ears and listen for all the musical components: the rhythm, the accents, the dynamics, the melody, the phrasing, the tempo, time signature and counts, etc.
These three ways of learning create a kind of triangle. None is more important than the other--it is pretty individual, and we all are stronger in one area than another. For instance, students who don’t live in a flamenco culture may find it difficult to lean on the auditory sense, because they don’t know what they are hearing. It doesn’t make sense to them. However, if you are born into that culture, and grow up hearing flamenco songs, it becomes second nature to you, and that may become a dominant way for you to learn movement.
So, these three are all important. But I don’t think this completes the learning process. We need to do more, to use more senses to really master something.
Our intellectual sense is important: we need to understand the structure of the compas, we need to know which count we begin and end on, and preferably, everything in-between. We need to know, intellectually, which foot starts, what it does, etc.
Why do we need to know this? It is reinforcement. If you are on stage, and you have a dance memorized, that is great. You go on stage, begin your dance, and then...what??? Your body forgot what to do. But you knew the steps--you did them a thousand times. Here is where your intellectual sense can step in and help. The muscles may fail in their memory, but your intellectual sense can say, “Start on 12, R foot…” and then hopefully, muscle memory kicks in soon. Additionally, if you only know a dance by the movements, without the counts, then if you do get separated from the music somehow, you won’t know how to get back on. With an intellectual understanding, you can simply do something until the next count 12, for example.
It could work the other way, too. Maybe you know your dance very well intellectually. But you go on stage and totally blank out. But then the music starts, and somehow, magically, your body starts doing the steps, even though your brain was shut down. Muscle memory saves the day. (I will give you a personal example of this towards the end.)*
So, visually, aurally, kinesthetically, intellectually--all essential layers of understanding that can help reinforce each other.
What next? Now, you need to reinforce this by translating.
There are four ways that I translate all my steps/phrases/dances.
1. TRANSLATING TO WRITTEN NOTATION:
I write everything down. I write the steps, with specific counts, and anything else I want to remember, such as arm, head, or skirt movements, or facings of the body. I have an entire notebook. Writing your dances is personal. You need to find your own way of notating, your own language. I will show a picture of a sample notation for you to see.
A musical background definitely helps, so that you can analyze the rhythm exactly. But if you don’t understand rhythmic analysis, that’s okay too. You can find other ways to remind yourself of the rhythm of a particular step. For instance, sometimes a step will remind you of a word or phrase: there’s one rhythm that sounds to me exactly like the commercial song, “Double-mint gum”. I have another step that I remember by saying to myself, “Get-your-skirt.” That phrase gives me the counts, plus the action.
Yesterday, I was practicing in the studio. I was going over some of David-from-Granada’s steps, from two years ago. I was looking through my notebook and found two steps that I had totally forgotten about. I looked at what I wrote, and I was able to get the steps back. I have been in awe of the power of notation more than once, and I was definitely in awe when this happened. It’s amazing that we can completely forget about a step, and then re-learn it, years later, by literally “reading” it.
*Another example about notation: during my same practice yesterday, I was going over one of my old dances, one I’ve done many times and for many years, my Solea. I have it all written out. But, as I was practicing it, I totally forgot the first step of the escobilla. That has never happened in that spot. “No problem, I’ll just look at my notebook,” I thought. Unfortunately, this was one step I had failed to write out properly. I started to panic a bit--no matter what I did, I could not find the step in my feet.
With my notes useless, I decided to put the music to Solea escobilla on, and see if that might jog my memory. Sure enough, as soon as the music started, I remembered the step. I came home and immediately wrote it out correctly! So, that’s an example of muscle memory, stimulated by the auditory sense, coming to the rescue, when other senses / techniques failed.
2. TRANSLATING TO OTHER PARTS OF THE BODY:
I practice my feet with my hands. The hands have the same parts as the feet, and you can practice this way pretty much anywhere. (It’s more discreet than doing footwork, and you can do it in public without getting too many stares). I take the movement and translate it from one body part to another, thereby reinforcing my understanding (and sneaking in some extra practice without putting on shoes, skirt, etc.). The heel of my hand is the heel of my foot. The ball of the foot is the ball of the hand. The toes are the fingers, etc.
3. TRANSLATING TO VOICE:
Sing, or say, the steps. If you can sing the melody of the palo, even better. If you can say it, you will (eventually) be able to send that message to the body to do the steps (disclaimer: you still have to actually practice the steps). :)
4. TRANSLATING TO THE IMAGINATION:
Visualizing the steps is a great way to practice and really master a sequence. You’ll notice where you are unable to “see” what happens next--if you can’t visualize it, there’s a gap in your learning, and you need to go back to the studio and figure out the uncertainty.
Here are four challenges for you: can you take one step and put it through these four acts of translation? Do it with your hands, sing or say it, write it down, and see it in your mind’s eye.
Below is an example of my own personal notation method. For me, a big “S” means “Stamp” (or sometimes I may write “G” for “Golpe”). The little “h” means “heel” (the kind you do right under yourself, as opposed to a “scuff”.) “R” and “L” refer to the feet. (I am not always consistent: sometimes I use a “p” for “planta”; sometimes I write “b” for “ball”. Or I write a “t” for “tacon”, as opposed to “sc” for “scuff” or “t” for “tacon". As long as you understand your language, that’s all that matters.
My top line shows which foot is acting. Second line says what that foot is doing. Third line shows the counts. Fourth line says what the arms do. I could add more lines to describe other things such as hips, skirt, head, direction, etc.
This step is one of David’s steps from Granada that we have practiced, and use in the Alegrias. See if you can decode it!
Note: in my notation, the step begins on count 12. In our dance, we begin on 1.