Learning Flamenco

Learning Flamenco
Bethany Burrow

July 2009

I’m not Spanish.  I don’t speak Spanish (well, I can get a cerveza and a bocadillo de queso at a push and I know my derecha from my izquierda, but that’s about it).  I don’t have sleek dark hair, a voice like sandpaper or a disposition for wearing flowers about my person at every opportunity.  However, I do count myself as a flamenco dancer.

Like many people, my first encounter with flamenco was on a package holiday to Spain as a young child.  My inherent desire to be a princess allowed me to be mesmerised by the beautiful ladies in their spotty, frilly dresses and led to my parent-funded holiday souvenir being an 8-inch doll in a rather stately looking flouncey lace gown (which is potentially still in my parents’ attic).  As a little girl, I was into ballet and went to classes every week.  I was never going to be a ballerina, but learning the steps gradually helped me to overcome severe malcoordination and gain confidence in my physical abilities.  On another family holiday, this time to Tunisia, my mother saw a poster advertising a show to be given by the “Ballet de la Ville de Seville” in the local amphitheatre.  Thinking it would be a suitable diversion for her ballet-mad 10-year-old, she bought tickets and we went along expecting tutus and men in tights.  After what seemed like an interminable delay (which I was later to find out was just “flamenco time”), the “ballet” turned out to be “baile” – flamenco and Spanish classical dance of the highest quality.  From the moment the dancers walked on to the stage, I was hooked.  One of the dancers lost her shoe and carried on dancing, and I could see that she was enjoying herself in spite of her lack of footwear (and, as I have now realised, the potential danger to the toes of her bare foot!)

Fast forward nearly 15 years and I had just moved to London to begin a new job.  During the intervening years, I hadn’t had pictures of flamencos on my bedroom wall or bought all the latest Paco Peña CDs, but the desire to dance flamenco had never subsided.  I was invited by some friends to go to a ceilidh at Cecil Sharp House in Camden and on the way to the bar I took a wrong turning and bumped into a flamenco lesson.  The very next day, I searched for the class on the Internet and found “La Escuela de Baile”, Nuria Garcia’s school.  I started the next week and have now been learning for seven years.  Since then, the school has moved a couple of times, but the dedication of both the teachers and the students has not changed.

Some of my best friends are those I have met through flamenco.  In my classes there are people from all over the world, of all different ages, races, faiths and backgrounds, but one thing unites us all – the introverted passion which expresses itself extrovertly through dance.  Every single person in those classes has their own flamenco story – what’s yours?

Starting any new activity can be as daunting as it is exciting.  Some people start with friends or their partner but many, like me, just turn up on their own.  Some of them have a lot of dance experience, many have absolutely none.  It would be dishonest to say that my years of ballet training as a child had not helped with learning flamenco, but my flamenco friends with no history in dance have not been hindered by it and it is important for those who dance regularly to treat flamenco (or any other new discipline) with the respect it deserves – do not expect to waltz (pardon the pun) into an advanced class on day one and be able to keep up!  If you are interested in starting flamenco but you are apprehensive about that first lesson, bite the bullet and just go along – all the classes I’ve ever been to have been friendly and welcoming, especially where beginners are concerned.

Many new flamenco dancers worry about getting the right kit and what to wear to their first classes.  There is no need to lay out lots of cash before your first lesson – it is best to try a few classes before you think about buying shoes or boots, a skirt and all the other less necessary but equally tempting paraphernalia. That way you can tap into your teacher’s knowledge base to make sure you get the equipment that is right for you.  For your first few lessons, you will need shoes with a slight heel (including for men) if you have them, but don’t worry too much if you don’t.  Anything between about a one-and-a-half and a two-and-a-half inch heel will suffice, and don’t wear your best party shoes – everyday street shoes are not designed for repeated stamping, and there is a chance they might not be up to the task.  Girls should wear a long, full skirt but, again, don’t worry if you don’t have one; it is better to wear comfortable trousers than a skirt that is not full enough – you won’t be able to move properly.  Men should wear comfortable trousers, and everyone should wear something to class that they feel comfortable in – there’s no need to dress up like you’re going to the féria for every lesson (unless you want to, of course!)

When (not if!) you become hooked on flamenco, you will need to think about getting proper flamenco shoes or boots.  Girls’ flamenco shoes look like mary-janes and the boots that the men wear are a bit like cowboy or gaucho boots; both usually have nails driven into the toes and heels which produce the sound and affect the way the shoes grip onto the floor.  For the ladies, a practice skirt is another important purchase (but less important than shoes – if you have to buy one thing at a time, buy the shoes first).  There are many different brands and styles of shoes, boots and skirts available and a quick Internet search will throw up the many websites offering mail order services; most have very clear sizing information and will make up shoes and skirts based on your exact measurements if you would like.  If budget is an issue, ask your teacher if they know of anyone who is selling shoes or skirts second hand, or try eBay.

It is important for all flamenco dancers to feel involved in the art.  Even as a beginner, you should try to go to as many shows as you can and see as many different dancers as you can.  As your studies progress, you will learn to see the differences between dancers’ styles and, more importantly, learn which ones you like and which you dislike.  This will help you to develop your own style as you learn.  There is a lot of flamenco going on in London and throughout the UK.  In London, Sadler’s Wells, the Peacock Theatre and the Barbican, to name but a few, often host some of the best dancers and musicians (including the annual London Flamenco Festival at Sadler’s Wells), and the Peña Flamenca de Londres (the London Flamenco Club) offers monthly shows in a more intimate setting.  Nationwide, there are peñas in many towns and cities, from Norwich to Hebden Bridge and from Leeds to Bristol and dance companies from Spain and the UK often tour – look out for details in the local press. In addition, your teacher may be able to tell you about other shows involving the more advanced students and professionals from the local flamenco community.

Another way to get exposure to the very best dancers is to do an intensive course with a visiting teacher.  La Escuela de Baile offers four or five day courses in London at Christmas and Easter, as well as two six day courses in Jerez, Spain in the summer where you can get the total flamenco experience, with classes in the morning and some organised trips to local flamenco haunts in the evening, and there are several other organisations offering similar courses.

Starting flamenco was a life changing experience for me.  It has given me strong friendships, made me fitter and helped me through some of the tougher times of my life.  Dancing has given me the opportunity to dance on a West End stage, to meet and learn from my flamenco idols and to learn to perform better in difficult circumstances.  It has allowed me to express myself and find my own style while giving me a pressure valve for the stresses of every day life.

You don’t have to be Spanish, speak Spanish or fit any of the flamenco stereotypes to start flamenco dance; anyone can enjoy it and that is the most important thing.  They say you regret the things you don’t do more than the things you do – if there’s even a tiny part of you whispering that it wants to give flamenco a try, then give it a go.  After all, there’s nothing like a good stamp after a hard day’s work!