Flamenco & Spanish Dance

DVD Review: Basic Castanet and Movement Technique Volume 1

Basic Castanet and Movement Technique Volume 1
JoDe Romano

by Emily Kate Long

Screen_shot_2014-08-11_at_8.32.14_AMIn this thirty-five minute instructional DVD, New York City-based teacher and choreographer JoDe Romano walks the beginning student through a series of six castanet exercises. She begins with simple instructions for putting on and adjusting the castanets, then moves on to finger exercises, and eventually incorporates arm, head, and leg movements. Each new element is added systematically, with emphasis on slow repetition and daily practice to develop strength and accuracy.

Romano’s verbal directions are clear and easy to follow, and each exercise is shown from the front and back. Her demonstrations cleanly show the technique for each combination, and she provides an inspiring example of the strength, passion, and power of Spanish dance.

This DVD is a useful tool for beginners of any age, or any dancer looking for a better understanding of the basics of Spanish castanet movement. Basic Castanet and Movement Technique is the first of a two-part series. Both DVDs can be purchased on Romano’s website, www.flamencoromano.com.


Shoes For Spanish Dance

As part of our continuing focus on footwear and foot care this quarter, today we are excited to bring you the basics on footwear for Spanish dance…

by Karen Stelling

The dances of Spain, loosely categorized as regional, classical, and flamenco each put a unique foot forward–quite literally!  Many regional or what are traditionally called folk or peasant dances, often utilize a soft shoe, a sort of a tie-on slipper.  Although they look rather flimsy, these types of shoes such as those worn in the Jota Aragonesa are quite comfortable and actually offer great cushioning for the jumping that a dance such as the Jota requires.

jota shoe

Spanish Classical or Ballet Espanol dances are usually performed to Spanish classical orchestrated music and are very balletic in style.  The shoes preferred for Ballet Espanol have a taller, thinner and more “shapely”  heel than flamenco shoes and feature a soft sole to allow greater flexibility of the foot and a more elegant line when the foot is pointed.  There may be some “zapateado” or heel work in classical Spanish dance but not as intense or as deliberate as in Flamenco.spanish classical ballet shoesOne of the most identifiable traits of flamenco dance is the intricate footwork. The shoes are the instrument the dancer uses to create and compliment the various flamenco dance rhythms.  Flamenco shoes can be as varied as the dancer who wears them.

“Zapatos” need to be sturdy with solid heels but heel heights can vary depending on the dancer’s preference.  Most flamenco shoes are made of smooth leather but suede is very popular and as far as colors and designs are concerned, anything is possible!  Straps, ties, lace-ups are all incorporated in these shoe’s designs. Many women flamenco dancers like to coordinate their shoe color with their costumes for a unified look.  Most professional flamenco shoes are hand- made in Spain and a dancer submits individual foot measurements for a custom fit.

In addition to leather soles, the toe tips and heel bottoms of flamenco shoes have tiny nails embedded into them to add a slight tapping sound when the feet hit the floor.  This feature is unique to flamenco shoes.  However, the real sound is produced by the strength of the dancer’s body as all her energy is directed into the lower legs and feet.

a pair of flamenco shoes

Character shoes are not the same as flamenco shoes!  While character shoes can be used as Flamenco shoes for the beginner who has not decided to invest in an expensive pair of Flamenco shoes, Flamenco shoes are not interchangeable for character shoes. It is not a good idea to try and dance in Flamenco shoes for a non-Flamenco dance class. The nails at the bottom of the soles will be extremely loud and possibly damaging to the floor you are dancing on!  As one might imagine, many flamenco dancers and their shoes are not especially welcome in many dance studios!  The shoes pictured below are made by Begona Cervera and Gallardo, well known Spanish manufacturers.

a decorated flamenco dance shoe


flamenco shoe with laces

Contributor Karen Stelling Began her Spanish Dance training in 1975 and since then has performed in many venues around Chicago, the Midwest and beyond. She was the First Dancer of the Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Company from its inception in 1976 through 1987, performing flamenco, neo-classical and many of the regional dances of Spain. Highlighted performances included the chance to dance with the Chicago Symphony, at the Theater of the Riverside Church in New York City, for migrant workers in the fields of Southern Illinois and in many lecture-demonstration and concerts for Chicago and suburban school students.

Karen Stelling

After leaving the Company, Karen continued to perform at a variety of concert halls, festivals and special events as a soloist/guest artist, and as a member of the flamenco trio, Los Tres. Karen was a guest artist and choreographer in 1999 and again in 2002 with the Ole Ole Puppet and Dance Theater directed by Wendy Clinard.

In 2007, Karen provided choreography for the Halcyon Theatre’s production of Yerma, by F. G. Lorca.  Karen has taught private and group flamenco classes for over two decades including work for Hedwig Dance, the Evanston Park District, Danza Viva, Harper College Dance Program, The Salt Creek Ballet and currently at the Flamenco Arts Center and SPACE in Chicago. She received flamenco and Spanish dance training from many masters of both “old school” and the “Nuevo” styles. Karen also enjoys playing the cajon, a box drum used frequently in flamenco and teaching castanet technique.


Costuming For Flamenco

4dancers contributor Karen Stelling joins us today to talk about the costuming in flamenco dance…

Thinking about costuming for dance, especially flamenco, isn’t so easy!  There are as many thoughts and feelings about costumes as there are patterns of materials and fabrics out of which they are made!

The flamenco look was originally born of the traditional clothing of the gypsies. For women, the long brightly colored skirts with tiers and ruffles and scarves and shawls were “borrowed” when flamenco began being performed by professionals.  It is said that the popular use of polka dots on fabric or “lunares” as they are called in Spanish, represented the “little moons” of glass that gypsies would sew onto their clothing to ward off the evil eye!   The gypsies every day wear was all they needed to express themselves.

Karen Stelling

Flamenco, as it was danced fifty or more years ago, before the current emphasis on fast heelwork, focused on the arms, hands, torso and the “spirit” or “aire” of the upper body especially for women.  Sleeves and fancy ruffles at the cuffs or shoulders were not just to cover the body but to highlight the movements that emanated from there.   The materials used for costuming were much heavier than current materials as well.  Dancers moved more slowly but did so in a very measured way. It may have been less spectacular than much of the dance we see performed today, but there was a certain drama that could be built to an intense yet calm finish.  Footwork was minimal for early female dancers and if they did lift their skirt or dress hem, or wore the “bata de cola,” the long dress with a train, to show their feet, they did so subtly and with style.  The dancer, who wore the bata, represented an artist who was committed to total artistic expression, using legs and hips to demonstrate the movement in rhythm, making the costume and the dancer appear as one.  Dancing well with a bata de cola remains a challenge for most dancers but when it is done well, it is a sight to see!

Men’s costuming has remained virtually unchanged over the years.  There remains the basic look of trousers and shirt or shirt and vest.  Early male flamenco dancers adopted the look of the bull fighter with spectacularly decorated jackets which were very ornate but may have detracted from the dance.  They also were made of heavy velvets and brocades and could not possibly have felt cool and comfortable!  The high waisted pant showed off a long, lean and elegant line.  Current male dancers have certainly dressed down to more comfortable fabrics and fewer pieces because there is so much more athleticism in the dance and the focus is on what the dancer is doing and less on what they’re wearing.

As flamenco dance technique has evolved over the years, with faster and more rhythmically intricate footwork and women totally keeping pace with men regarding their own “chops,” costuming, although still attractive, now has to serve the dance in an economical way.  With a dress made of light blends of fabric, rather than a bata, female dancers can make many turns and generally just move more quickly across the floor.  There is still use of accessories such as shawls, which may be worn as part of the costume, but are more often used as part of the choreography and usually wind up being used briefly then put to the side.

For most dancers, it is a matter of personal style but all costumes for flamenco work to represent the total body in movement, to be a companion in the dancer’s expression, not just a beautiful body cover.  Flamenco costuming is very sensual with a mystery to the lines that are created and ever changing by virtue of how the fabric clings and then moves on, again and again.



Flamenco Training Basics

by Karen Stelling

It isn’t spoken of very often in flamenco classes but this dance form requires every bit as much body training as any other dance form.  Granted most flamenco dancers do not have to master a mean Cabriole Double as part of their regular technique, (landing with boots or shoes would DEFINITELY make it interesting however!) or other feats of derring-do, but flexibility, strength and correct posture are de rigueur.

Stretching, strength building and posture improvement (look in the mirror, please!) not only improve a flamenco dancer’s anatomy but improve technique, increase a dancer’s ability to sustain energy and breath for demanding sections of heel work or turns and facilitate ones ability to go from stillness to “striking”, not unlike a cobra, unleashing energy in a controlled deliberate fashion.

Karen Stelling

I have found that especially for the “brazeo” or arm movements, stretching of the entire arm, usually in a position over and behind the head, on a regular basis allows greater movement of the arms into and out of any position.  Imagine that you are “strung up” by your wrists, casually blowing in the wind like laundry on a summer day…Well, okay that’s probably a little too comfy a description, because it isn’t exactly that pretty but that’s the basic idea!  There was a time that I used soup cans (full, not empty!) one in each hand, to pass through all the basic arm positions.  I built strength and control as well by doing this.

Many students and dancers I observe often forget that the strength needs to continue into the wrists, hands and fingers to complete the line.  I firmly believe that ALL the upper body and arm energy emanates from the center of the back, like the trunk of a great tree, with the branches carrying that energy outward.  It makes sense then to keep the center both strong and flexible.  Doing upper and lower abdominal strengthening movements along with the side-waist muscles or obliques builds the “core.”  Proper footwork takes a strong center to lift the weight out of the legs and allow them to move freely but with great control.

Of course,  there remains and likely always will be, a huge emphasis on heel work and banging out great sounds, which often diminishes what the rest of the body is doing, especially the center of the body and the arms, neck and head.  I’ve often commented in my classes that “any knucklehead with a decent sense of rhythm can do heel work.”  In other words, it doesn’t take much to pound the floor; a few cool combination’s and you’re a super star!  But that isn’t flamenco dancing.  The dancing incorporates both the isolation and the joining of all your “parts!”   While the arms are moving one way, the hands may move another, while the hips, legs and feet do a counter movement and the face sends out the feeling and expression!   Then there is the connection to the singing and guitar…many pieces form the mosaic!

Ultimately, a flamenco dancer wants to create the most responsive body possible…so that her ideas can be fully realized in a strong and beautiful way with all the inner truth, intent and feeling apparent from the first step.



Ole! Flamenco And Spanish Dance

by Karen Stelling

Ole!  A shout of encouragement given to the bravest, the strongest, the one who makes a connection to self and life. I thought I’d start my first blog post on 4dancers with that particularly Spanish expression and give myself a burst of confidence.  (There’s also the term “mierda” which is typically used for good luck but I’ll go with the big “O” for now!)

Karen Stelling

I’m happy to be here sharing some info and news about flamenco and Spanish dance.  My debut in blog land comes at a great time in that the Chicago Flamenco Festival is just winding down and there was plenty to see and hear over the past few weeks.  It’s always a neat trick to get great musicians and dancers from Spain into Chicago when the weather is at it’s worst!  We aficionados are always telling the artists to “regresa quando es mas caliente!”  (come back when it’s warmer!)  Thank goodness, the audiences are really warm and welcoming!

A highlight of the many performances was the terrific dancer Concha Jareno, a Madrid native, who is part of the new generation of flamenco dancer’s currently working.  It was her first visit to Chicago and she received much high praise.  I took a master class with her which was great, and enjoyed the fun material that I’m now trying to pass on to my students.  She communicated entirely in Spanish but her movement’s were so clear and her rhythm so steady that the need for translation was an afterthought.

The hallmark of a performer as gifted as Concha is an amazing musicality that allows her to hear the music and move to it in a very rich way, with a vocabulary of steps that beautifully mixes old school with new.  Even better, she can teach it so students get it.  Que bueno!  Many of those who attended her performance were part of the local flamenco scene.  Most of them left the theater exclaiming how inspired they were by her dancing and couldn’t wait to get back to the studio or travel to Spain and keep that kind of energy happening.  What a great compliment to Concha and isn’t it nice to be reminded that we can still become inspired by great talent and artistry?  Ole to that above all.



10 Questions With…Karen Stelling

Normally I don’t do these “10 Questions” so close together, but I have to say I was excited about getting this one up! Karen Stelling has been kind enough to share some of her considerable knowledge about Flamenco dance with us today…you’re in for a treat! Who knows…it may even make you want to take a class…

Karen Stelling

1. Can I get your name, location and number of years of experience in the dance world.

My name is Karen Stelling and I currently work and teach in the Chicago area.  I have been studying, performing and teaching  Flamenco and Spanish Dance for over 30 years.

 2. Can you tell me what makes Flamenco dance unique?

Flamenco dance is just  one part of an entire culture that defines a community of people who came to  together in area of southern Spain, what is now known as Andalusia, over two hundred years ago.  To really understand Flamenco, to know it, requires one to understand and know the gypsy culture that birthed it.

In Flamenco “arte,” there was first the voice or the “cante,”  literally the crying out against life’s cruelty,  as well as happily expressing love of the land, of family and of life.  Then came the guitar to set it all to music  in a wide variety of rhythms or “palos.” Finally, after the singing and the guitar, came the dance. Ultimately, the dance is the outward physical demonstration of this culture, with its struggles as well as great joys that were endured and celebrated.   It is truly a “folk” art form in that at its roots, it is deeply embedded in the gypsy culture of Spain.  There is nothing akin to it in American culture with the possible exception of jazz music.

3. How difficult is Flamenco to learn, and what are some of the major challenges in doing it well?

Learning to dance flamenco requires a terrific amount of patience and practice.  Because it is largely improvisatory, just like any improvising, one has to acquire good “chops” and understand it all very academically first, before one can begin to let go of the boundaries and explore. This of course takes time!  But to become a knowledgable flamenco dancer, one must study all the different structures which can be in 3, 4, 6 and 12 count phrases!  Many students begin flamenco classes thinking it’s like latin dancing or salsa with easy 1,2,3,4 counts and then wonder why it is so hard to learn.  Each rhythm, or palo, has its own tempo, accents, style and musical structure including how to dance to the singing,  that must also be learned.  There are some dancers who will only perform one particular palo over and over again, because it fits their temperament and allows them the clearest expression.

4. In terms of technique, can you describe some of the things that Flamenco dancers must master?

Having a good sense of rhythm is paramount and because there is so much percussion inherent in most of flamenco dance, one has to know how to dance on the beat and in the counter rhythm or “contratiempos.”  Flamenco dancers have strong legs and feet…the pounding is part of the job!  Like ballerinas dancing on pointe, one just has to accept a certain amount of discomfort at first and then eventually, one doesn’t notice it any more.  I constantly encourage my students to go for it, put 100% energy into doing heelwork and to avoid doing steps in a weak fashion, “marching in place” rather than digging the feet into the ground.  The studio is the laboratory where you work this stuff out and make mistakes and get out of rhythm but that’s how you learn.   There is also a certain carriage of the body that has a distinctive flamenco look…the arched back, the arms in a very held position with elbows turned out and the “flores” or movements of the hands which need to be in sync with the rest of the dancer’s rhythm and steps. There needs to also be a strong connection to the earth underneath us.  The upper half of the body reaches toward the heavens but the hips and legs and feet all belong to the ground.  Most women have difficulty connecting to their physical, sensual selves and the ability to open up to the earth and yet this is imperative in flamenco.  To feel comfortable in one’s skin and move in a way that is non-pedestrian is very challenging.

5  How did you fall in love with Flamenco dance?

I remember seeing a company of dancers perform at Navy Pier in the early 70’s.  They had a little postage stamp of a stage to perform on but it was amazing.  I believe one of the female dancers was a woman named Carmen Mora who later became one of my favorite dancers.  Then, in 1975 when I had the chance to study with Nana Lorca at the Boston Conservatory of Music, I remember being completely overwhelmed by her beauty and grace at the closing concert of the workshop.  She had transformed herself from this tough teacher with no make-up to a stunning performer in amazing costumes and stage presence that lit up the theater.

6. What is it like to choreograph Flamenco dance?

The best and most accomplished flamenco dancers may or may not have “set” choreographies. Remember, flamenco originally was a jam session of the folks in the household or the little community.  It was made up on the spot and anyone who wanted to could stand up and sing or dance. This understanding is still prevalent among traditional flamenco dancers.  More frequently, the dancer works with the guitarist and singer to determine which palo will be performed and because the dancer knows how and when the singing will start and end,  he or she creates the dance in the moment.  Most traditional palos have set structures for verses, choruses, silences and so on. The best option is for the dancer and guitarist to co-create the music and choreography at the same time…then it truly is a one of a kind creation.

For me personally, to choreograph requires one to know the rhythm extremely well and to always honor the singing.  And because there is so much rhythm involved, on Monday, I may decide to accent here and here, but by Tuesday, I’ve “heard” something else altogether and now the accent is there and way over there!

7. What type of costuming is involved in Flamenco dance?

Nowdays, comfort is key and lightweight fabrics with fun designs are seen. Typically, women still wear dresses and top and skirt combination’s but many enjoy dancing in trousers which was popularized in the 30’s by the great Carmen Amaya. The traditional “bata de cola” or the dress with the tail, is still used frequently but is very carefully tailored and requires an excellent fit.  Women may also dance with “mantons” or large emroidered shawls which are often incorporated into their costumes.  Depending on the dancer, flowers are still worn in the hair, a distinctive flamenco look.

8. How can people who are interested in doing Flamenco find a reputable teacher? 

Usually by word of mouth but the best way is to ask around and learn something about the instructor’s background, e.g., where and with whom have they studied, what is their specialty and so on. It’s also good to take a number of classes with different teachers until one finds a good match.  Many students want to strengthen technique, others want choreography and still others a chance to perform.  A teacher may have a reputation as difficult but ultimately that means they challenge the student to really work hard and the payoff is great technique.

9. How are the arms in Flamenco different than other dance styles?

The arms are carried in front of the body, with elbows raised intentionally in all positions from top to bottom.  There is also a strong angular component when the arms are across the body.  The hands are also an integral part of the arm movements and not just because they are attached at the wrists!  The arms may come to a stop but the hands may continue the movement and rhythm.

10. Can you share something else about this dance style that you think readers may find interesting?

It truly is one of the hardest dance forms one will ever love!  It is not for the faint of heart because there is so much “multi tasking” going on in every class or performance…one must learn technique and use it well, know the variety of rhythmic structures and their accents, understand the guitar accompaniment, the singing, how to dance in a dress, use a shawl, a fan, castanets and dance in high heeled shoes!  Everything done in heelwork on one side, has to be done on the other side as well!   With all of it’s challenges, it allows a dancer the most expression one can experience while working within a time honored tradition.

And the best news?  Unlike ballet and other dance forms, where physically the body can no longer execute some movements and age is not a friend, in flamenco, an older body is not the enemy.  An older dancer can imbue her dancing with her life stories and experiences, thereby enriching the presentations. It is very inspiring to see dancers I knew from my “youth” still performing “old school” with just as much passion as they had twenty or thirty years ago!

I often say once you are sucked into the flamenco vortex, it is hard to escape but… why would you want to? Try a class at least once in your life and see for yourself!



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