1 October 2013
Gillian Hurst gives us an insight into the history and influence of Spanish dance
One of the many joys of Spanish dance is the music. Getting to grips with the wonderful Flamenco rhythms, or the vibrant regional dances is such a pleasure, and understanding how to coordinate castanets with arms and feet can only enhance ones own performance.
The diversity of Spanish dance is fascinating: from Celtic dance found in the North of Spain and the Aragonese Jota, to Flamenco from Andalucía and Escuela Bolera, which is still performed in conservatoires. Studying any one of these styles is a challenge, but a worthwhile challenge, as Spanish dance has a positive influence on a number of different dance genres.
“Spanish dance has a positive influence on a number of different dance genres”
These are a wonderful musical instrument and when played with light and shade, make such a difference to a dance or exercise, bringing it to life. When first learning the technique of castanet playing, it is important to emphasise dexterity: encouraging equal use of all fingers to execute a roll but with minimum effort so the accent is in, with hands cupped to prevent a break in the line of the wrist. The coordination of the hands when executing a roll is very important, making sure there are five clear beats: four on one castanet and one on the other, and once this is mastered a variety of rhythms can be introduced to compliment movement. Controlling the shape of the arm and supporting the wrists is key when playing with movement, always making sure the castanets stay within a cupped hand.
As with all dance styles, arms are probably the most difficult area to perfect but port de bras is necessary, not only for aesthetics but for balance of movement and general equilibrium. The use of arms in Spanish dance requires an understanding of working in circles, both outward and inward, with a secure rounded shape maintained. Muñecas (wrist curls), bring out the feminine side in both males and females, with sensitivity and resistance required, as well as the ‘feeling’ of movement from the very core.
When performed in the regional style (it can also be danced in the style of Escuela Bolera) this is a wonderful social dance, performed by couples (usually at celebrations or religious festivals such as Semana Santa – Holy Week – at Easter). The idea is to stay close to one’s partner with movements subtle and understated, castanets clear and coordinated, not only with one’s arms and legs, but with one’s partner, so the sound is as one unit. The style is such that knees are relaxed to facilitate speed of movement and transition of direction changes with a lift of the body and openness in the chest and shoulders. Arms moving in outward circles give a frame to the dance, and the emphasis should be on communicating with one’s partner and having fun. I was lucky enough to experience a wedding at the Hacienda in Seville where we all danced Sevillanas at various intervals until 6am. But, when the newlyweds danced, the subtle and sheer joy of flirtation were something to behold.
When first teaching and learning Sevillanas one feels like it is the most difficult and complicated dance ever, but once mastered, it is never forgotten and can be reproduced on any holiday in Spain.
One of the most exciting regional dances is the Jota, which takes on a whole new meaning when danced in the correct footwear: alpargatas rope-soled sandals. The technique of this dance requires us to stay on the balls of the feet, rarely putting the heels down, and alpargatas help with both this and with facilitating the direction of energy, which goes into the floor on occasion, can be elevated, or used in travel (elancé). Understanding epaulement is also very helpful, as the upper body is often held in opposition to the legs, with the weight held back, shoulders behind hips, and chest open. If danced in soft ballet shoes, the same technique should be applied, along with curved arms and clear castanets, again, securely cupped in the hands with the avoidance of ‘flapping’ wrists.
Flamenco rhythms can be divided into two categories: those with a musical phrase or compas of 12 beats and those with 8. Tangos falls into the latter, and is also classed as Chico – light hearted – the emphasis of all Flamenco dances being on the portrayal of emotion. When dancing a Tangos, it is helpful to remember to keep the knees relaxed, making sure the beats are accented into the ground, so the movements are smooth rather than bouncy. The body is held pulled up, with the shoulders and upper back held open and a sense of pride and confidence should be obvious to the onlooker. One can use the skirt freely, holding the frill between the two first fingers and thumb, and supporting the arms when moving the skirt in a circular fashion around to the front or back of the body, or indeed making a figure of eight in front, or the arms can be used in circles alone, always to complement the movement. As Tangos is fun to dance and to watch, hips can move a little, and communication with the audience is essential, both through facial expression and body language.
For anyone studying the art of Spanish dance, I would encourage you to look at DVDs and items on YouTube, which will help give you an insight into what this wonderful art form is all about. Happy studying and dancing!