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Playing for dancers

I recently received an email asking about accompanying dancers. I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, but here is my 2 shekels worth of advice.

 

EMAIL

Hi Sal,
Do you sell any material that teaches flamenco guitar dance accompaniment.
I bought your Dance CD and I wish to learn how to arrange pieces for dance
accompaniment. I do not have any access to dancers.
Thanks, ####

 

MY RESPONSE

Hi ####,
Sorry. I don't have anything like that for sale.

I have to say I am sitting here struggling to see how you can arrange music for dance accompaniment without dancers. The reality is that developing a guitar accompaniment "piece" for a dancer begins with knowing what the dancer wants to do. A dancer calls the shots, not the guitarist. You would need to see (and hear) how the step sequences develop in a dance. A choreography is never a static or academic thing, but develops as a "work in progress" until both parties are happy with it.

 

A guitarist's job is basically to mimic the dynamics of the steps with rhythm passages and enhance and embellish the emotion conveyed by the body movements and the overall flavor of the dance form. Having an understanding of the emotional nature of the dance form is also important. This can only be gained by a one-on-one interaction with the dancer. Watching the facial expressions for example, will help to determine what style of falseta you would play. A pre-set piece of music without this initial interaction would simply not work.

 

I don't wish to put you off, but of all the books, videos and other instruction material I have seen for guitar, most are focused on solo guitar. Some will try to explain how a particular dance is structured and how the various rhythm passages may fit, but these tend to be purely clinical references designed to be used with reference to a live dancer. Although most dance forms follow a basic structure with common elements, these elements are mixed and matched according to the whim of the dancer. Some bits are left out, others are added or extended. Sometimes this happens during the performance itself and the guitarist follows these whims by watching out for visual cues.

Let me give you an example:


This Alegrias page shows the basic structure of a typical Alegrías. Without knowing what the terms "marking", "footwork", and "llamada" mean, it means nothing without a dancer to show you what they are and where they want to put them in the dance. No two dances are the same and no two guitar arrangements are the same.

 

The only dance I can think of that you can successfully arrange without a dancer is Sevillanas. This dance has a solid traditional structure that never varies..ever...no matter how experienced the guitarist or dancer is. A dancer will always be able to put on any CD with Sevillanas and dance to it. Just about everything else depends on the personal choreography of the dancer, or whatever a student learned in class. I have played for many teachers who each had their own unique style of teaching and dancing. Naturally they would pass their style on to their students. Students from one dance school who migrate to another school (this happens a lot) need to modify how they execute their step sequences to suit the new teacher and new guitarist styles.

 

In some cases, I found myself instructing the dancers on the compás and even the structure of some dances. I can state categorically that it was the dancers themselves who taught me how to accompany flamenco dance. I can't see how I could have done it without them. The actual chords and rhythm styles I learned came from all the music samples they dubbed for me from CDs. They knew what they wanted. My job, as a guitarist, was to develop the music as best I could from what I could learn from bits and pieces from books, CDs and other guitarists. The end result was always a composition made up of bits and pieces and developed on the fly, and dictated and modified according to my technical limitations.

In the beginning, it's all about playing basic compás in the form of rhythm passages only.

 

When it comes to the actual sound coming out of your guitar, the test of a good accompanist is whether he can play a recognizable dance accompaniment with the strings muffled and using only rasgueado rhythms with traditional accents. More complex accent patterns and variations come later. In essence, a dancer prefers not to hear melodic passages while they dance. Things like tremolo, harmonics and dynamic variations in speed are an absolute no-no in dance accompaniment. A guitarist acts also as a metronome. What is important is accenting the compás. If they don't hear the compás (accented beats in the cycle), they get totally lost. Or rather a student tends to get lost. An experienced dancer will just get pissed off and give you dirty looks. The stops and starts in the rhythm must exactly match the steps, otherwise the whole point of accompaniment is lost. The only variations in speed are either dictated by the dancer or the nature of the dance form itself. An example of this is Zapateado and escobilla passages in Alegrias, where speed variations are expected. But once again, the guitarists need to keep an eye on the dancer because the rate of speed change is dictated by the dancer not the guitarist.

 

When I first started playing for dances, we did the inevitable charity performances at Spanish festivals, Spanish clubs and Spanish restaurants. Of course, Spanish people who come to listen to flamenco at these types of events (aficionados) usually want to join in and supply the palmas. They know instinctively when a passage is about to end because they know where the compás accents are in the cycle, and when to change the clapping style in the right places (soft and hard palmas). I knew I was no longer a gringo pretending to play flamenco when I felt comfortable playing for Spanish audiences. There is no way I could have reached that point without the personal input from, and interactions with dancers.

 

I have met many guitarists who played what they thought was flamenco (on their own) but completely ignored the compás and introduced dynamic and speed variations in totally inappropriate places. When they proudly played their book "pieces" for dancers for the first time, they were met with blank looks. Pretty melodies and classical guitar style inflections and tone color have no place when playing for dancers. The best you could say about their music is it may have a vague Spanish flavor to it. It certainly wasn't flamenco. One classical guitarist friend of mine was only interested in learning what he called "flamencoy" sounds, such as typical chords and rasgueados. He was more interested in introducing these sounds into his classical compositions than to make any serious effort to learn flamenco. Fair enough. At least he was honest. He knew it wasn't playing flamenco.

 

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Flamenco guitar method 1902