Lessons and info for the nylon string guitarist

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:

Have a look at a typical dance structure for Alegrías.

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.

In summary, the traditional steps to learn how to successfully accompany are
these:

1
Find a guitar teacher who accompanies dancers and learn some basic rhythm chord sequences of the main dance forms.
This usually involves regular and ongoing private lessons.
2
Sit with this guitarist as he plays in classes and at dance rehearsals. The main guitarist usually uses an
amplifier so the student can practice quietly in the background with muffled strings. Recording lessons and classes
is also useful.
3
The student provides simple accompaniment as second guitarist in dance classes. He will also play on his own for
beginners classes and plays basic rhythms sequences to things like Sevillanas, Soleá and Alegria.
4
The student sits with the main guitarist on stage and supplies basic second guitar rhythm accompaniment.
5
The student plays on his own in more classes and rehearses with students and goes into the field doing performances
in cafes, private parties and other gigs. Eventually he is called upon to play on his own in more advanced dance
classes and to create suitable music for dance choreographies
6
Through this process, he learns as much as he can from recordings, books and videos. The best CDs to learn
accompaniment from is those that highlight singers and also those that feature live dance performances where the
steps are audible. I shamelessly say “he” rather than the more politically correct “he or she” because I have only
met two female flamenco guitarists in my life. Both of these preferred to remain low key regarding performances. To
my knowledge female guitarists are rare even in Spain.

All this could take about a year, but it is a most satisfying experience and you end up walking away with all you
need to arrange half decent dance accompaniments in the privacy of your own home with no dancers in sight. But even
so, the results will still need to be tested, and usually further customized to suit the individual dancer. Serious
dancers don’t usually dance to “off the shelf” music. This may happen in some dance schools that use tapes and CDs
in class, but I would not send anyone to learn dance in one of these schools.

Most “serious” dancers prefer to play a part in it’s development.
I probably haven’t helped you that much. I just wanted to emphasize that fact that
flamenco is about interaction with others. You can’t do it on your own. I dare say that anyone who has been
actively involved in performing flamenco will tell you the same thing. Despite what I say, my hope is that you will
go ahead and create some arrangements anyway and try them out with dancers. The bottom line is that music and dance
are personal expressions that need not be necessarily limited to traditional rules. I worked with one dancer who
had a background in modern jazz style dance. She liked to freely improvise flamenco steps without any regard to
specific compás. That was fine by me. We both knew the “rules” but for a bit of fun, we sometimes made a conscious
decision to disregard them. In other words, I could play any style of music (classical, ragtime or whatever) and
she was happy to dance to it. That was kind of liberating but we both knew it wasn’t flamenco. We just enjoyed what
we did.
With kind regards,
Sal Bonavita
END OF EMAIL

Here are some other bits worth reading

The following snippits are from Flamenco FAQ for Classical Guitarists

The three rules of accompaniment:
1) Stay in compás.
2) Stay in compás.
3) Stay in compás.

How do I learn to accompany?
…..it can’t be done by ordering a book or tape. You’ve got to go find some flamencos.

1. Find another guitarist who accompanies and take lessons, or watch, listen, spy,
whatever.

2. Start building a collection of recordings (including videos if you can get them), and
listen, listen, listen. If you’re just starting, the older anthologies are usually better for picking out basic
ideas. Contemporary flamenco is pretty jazzy, and while the bones are there, they can be pretty obscure. It helps
to go shopping with a knowledgeable flamenco to find the nuggets (if any) at your local stores. Obviously
solo guitar recordings aren’t going to be too helpful.
Neither are the Gypsy Kings for anything but
rumbas. Camaron and Paco are great models, but pretty hi-tech.

3. *After you can sustain compás* (regardless of some mistakes in notes, and
rough technique), find willing singers (!) and dancers, and practice with them, the better the better. Therein is a
dilemma. It is much easier for a student guitarist to follow a very good singer or dancer than a fellow student
(the blind leading the blind). But of course it’s the beginning singers and dancers who are willing to spend time
with you.

Student dancers rarely have the chance to work on their own with guitarists, so they’re often eager to find
ANYONE who plays. It can really help to pair up with a compatible “buddy” and pool resources. One way around the
“blind leading blind” syndrome is for you and your buddy (student singer/dancer) to arrange for a private session
for both of you with *both* pros just before or after a rehearsal, when they’d both be there anyway. Probably worth
it, even if expensive. The flamencos I’m talking about will at least know you’re serious if you propose such a
thing, and unless they’re on ego trips, may well do their best to accommodate you. Some guitar teachers accompany
the classes of the dancers with whom they work (or their students do), and of these some will allow or encourage
you to sit in. Invaluable.
….you’re not a flamenco guitarist by flamenco standards if you can’t accompany singers and dancers.

Compás is Spanish for
1) rhythm, generally,
2) measure — a coherent unit of rhythm,
3) the characteristic rhythm of a particular form. Thus, “he has good compás” means he has a good sense of
rhythm. “The introduction is 4 compás long” means something like (but not exactly) “it’s four measures long.” “I
play this in the compás of tientos” means I play it with the same rhythm you’d hear in tientos.

The backbone of all forms in flamenco that have compás at all (some of the lyrical songs don’t) is the compás. Hopefully, you will play the right notes
or chords at the right time, but mistakes of that kind are quickly history. Singers and dancers will forgive you many many sour notes, and terrible tone. Unfortunately, they can’t work with you at all if you provide them a hesitant, uneven, or false rhythmic basis.

For accompaniment, compás is King.
The following quotes are from DCFlamenco Article

“So you want to play for dance classes?
“If a beginner guitarist would like to learn to accompany, it’s fine to start with a beginner level dance
class.”
“Don’t try a midlevel or advanced class unless there is a professional level guitarist playing, and then be
content to play ‘2nd fiddle’ and take his/her advice.”
“Be prepared to play rhythm and chords. Dance classes don’t need fancy falsetas, and in fact these can be more
of a hindrance than a help. Besides – the guitarist will learn a lot by playing rhythm and watching and listening
to the dancers for each tempo change. Falsetas come later.

“I don’t think of a guitarist as a Flamenco Guitarist unless they can accompany (in my humble opinion). What
defines flamenco is the connection of the artists to the compás, as I have said before; flamenco is an
individual artform, but it is a group experience. And sitting in class playing
for dancers is the only way to learn
,
first sitting next to a more experienced player and then by
yourself.”

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