How to Dance Flamenco With a Bata de Cola
Flamenco dancers use the words bata de cola to refer to both a dress and the dance it's worn for.
The dress always has a long train (that's what "cola" means!). If the train is white, it can look like a ruffled wedding dress. At first glance, the front looks like a "feria" dress—the dresses worn for the Seville fair. But those are too tight around the legs to properly dance in. However, if you look closely, you'll see the ruffles start above knee level, giving enough room to move—and you need to move your legs a lot in this dance, not just to do the steps but also to move the train around!
A well-made bata de cola will have a train with enough stiffness to stay spread out at all times. The one in the image below is made by Flamencista, one of the few suppliers to offer a ready-made bata de cola (although they will also custom make for you).
A soft train may look easier to handle, but it's actually more difficult, and it also looks less impressive. Look closely at this clip and you'll see the choreography is restricted to allow for the fact that the train won't fly properly:
Choreographing for the Bata de Cola
When you're starting out, it's always best to avoid choreography where the train wraps around you. It takes real confidence to get yourself into a "merengue" and get out of it again without falling flat on your face!
When choreographing for the bata de cola it's important to leave extra time for the cola to complete its movement. You can't take an existing routine, choreographed wearing an ordinary costume, and expect to be able to dance it with a train. The bata de cola doesn't work like that! The cola is heavy and is almost always a beat or two behind the dancer. You have to give it time to catch up with you—in fact, it looks much more dramatic if you do.
For instance, you can still do fast turns at the same speed as before, because the cola will lift and fly around with you. But that means it builds up momentum, so when you stop, it will keep moving in the same direction. You need to let it come to rest before you take your next step—otherwise you're likely to get tangled.
The Bata de Cola Kick
The same principle—giving the cola its own time—applies when the train has landed in front of you, and you need to move it out of the way for your next step.
The reason many people find this "kick" difficult, is that they think they should be able to kick the train into position in one beat and step out on the next. To make a heavy train move that quickly, you'd need to give it a hefty kick with your whole body behind it, and that would look pretty ugly.
However if you give yourself more time, you can use a smaller kick to start the movement, and then allow the train's momentum to carry it the rest of the way. The kick still needs to have force—it's important to engage all your hip and leg muscles for the kick, although most of the actual movement will be below the knee, usually in a semi-circular motion.
The other solution, of course, is to choreograph your routine so your train never lands in the wrong position—if it never falls in your way, you'll never have to kick it, will you? This is more achievable than it sounds and again, it's a case of using the movement of your body to create momentum in the cola, which will carry it through to the position you want. Using this strategy, the most you'll have to do is give the cola an extra nudge with your heel now and then as it passes your foot.
Picking Up the Cola
Now let's look at the other situation where you need a "bata de cola kick" - when you need to pick up the train and dance holding it in your hand. Basically, you kick up the cola with your heel in a semicircular movement, reaching down with your hand at the same time. Once again, this is difficult to teach and is a knack that you will only get through practice, practice, practice.
There are ways to avoid this kick altogether. If you can choreograph your routine so the cola is already in the air - such as at the end of a turn - you'll find it much easier to grab. Alternatively, you can stop and do a showy backbend, picking up the train before you straighten up. Or if you're dancing a more gitana style with deep forward bends, you could pick up the train on one of those.
Of course, it helps if you have a well-made dress. In the clip above, notice how the dancer is able to pick up her train without bending over at all, because the ruffles come so high. I'm not convinced it's the most elegant way to pick up a train, though!
How to Make a Bata de Cola Dress
Because the dress is so expensive, I'm often asked for help on how to make your own.
Unfortunately, making a bata de cola dress is not for the faint-hearted. Even my regular flamenco dressmaker, who makes wonderful ruffled flamenco dresses, finds them difficult. Getting the fall of the ruffles and the stiffening right is a challenge, even for an experienced seamstress!
A good guide is that the back seam from your waist to the tip of the cola should be roughly equivalent to your height.
Here is a lovely clip that shows the male dancer using the cola as well as the female dancer—which demonstrates why you need that extra length!