Flamenco Dance Posture, Hands, and Arms
How you hold and use your body in flamenco will depend on the style you're learning.
Although some aficionados can be vocal about which styles are “authentic”, none of them is “wrong” in my view—they're just different. All dance forms evolve over time, so newer styles are just as valid as traditional forms.
Looking at the two extremes, you'll notice women dancing in a gitana (gypsy) style move their torso a lot, snaking their hips, bending deeply forwards from the waist, or shrugging their shoulders to accentuate the beat. Their movements are raw and sometimes, when they crouch forward or dip their head, the shapes they create can even look quite ugly.
By contrast, members of the modern Spanish flamenco ballet companies—mainly based in Madrid—have a more contained style: their torso remains quite straight unless they stretch backwards in a (usually spectacular) back bend, and their hips rarely move independently. You'll never see these women adopting an ugly pose!
The differences between male performers isn't so pronounced, because men's body and arm movements are more understated even in the traditional style.
In a nutshell, the gitana style is earthy and raw, whereas the Madrid style is elegant and refined. The style you learn may be anywhere on the continuum between the two, depending on when and where your teacher learned to dance, and how much exposure he/she has had to recent developments.
However whatever the style, all flamenco has a basic posture—a stance from which all other movements flow. It’s absolutely vital to learn the correct posture and practice it until it's second nature: it not only improves your style but it protects you against injury.
Don't Arch Your Back!
A very common mistake for all beginners is a tendency to arch the back. In all flamenco styles, the chest is held proudly. That should be achieved by sliding the shoulder blades down the back, but often dancers will achieve it by throwing their head back, which means they have to compensate by sticking out their butt! That’s especially so for women, because high heels encourage you to angle your pelvis. So let’s start there first.
The best way to ensure you're not doing the "pouter pigeon" look - boobs thrust out in one direction and butt in the other - is to use a wall.
The Wall Exercise
Stand straight (as you would for flamenco) with your back to a wall, and shuffle back until your body touches the wall. What hits the wall first? If it's your bottom, your posture needs correcting! Dancing in this position may cause lower back pain, and ultimately, more serious problems.
But first let's finish the Wall Exercise. Continue backing up until your shoulder blades contact the wall (it's OK if you need to move your feet away slightly).
So, your bottom and shoulders are now touching the wall. Where is your head? If it isn't touching, your head is sitting too far forward and you're in danger of developing a turtle or tortoise neck. That's caused by bad posture at the computer – which needs to be addressed urgently, as it will affect your balance when dancing.
The only way to avoid that is to fix the way you sit when you're working! You'll also need to do some shoulder and neck stretching exercises every day until you can get that head sitting on top of your shoulders again.
The Neutral Pelvis
Now to fix your pelvis:
Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Arch your back to create a gap between the floor and your lower back. Now suck your navel in towards your spine, to press your lower back into the floor. These are the two extreme positions that your pelvis can reach. Your perfect position lies exactly between the two.
Rock your pelvis gently, several times, between the two extremes until you can work out where the halfway point is. That’s called “neutral pelvis”.
Now try to find the same position standing up. For a women, it can help to think of smiling with your ovaries (sorry guys, but it works so I've got to share!).
Your challenge, now, is to hold that position all the time you are dancing. Some teachers talk about "tucking in" or "tucking under", but most people react to that by clenching the buttock muscles - which limits your movements. In fact, what you need to do is activate your core, which will hold your pelvis in place while allowing your body to move freely. If you're not sure where your core muscles are, it's time for a one-on-one appointment with a Pilates instructor. A strong core is a fundamental requirement for any dancer, which is why so many professional dancers do Pilates. You can build your core just by dancing, but it takes much longer!
The Mirror Exercise: Upper Body
So, you’ve found your neutral pelvis. Now you need a mirror. Stand sideways to it. Let your back be tall, your neck long and your shoulders relaxed. Note, I don’t say “shoulders back”. Simply lift your shoulders up to your ears in an exaggerated shrug, and let them drop.
Now, holding tight with your core muscles so your pelvis doesn’t sneak out of line, lift your breastbone to the ceiling. If you’re a woman, it can help to get the idea if you take hold of the middle of your bra and pull forward and up.
If I was standing behind you, I should see your shoulder blades coming together. Nothing should move below the level of your ribs.
You’re now in perfect flamenco dance posture.
I know what you’re thinking!
The first few times you do this exercise, you’ll feel like you’re cast in concrete. You know that the minute you try to move, it will all fall apart. Don’t worry – keep practising, and you’ll gradually get better at keeping it all together.
Warning—you will see professionals, especially of the Madrid schools, standing with what appears to be a very arched back. However, if you look closely, they've developed a flexible mid-back and the arch begins just under their shoulder blades, no lower. The rest of the “bend” is an optical illusion, achieved by bending back from the knees.
I have to admit, you will see some who really are arching their back – in which case, they're in trouble! Once upon a time, flamenco had a reputation for being more injury-free than most other dance styles. These days, back problems are becoming more common amongst female flamenco dancers, thanks to the fashion for extreme back bends. Back injuries can shorten your dance career, so don't be tempted!
I've included arms in this article about posture because many dancers can hold a good body position—until they start moving their arms!
The arm positions in flamenco seem to have a lot in common with ballet at first glance—however, if you’ve come to flamenco from ballet, you’ll have a lot of “unlearning” to do! In ballet, the arms are always held slightly in front of the body line, precisely because holding them on the same plane causes you to over-arch your back. Flamenco has no such scruples, and the arms go all the way out to the sides and directly above your head—so you must learn to control your back and resist its desire to arch in those positions.
When it comes to flamenco arms, the most important thing to remember is:
Your elbows must always lead the way.
Whether you're lifting your arms above your head or lowering them back down, your elbows always initiate the movement. Always. This is very different to ballet, where the arm moves as a unit. In flamenco, you allow your arms to bend at the elbow as you move them.
When raising your arms in any direction, you should feel the effort in the back of your upper arms. Let your forearms relax and follow along for the ride. You will have a little tension in your hands so they don't look floppy, but don't let them contribute to the movement yet. When your elbows have reached their final position, then start lifting the hands.
The same applies when lowering your arms. Lead the way with your elbows, letting your forearms and hands follow naturally. Once the elbows are in the right place, keep moving your forearms into position.
Be careful not to go overboard! You will often see flamenco dancers with their shoulder blades pulled so far back, their arms are actually behind them. You may think this looks good, but it's not correct, and it's not safe for your back.
I remember one lovely young dancer in Sydney, whose shoulder blades almost seemed to meet when she opened her arms, they went so far behind her. Then she went to Spain to study with some of the top professionals in Madrid and Jerez. When she came back, she still had beautiful arms – but they did not go behind her head. Apparently she was given a very hard time by her Spanish teachers over her “dreadful habit”.
Flamenco Hands: Filigranas
For female flamenco dancers, if you're not wearing castanets then your hands are continually moving in filigranas or floreos, constantly alternating the inwards and outwards movements.
The best position to practice the filigranas is with your arms out in front of you, elbows slightly bent.
Throughout the exercise, make sure your shoulders, upper arms and elbows are glued in place. They're not involved at all in these movements! If you feel the need to move at the elbow, you're doing it wrong. In fact, it's a good idea to try floreos on one hand at a time, while you hold the elbow with your other hand, to make absolutely sure you're not cheating. You can also practice them with your arms resting on a table.
You're going to rotate your hand, making a circle with the tips of your fingers. For the outward version, start by turning your hand outwards. The front of your wrist is now facing outwards. Now fold your hand outwards—think of trying to touch the front of your wrist with your fingers. When you can't go any further, start rotating your hand down and around. When you get back to the starting position, straighten your hand again.
The inward version is the same in the other direction.