Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
How to Choose a Flamenco Shawl
A large flamenco shawl is an essential and versatile part of the flamenco dancer's wardrobe, as well as being a dramatic prop. In this article, we'll look at:
- How to choose a flamenco shawl.
- How to create a wrap top.
- How to use the flamenco shawl as a prop.
I own many large shawls, but only one authentic Spanish shawl, embroidered in Seville. My other shawls are lovely, but my Seville shawl stands out—the silk is heavier, the embroidery has a subtle sheen, and the fringe is weightier. I would never risk wearing it as a top, or using it in class for fear of damage, but it gets so many compliments when I do use it, and it's one of my most treasured possessions. If you can afford a real Andalusian silk shawl, I say go for it! They are also the perfect gift for any flamenca.
A word of warning—just because you order a shawl direct from Spain, don't assume it's authentic! A lot of shawls sold in Spain are Asian imports. Be suspicious of bargains—a good Spanish shawl will cost at least $200, unless it's on sale. Even some major Spanish retailers sell shawls made in China. A reliable source for genuine Spanish shawls is Flamencista.com.
The other reason I love my shawl is because I know the long tradition behind it. The video below is an homage to the embroiderers who make them. It's in Spanish, but even if you can't understand it, you will enjoy seeing the women at their work in a Spanish village.
Triangle Shawls (Half Shawl)
Another option is to buy a triangular shawl (actually, a half shawl—I know some teachers who buy whole shawls, then split and hem them for their students). Whether worn as a costume or used as a prop, you'll usually use the shawl folded into a triangle anyway, so why pay the extra money for the full square? As you'll have only one layer of material, it will be cooler to wear. If it's used as a prop, you won't have the worry about the shawl separating as you throw it around.
Personally, I have several triangle shawls which I wear for tops, but I would never use them as a working shawl because it encourages bad technique. With a triangle, you don't have to worry about the square separating in flight, and that can make you lazy! If you're a beginner, it's important to start out with the right technique. Eventually, you're going to want to move up to full size, full square shawl. If you don't use a square shawl from the start and keep it together from the beginning, you'll find it even more difficult to trade up to the heavyweight professional one.
Chinese shawls are much cheaper but they are usually made of reasonable quality silk. However the thread is lighter, finer and flatter. That can be a plus, because a lighter-weight shawl is more comfortable to wear. However it also means they don't "fly" as well, and the embroidery doesn't have the lustrous sheen of a genuine Spanish shawl.
You can see the comparisons in the next video. By coincidence, the large black shawl with silver embroidery is the same as my favorite shawl.
How to Wear a Flamenco Shawl
Most people assume that a flamenco shawl (manton) is worn over the shoulders, as in the picture at the beginning of the article (which was taken at a feria, not at a flamenco show).
Not for dancing! Only the small mantoncillo is worn that way when dancing - a large shawl would restrict the arms and conceal body movement too much. You will sometimes see photos of a dancer with a large shawl around her shoulders, but it's a pretty safe bet she is about to take it off and use it as a working shawl.
However, a large flamenco shawl can be very effective wrapped around the upper body to create a top, in either a traditional or sarong style (see instructions below). In fact, I always recommend students to start their costume collection with a shawl/skirt combo. If you buy a multi-colored shawl, you can buy two or three skirts which pick up the colors from the shawl and still spend less money than if you'd bought a dress!
How to Wear a Shawl as a Top - Traditional Style
The traditional way to create a top from a flamenco shawl is to wrap the main part of the shawl around the front of your body and then create shoulder straps with the ends.
You will need at least four safety pins.
- Fold the shawl into a triangle. Hold it out in front of you, one end in each hand, with the folded edge along the top and the point hanging down.
- Place the folded edge of the shawl across your bust and adjust it so the point hangs straight down in the centre.
- Pin the shawl to your bra or top where it meets the shoulder straps. Don't worry about making it neat - this is just to keep the shawl centred temporarily.
- Take the two ends behind your back and cross them over (swap hands).
- Bring one end up over each shoulder.
- Pull each end down to meet the folded edge of the shawl and pin together.
- You should now have a shawl which looks as though it has shoulder straps from the front, and is crossed over at the back, as in the picture.
- Remove the first two pins and repin as necessary until the top sits neatly.
- Get a friend to help if you can. It's very awkward to swap hands and bring the ends up over your shoulders by yourself.
- Always pin roughly first, so you can get your hands free. You can adjust later to get the safety pins out of sight.
- The shawl will be more secure if you pin it to your bra or top as well as to itself.
- If you have a smaller shawl (or are well-endowed), the ends may not reach far enough to pin to the folded edge. If so, sew a piece of matching ribbon to each end to bridge the gap. Or wear a matching top underneath and pin the ends to the top.
Flamenco Shawl Top - Sarong Style
The second way to create a top from a flamenco shawl will be familiar to any woman who has ever used a sarong as a dress.
This style leaves your shoulders and upper back bare (unless you wear something underneath).
- Fold the shawl into a triangle, with the folded edge along the top.
- Taking one end in each hand, hold the folded shawl behind your body (make sure you hold it evenly so the point is centred).
- Bring each end around under your armpits and cross them over in front of you (swap hands).
- Pull the ends up and secure behind your neck.
- You can pull the ends up as much or as little as you like. If you pull them up tightly, the scarf will mould to your breasts and give you some uplift.
- If you pull the ends up too much, you'll expose your midriff. That's fine if you are on the beach, but it's not very flamenco! To solve this problem, tie the top more loosely, or wear a matching halter-neck top underneath.
- If you tie your shawl behind your neck it can be quite bulky. An alternative is to use a couple of safety pins and tuck the ends out of sight.
Tailored Shawl Top
The third option is to cut up the shawl to make a top, and I've seen several dancers do this. The result is far more secure than simply tying and pinning, and it's more flattering because it fits the body more closely. The obvious disadvantages are that you will need sewing skills to make it and you'll have to sacrifice a shawl.
I haven't been able to find a pattern for this option, but you can see an example in this photo. Note how it's based on the traditional wrap, with the point facing down at the front, but the top has been cut and sewn on to a bra base with proper straps and a zip back fastening.
Protecting Your Shawl
You can wear any of these shawl tops on their own, but I always recommend wearing something underneath to protect the shawl from sweat, fake tan and body oils. Silk shawls are not easy to wash (the dyes may run) and even dry cleaning is a risk (the fringe can tangle beyond redemption). Much safer to keep them clean in the first place!
Most people wear a cami top with spaghetti straps (or a halter neck for the sarong wrap) so it's hidden - it does need to be in a toning colour, though, because it will show at the back. If that feels too bare, you will have to hunt for a sleeved lycra top in a shade that matches the base color of the shawl exactly. That can be hard to do except with a black or white shawl - but if you can manage it, it can look great.
Hint - don't wear a leotard under a shawl top, or you'll have to unpin everything and undress completely when you go to the bathroom!
The Working Shawl
What's a working shawl? It's a large shawl you use as a prop, not one you wear around your shoulders.
Whether the shawl dances are derived from the bullfighting cape is a matter of debate—but the important thing is that a shawl can be a spectacular addition to your repertoire. In the next two clips, you can see the difference between the smaller, lighter shawls used by amateurs and the huge, heavy professional shawl.
How to Choose a Working Shawl
You've just seen the difference in size between a student and a professional dancing with a shawl. Be guided by your teacher as to what size will suit you. Always check the measurements before buying!
Cynthianne Neighbors on July 29, 2014:
I wondered how to keep the shawl top in place! Good article!
Kimberly Schimmel from North Carolina, USA on July 28, 2014:
prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on July 28, 2014:
I can imagine how beautiful when the flamenco dancer wearing Flamenco Shawl. I learn something new here and I like it. Beautiful pictures and video as well. Voted up!