Flamenco Dance Steps - Basic Footwork
The defining image of flamenco is the male flamenco star, hands holding the front of his bolero jacket, spine held proudly with shoulders back, dark brows frowning over an aquiline nose as his feet flash at an impossible speed, beating out an amazingly complex rhythm.
These days, women are just as likely to do showy footwork. It’s not just the speed, but the clarity and evenness of the beats that is important. Your feet must strike exactly in the center of the beat (or off-beat), not behind or ahead of it.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to achieving good footwork—just drilling, drilling, drilling. However, all those hours of drilling are completely wasted if you’re drilling the step incorrectly. Drill with the wrong technique, and you're just reinforcing bad habits.
When drilling, always:
Make sure you understand the correct technique for each movement
Start every drill session slowly, checking that you are executing the movements precisely, then gradually increase speed.
As you speed up, if you feel your technique is slipping, stop and resume at a pace slow enough to do the movement perfectly.
You need correct technique to build speed, but you also need it for safety. If you have proper shoes and precise technique, you don't have to batter the floor to achieve a good sound—which means you're less likely to get bruises, plantar fascitis or impact injuries to your knees and ankles (all injuries which can affect flamenco dancers).
Basic Footwork Technique
So what is the correct technique for footwork? Actually, it has far more to do with the legs than the feet. Get the leg movement right, and the feet don’t do much more than hang off the end of your ankles. In fact, your feet should always be fairly relaxed when dancing flamenco—it's impossible to build up speed otherwise.
Virtually all the movement in fast footwork is done by the lower leg. So little should happen above the knee, that I’ve known teachers tie their students’ knees together during practice to stop them cheating. It's not a bad exercise to try yourself, because you may be moving your knees more than you think. Tie them together (loosely, please!), and you'll soon discover whether you're using the right technique or not!
Footwork is a combination of four basic movements, commonly referred to as digs, heels, toes and stamps. All these movements start with exactly the same leg movement:
The Flamenco Backswing
In the photo above, can you see how the dancer's knees are almost even, and he's raising his leg behind him?
The “backswing” is my own name for that preparation, which is used for all flamenco steps. For me, the name makes sense—because just like golf or tennis, a good backswing is what gives you power, speed and accuracy.
Every time you go to stamp, dig, or strike with your heel or toe, you must do a proper backswing. I can’t over-emphasise how important this is.
Using a good backswing, you can create a great sound with relaxed feet, because you’re using the weight of the leg not brute force.
Less effort means more stamina.
A more relaxed foot can move at a greater speed.
The backswing ensures your foot always strikes the ground at the correct angle.
The correct technique for the backswing is as follows:
Stand in dance position.
Keep your knees close together.
Now lift one foot behind you, so your lower leg is at right angles to your upper leg.
Note that your knees do not separate when you lift your foot behind you. Do not let your working knee come forward at all.
You will see professionals cutting the backswing short during fast zapateado. That's unavoidable as the steps get faster. However, start cutting it short when you’re dancing at beginner speeds, and you’ll be left with nowhere to go as you build speed.
A dig is done with the ball of the foot, “digging” into the floor.
Take a good backswing, then let your foot drop—as if you were dropping a hammer—so that the ball of your foot hits the floor with a thud. That’s a dig. Note, there’s no need to put any force into this movement – just let your leg be heavy so it drops with speed and weight. You’ll find you get a better sound using this technique, than if you try to drive the foot into the floor.
It’s also possible to do a dig with the heel (talon). The same technique applies. There’s no need to raise the toe when you do a heel dig: in fact, to a spectator, it should be hard to see the difference between a heel dig and a stamp, because the front of the foot skims so close to the floor.
Heel (Tacon) and Toe (Punto)
When we say “heel” or "toe", we’re usually referring to a sharp strike on the floor with the back edge of your heel or the point of your shoe.
As with all foot movements, start with a full backswing. Now scythe the foot down sharply. For a heel strike, aim next to the instep or toe of your other shoe. For a toe strike, drop the toe straight down behind you.
Because you’re standing on one leg, a common mistake is to put weight on the striking foot to help your balance, pausing for a second or two with your heel or toe on the floor. Do this and you’ll never be able to work up any speed!
You need to strike fast and retreat just as fast. Think of a cobra striking its prey. Or imagine testing a hot iron with a damp finger. It’s so fast that if you blinked, you’d miss it. No matter how slowly you’re doing an exercise, your heel should be that fast!
If you’re working at a slow pace, fill in the time by pausing with your leg at the top of the backswing, not when your foot is in contact with the floor.
What can you say about a stamp? We can all stamp our feet, can’t we? Well, yes and no. Like the dig, stamping is not about driving your feet into the floor. That way lies sore and bruised feet! Let your foot fall into the floor as if you’re dropping a hammer. Remember also that you’re not lifting your whole leg and stamping straight down. You start in a backswing, so your foot moves forward into the stamp.
Where to Strike the Floor
One of the consequences of raising your leg behind you and letting it drop, is that it's quite difficult to hit the floor in front of you—so it's odd that striking the floor too far forward is such a common mistake!
As teachers, I think we're sometimes to blame for that, because we often exaggerate a move to be sure our students can see it. But with heel strikes especially, the result is that students end up trying to strike the floor way in front of their other foot. That's bad technique.
It's true that you will see dancers striking in front, but only when they need to travel, as in this video.
Keeping your strikes behind your toe is important, because the further forward you strike, the harder it will be for you to build up speed, the less sound you will make, and the more likely you'll be to use your working heel to steady you. Take it too far forward and you’ll start bringing your knee forward, swinging your leg in an arc and scuffing the floor with your heel instead of making a good, sharp “pow”!.
A good exercise to get a feel for this movement is to stand on one leg, lifting your other leg into a full backswing. Find your balance. Now think about keeping your weight exactly where it is and your knees glued together, and do 64 heel strikes without pausing. Make sure your weight never strays off your standing leg, and your working heel strikes the floor right next to your other foot . Repeat with the other leg.
It is possible to do heel strikes traveling forward, usually combined with a dig. The secret is to achieve most of your forward movement as you dig. You should still be striking your heel very close to the toe of your other foot.