Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
One of the hardest things about flamenco dance, apart from achieving speed and accuracy in your footwork, is mastering the compás. And as any aficionado will tell you, without the compás, there is no flamenco!
The word compás is usually translated as “rhythm” but in flamenco, the concept of rhythm is far more precise than in most other dance forms.
If you've done any other styles of dancing, you're probably familiar with the 1-2-3 of waltz time, or the 4/4 beat of the average pop song. But when we clap or dance to the rhythm of these tunes, we're not usually paying careful attention to how precisely we hit the beat. In fact, most popular dance genres, even the very rhythmical ones, are not danced precisely on the center of the beat.
Flamenco Requires You to Be On-Beat
If you've ever watched the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, you may have heard the judges criticise a B-boy for dancing ballroom “ahead” of the beat when he should be “behind”.
Hip hop and breakdancing are often ahead of the beat to give a driven, exciting feel, whereas in couple dances being slightly behind the beat is correct. If you've ever watched Sequence (Old Time or New Vogue) dancing, you'll see that style takes it to extremes — the couples delay each step, moving to the next step at the last possible second, to give a smooth flowing feel.
In flamenco, being ahead of or behind the beat is completely unacceptable. You must be on the beat (or the off-beat), all the time, every time.
People who have grown up with flamenco have an unerring ear for the exact center of the beat and can be quite scathing of beginners who are even a fraction of a second “out”. Unfortunately, it's not something that can be taught, but the more you listen to flamenco music and become familiar with the compás, the better you'll get at hearing the “sweet spot”.
As if that wasn't challenging enough, the other difficulty is getting used to the 6-beat and 12-beat rhythms.
Flamenco Uses Complicated Rhythms
Even in a simple dance like the Sevillanas, the way the dance steps fit into the 6-beat rhythm can feel strange to anyone who's grown up with simple 3/4 and 4/4 timing.
We're used to rhythms with an emphasis that always repeats in the same place. So, for instance, in the waltz there's a heavy emphasis on the first beat: 1-2-3, 1-2-3. A 4/4 time signature will usually have the emphasis every other beat: 1-2-3-4 or 1-2-3-4.
When it comes to the 12-beat rhythms of the bulerias, Solea, Alegrias and so on, things are far more complicated, because the emphasis in the first 6 beats is completely different from the second 6 beats. Worse, where the emphasis falls appears to be different for each dance (though in fact it isn't, as we'll see in a minute when we look at the compás clock. Even knowing where to start the first step can be challenge, especially as some dances (just to be awkward) don't start on the first beat!
When I started studying flamenco, I was already an experienced ballet and jazz dancer, and thought I had a great sense of rhythm — but I struggled with the 12 beat rhythm, until Sal Bonavita of the Nylon Guitarist introduced me to the Compas Clock.
The Compás Clock
How to Use the Clock
The clock can only be used for palos which have 12 beats to the bar. It shows the 12 beats going around a clock face.
New students often think the bulerias, siguiriyas and alegrias have different rhythms. Visually displayed this way, it's obvious the rhythm is really the same for every dance, with the emphasis on the same beats (3, 6, 8,10, 12) — the only thing that's different is where you start!
The best way to get the hang of this is to try clapping it out as your eye follows the clock face.
So for the bulerias or guajiras, you'll start with a loud clap on 12, and follow the clock around, putting emphasis on the beats in bold.
This will give you 12-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11.
For the Alegrias or Soleares, you'll start on 1 (which isn't bolded), so you'll have two soft claps before your first loud beat: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12.
Siguiriyas is probably the hardest to get used to, because it starts on 8, which makes it sound very different from all the rest: 8-9-10-11-12-1-2-3-4-5-6-7.
Of course, once you've mastered these rhythms, you'll start to play with the emphasis – in bulerias, for instance, you'll often emphasise 7 and 8 instead of 6 and 8, and so on.
Understanding that all 12-beat rhythms are the same was a "light bulb moment" for me, but not everyone likes the compás clock. Flamenco is all about tradition and the clock is not a traditional way to learn — but as far as I'm concerned, I'm not too proud to use any tool that works!
To Count or Not to Count?
One of the reasons I struggled with the compás was that I'm not a "counter".
Some dancers consciously count the beat of the music as they dance — others don't. I don't know why that is, and it doesn't really matter. What matters is whether you can keep time to the music! If asked, I'd say I "feel" the beat rather than count it, though I suspect that somewhere in the depths of my mind, there's a subconscious count going on. When I danced ballet, I had no trouble following the beat without ever counting, but when I took up flamenco, "feel" was no longer enough.
Flamenco dancers are much more likely to count than dancers in other styles, even at an advanced level. In flamenco, it's not just the rhythm of the music you have to count, but the rhythm of your feet and perhaps even your castanets. That's a lot of beats for your subconscious to handle!
I resisted counting for a long time, because to me counting is too mechanical and doesn't belong in dancing. But I finally had to give in! For those of us who haven't grown up with flamenco music, the compás is not natural, so we're not going to "feel" it naturally. Counting is essential, at least when you're a beginner.
I haven't tackled contratiempo in this article. I think it's best to concentrate on mastering the basic flamenco rhythms, before you try to conquer contratiempo.
Basically, contra tiempo is the "and" beat (off beat) between beats. Just like the main tempo, in flamenco it's crucial to hit the off-beat precisely. You can't possibly do that if you aren't hitting the main beat precisely in the first place, so get that right first.
Buy a Metronome!
While you're practicing flamenco rhythm in class, you'll have your teacher shouting the beats or clapping to help you keep time. But when it comes to solo practice, it's pretty hard to clap and dance at the same time!
The answer is a metronome. Most serious flamenco students own one. I have to admit, I always prefer to practice to music - but sometimes, it really does help to strip away the distractions of melody, so you can focus on hitting that beat exactly in the middle. That's especially true as you get more advanced, and have to dance complex zapateado over the top of the rhythm.
© 2010 Kate Swanson
stanzi on December 03, 2010:
I FOUND THIS EXTREMELY USEFUL. THANK YOU!
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on April 27, 2010:
Estela, I'd love you to expand on that in more detail - if you don't use the 12-count, what is the right way to approach it? Having studied under several teachers, I've never encountered one who didn't place great emphasis on counting, which I always found difficult because I don't count naturally.
Estela Zatania on April 27, 2010:
No one ever learned to dance, sing or play flamenco in compás from a 12-count, it's only useful as an analytical tool, a bit like trying to learn a language by memorizing rules of grammar. The 12-count may seem like a short-cut during the initial introductory period, but it soon becomes a burden you must overcome.