Playing for a Dancer: The Best Flamenco is Truly a Collaboration
JOHN SINGER SARGENT, EL JALEO
From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY JASON WEBSTER
There is a saying in flamenco that before launching off on a solo career, a guitarist should first play for at least ten years accompanying bailaores and then another ten years with cantaores; only after this combined experience will he or she have the necessary training and understanding to perform alone. Although this is not always strictly adhered to, there is some truth to it. Players who fail to go through the due apprenticeship can usually be spotted within the space of a handful of bars. What gives them away, in most cases, is failure to adhere to a strict sense of compás.
Compás, as regular readers of this column will know, means “rhythm” and “meter.” It is of crucial importance to flamenco—even more so than in many other Western forms of music. To be told that you have poor compás is like a boxer being told he has a glass jaw or a gardener being told she doesn’t have a green thumb (or “fingers” as they say in the UK). It can be practically terminal, so you need to nail it. And the best way to do so is to play for dancers. A lot.
Fortune has blessed me with a beautiful Spanish wife, who is also a highly talented flamenco dancer. I have played for her in the past, but less so in recent years: the health of our marriage was deemed of greater importance. Be warned—arguments over rhythm can become heated (and learn to accept now that it’s always the guitarist’s fault). But, when I was preparing this article and asked her opinion about guitar accompaniment for a dancer, the first thing she said was, “Compás!” She did not need to elaborate; that single word encompasses so much. In fact, doctoral theses could be (and perhaps have been) written on the subject. There is something magical about hitting a truly perfect compás with another performer, as though the rhythm somehow expands into multi-dimensions and you are able somehow to step inside it. I think this is the reason why flamencos can be so playful with it, throwing in off-beats and polyrhythms that seem to defy understanding. Having good compás and being in time with the dancer is the fundamental building block for accompanying; it is the foundation upon which the entire performance is built. Without it, it simply isn’t flamenco.
The second thing my wife mentioned was tempo. There is a tendency among guitarists who have spent little or no time with dancers to play too fast. All those hours practicing and perfecting can turn the humblest musician into an insufferable show-off. And what better way to demonstrate your virtuosity than by hammering the fretboard at 90 mph? This may impress your more sedentary friends, but it’s only going to make for a grumpy bailaora. (Trust me on this one.) So almost as important as compás is to slow things down a bit. Make sure you’re playing at a pace that the dancer can actually follow with her feet. In fact, it’s probably the other way around—let the dancer set the pace and you follow. Remember that the principal function when playing for bailaores is to provide the music for their performance. You are accompanying them; they are not accompanying you. It is, of course, a collaboration, but there is a pecking order and—notable exceptions apart—guitarists are not at the top of the bill. You are there to provide the music that makes the dancer want to dance.
Which brings us to the third element my wife mentioned: soniquete. This is a very difficult word to translate. My dictionary simply gives it as “droning.” Ignore that. In a flamenco context, soniquete means something like “the groove,” “the vibe,” that thing that makes you want to sway your hips and start dancing. You know it when you hear it, and when you’ve got it, it shows. You may have great compás, you may have slowed your playing down to a reasonable, danceable pace, but if the soniquete isn’t there, you might as well go home. Few things can be more soul-
destroying than glancing up from your guitar at the blank expression on a bailaora’s face and the look in her eye that says, “What do you expect me to do with that?” The music has to have “feeling” (and the Spanish sometimes use the English word here). It may seem too obvious even to mention, but it can easily be overlooked. With your backside firmly settled in a chair, it’s easy for a guitarist to forget that—for the time being at least—the music has to invoke and speak of movement.
So take your time, enjoy it, and make something you would want to dance to yourself. Soniquete probably can’t be taught, but it can be absorbed. Surround yourself with flamenco. Play, play, play. Go and find yourself a dancer (marrying them is optional). And then start all over again.
Here’s a nicely shot clip from Spanish director Carlos Saura’s masterful 2010 film Flamenco, Flamenco, featuring dancer Sara Baras: