Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
As a flamenco dancer, you're more than just a dancer. You're part of a team which brings a total flamenco experience to the audience. Part of your job is to support your fellow team members – and you do that by playing palmas (hand clapping) and giving jaleo (shouts of encouragement).
Many beginners are shy about palmas and jaleo, and make the excuse that they're not that important. After all, an experienced dancer can hear the beat in the music without needing anyone to clap it out, and surely all that shouting is distracting?
It's only when you reach the stage of performing yourself, that you really appreciate their value. Flamenco is a physically demanding dance, and many of the dances are emotionally draining, too. While the music certainly helps maintain the dancer's energy, there's something about the sound of strong palmas that can lend wings to tired feet! And when you're flagging at the end of a long escobilla, a word or two expressing admiration or approval can be just enough to give you a second wind.
It's as if, by actively participating instead of sitting passively by, the other performers transmit their own energy to the dancer. I know that sometimes when I've been dancing with a group who know how to give good palmas, I can almost feel the raw energy rushing towards me.
I know that sounds rather New Age, but then many people would say there is something mystical about flamenco!
In flamenco, your hands are an instrument, just as much as the guitar or the cajon. Palmas is also an excellent practice tool for all new flamencos, whether singers, guitarists or dancers—because practicing palmas is the best way to get to grips with the compás.
By learning the compás using palmas, you can focus on the beat without the distractions of correct fingering or footwork, so you're likely to master it more quickly.
But before you can learn the rhythms, you must learn correct clapping technique. Yes, there is a right and wrong way to clap your hands!
One important point is that in palmas, only one hand does the work. The other is almost stationery. Imagine one hand is a bongo drum, and you're beating it with the other hand.
It doesn't matter which hand you use. Obviously, you should use your dominant hand to do the work—which is usually, but not always, the one you write with. Experiment to see which feels most comfortable.
The other point is that the palm of the stationery hand is slightly cupped. The cupping creates a sound chamber so you get a strong, clear sound. If your palm is flat, you get a nasty cracking noise instead!
- Hold your hands at a comfortable angle to each other in front of you.
- Keep the fingers of your working hand together and strike them on the cupped palm of your working hand. The top of your middle finger should land at the base of your index finger, or between the index and middle fingers.
- Don't forget to cup the stationery hand, and experiment with the angle of your working hand and where you strike.
Palmas Fuertes (Claras, Altas)
The strong, clear clapping of the palmas fuertes (described in that video) is used to create a strong beat. You'll often hear it used by several palmeros, all playing slightly different variations on the rhythm. At full pelt with everyone exactly on the beat, dancing to this palmas can be an exhilarating experience!
It takes a lot of practice to be able to strike a strong note consistently, so be patient. Practice slowly without music first, pausing between each clap. When you get a nice clear sound, try to notice how you managed it, and see if you can reproduce it. When you can produce several clear sounds in a row, it's time to start clapping in time to music.
The next stage is to try clapping in contratiempo, which means clapping on the off-beat instead of the beat. Look out for the contratiempo in this video:
Palmas Sordas (Bajas)
Palmas usually continues all the way through a performance. When you want the Palmas to fade into the background, you'll use palmas sordas, which is a quieter, more muffled sound.
It's still valuable, especially for less experienced dancers, because it gives them a reference point if the guitarist or cantaor go off into a flight of fancy! And it still adds to the overall tapestry of sound.
For sordas, your hands are at more of an angle—almost 90 degrees. Fingers are relaxed, not stiff as in Altas.
- Keep both thumbs out away from your hands.
- Both palms are cupped.
- Bring the two palms together. The fingers don't make contact—let them fold naturally around your hands—so in the closed position, you're clasping your hands together.
Sordas is generally slower, so you often have time to slide your hands apart. Imagine you're washing them with soapy water. You can use this "washing" action to fill out beats between claps—it helps prevent you racing the music.
Jaleo is much simpler than palmas but, in some ways, more difficult to do, because you have to shout loudly to be heard by the audience, and therefore you're more likely to be worried about making a fool of yourself!
Giving jaleo just means saying something to show your approval. The simplest jaleo of all is the word ¡Olé! That may be so obvious it sounds inadequate, but in fact if you attend professional tablaos by native Spanish speakers, you'll find it's the most commonly used of all.
Note that in jaleo, it's usually pronounced with the emphasis more on the first syllable, and sounds more like “Alley” than “Olay”. In fact, pronunciation varies from place to place in Spain, but the first letter is always more of an “a” or “uh” than an “o”—and it definitely does not start with an H!
Other common words and phrases are:
¡Toma que toma! (go for it – for fast footwork)
¡Asi se baila! (that's what I call dancing!)
¡Asi se toca! (that's what I call playing!)
¡Eso es! (that's it!)
¡Hassa! (great! - note the H is silent)
¡Que guapa! (beautiful, of a female dancer)
Jaleo is given for all kinds of music and isn't always shouted. Listen to some quiet pieces of guitar music and you'll hear the palmero muttering a quiet “Ole” at the end of occasional phrases.
However, when it comes to dance numbers, you need to be louder—not because you're competing with the guitar or the singer (you shouldn't be), but because you need to match their volume or you'll sound feeble!
Don't shout just anything any old time. Properly done, jaleo should fit with the rhythm of the music and certainly shouldn't interrupt any of the other performers. Most often, a simple ¡Olé! between the end of one phrase and the beginning of the next is all you need.
During fast footwork, a shout of ¡Toma que toma! can spur the dancer on, but don't try it unless you're absolutely certain you can shout the words to match the exact beats of the music, or you'll distract the dancer with disastrous effect!
Palmas and Jaleo Etiquette
If you're at a concert, stage performance or tablao by dancers you don't know, it's bad manners to join in the palmas or jaleo uninvited—especially if you're a beginner and not absolutely confident of the compás!
As we've already discussed, being on the absolute center of the beat is crucial in flamenco. If you clap even fractionally before or after the beat, you'll distract the dancers and annoy the musicians. You may not be the best judge of your ability, so please don't be tempted! By all means, clap along quietly in your lap, without making a noise— it's great practice.
In Spain, except at a very informal juerga, audiences don't typically give jaleo – that's left to the performers.
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on May 27, 2010:
Glad you like it, blue parrot! I tried to check out your flamenco Hub but couldn't see one?
blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on May 27, 2010:
The way you bring in physics to explain sound in this post and movement in that post about the cola is "genial" as they would say here (Spain).
I live near Madrid, but don't know anything about flamenco, yet did write a post about it :-), most carefully, mind you, and long before I discovered this series here, but I had trouble finding some acceptable video. You have lots of good video because you know where to look. What I found was noise in some places and histrionics in others with cameras focusing mindlessly on a dancer's face.
I thought that maybe the need to adapt to large scenarios and large audiences would destroy flamenco.
msorensson on April 19, 2010:
I should come back for more of your hubs on dancing, Marisa.
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on April 16, 2010:
Wow! What daincing!