Flamenco Dancer's Guide to
Palos & Structure
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As a flamenco dancer it's just as important to be able to SPEAK flamenco as it is to DANCE it!!
In this guide, you’ll learn about the PALOS of flamenco and the STRUCTURE of full dances. Be sure to bookmark this page!
Palos (Rhythms) of Flamenco
What is palo?
Palo is the rythms of flamenco. Each palo is identified by the chords, tempo and overall aire. So, you could hear a few notes of an Alegrias and be able to identify it as such– even if there are different lyrics. (It’s like Stairway to Heaven notes and tempo but with different lyrics!)
There are many diagrams on the internet that show how all the palos are related. A common visual is a tree with big branches being major categories of palos (like Soleares, Cantiñas, Tangos, etc.) Then smaller branches for the various rhythms of that category. Now that’s a LOT of information and can be a great deep-dive study in flamencología. One quick distinction that you can make is if the palo is Cante Chico (which means light hearted song) or Cante Jondo (which means deep song).
However, for us, here, I’m going to breakdown the top palos that I would teach to my students more or less in the order that I would teach them. Of course, there are many more!
This is by no means an intensive study of palos. Again, these are the most common ones I expose my students to in classes. But after reading the description, watch the videos and see if you can hear the chords that make it the particular rhythm.
Fun & funky 4 count rhythm. Can be danced por fiesta much like Bulerías with the dancer going out to dance a little pata’a– a little something and not an entire dance. It can also be used as a choreography with escobillas (long footwork patterns), multiple letras (verses). And to top it off, Tangos is the rhythm that ends all dances of 4 count like Farruca, Tientos, Tarantos.
Solea por Bulerias
Mid to fast tempo with the 12 count compás. It's basically the letra of Soleares with the tempo closer to Bulerías. The aire is aggressive and sharp which makes this a fun palo for beginners to start with since you can dig in deep with those flamenco feelings. I remember being told by a singer that dancing Solea por Bulerías is like dancing on shards of glass. Ouch! The format of a super basic dance is fairly straight forward: Letras, Escobilla, Bulería.
Mid to fast tempo in 12 count compás. The aire is happy and light and danced by both men and women. This is such a fun rhythm! Even though the aire is happy, there are many dancers that sink their teeth into it and get funky with it. If you can't identify it right away, one way to know that it's Alegrías is when the singer usually starts singing, instead of singing a regular entrada of ay, ay, ay, the singer sings "tiri ti tran tran tran, tiri ti tran, tran, tran........). Alegrías has a few different elements than other dances: Letras, Subida (tempo build up), Silencio (slow falseta specific for Alegrías,) Escobilla, Bulerías de Cádiz.
Mid to fast tempo in 12 count compás. This palo is super feminine, languid and humid. The music originated in Cuba so many of the lyrics mention a beautiful Cuban woman, walking the streets of Havana, smoking a cigar- not necessarily all at the same time. This is generally danced by women, but sometimes you'll see men dance it with some light energy. Many dancers use a fan or a bata de cola--- or even both like this one! The format is standard: Letras, Escobilla, Bulerías (which actually is just a faster version of the letra of Guajiras.)
All tempos in 6 count compás. Now this technically isn't flamenco but you'll see it danced plenty in tablao shows. It's a folkloric dance from Sevilla and a set choreography danced in partners. Besides tablao shows, you'll see it danced constantly during the Feria de Sevilla in Spring- danced by everyone. There are four set coplas (letras) in Sevillanas, so even if your partner dances it slightly differently, you'll both dance perfectly together (as long as you're both dancing the same copla!)
Fast tempo in 12 count compás, sometimes counted in 6. This is fun and funky and improvised. Like Tangos, this is danced por fiesta, meaning that it's improvised and short. You'll see this at the end of shows when the entire cuadro stands together and one person at a time goes to the middle to dance a little something, a little pata'a.-- including the musicians if you're lucky. However, Bulerías is also used to end most 12 count dances like Solea por Bulerias, Solea, Guajiras, Bamberas, etc.
Slow tempo in 12 count compás. When I teach the flamenco 12 count to a group of new beginners, I usually start in Solea because it’s slow enough for them to grasp the concept of the compás. But then I move them onto Solea por Bulerias when we actually start learning a choreography. Why? Because Solea as a complete dance is difficult BECAUSE it’s so slow. LOL!
Solea is one of the heavy hitters of all of palos (rhythms) of flamenco. It’s profound, somber and the mother of all palos (imho). A dancer will have to have studied years before feeling comfortable with this palo. Even though it's slow, the dancer has to have the compás complete secure to be able to dance this slow rhythm and be truly expressive. It also can follow a basic format of Letras, Escobilla, Bulerías.
All tempos in 5 count compás. Also, a very intense, profound palo. Seguirillas (also spelled Siguirillas, Seguiriya, Seguidilla- take your pick!) is an intense palo, considered cante jondo (deep song.) It’s similar to Solea in that it is profound and extremely soulful, however, it tends to be more aggressively danced if the tempo is faster. Otherwise, it can also be danced to a syrupy slow tempo. It follows the same format of Letra, Escobilla, but ends in the Macho.
It's important for dancers to understand the palos they are dancing. But take it one dance at a time! It can take years to be able to identify any or all of these, much less dance them.
Identifying the palos and understanding the complete structure of flamenco dances really makes or breaks a flamenco dancer. It's the same as learning a language. Do you understand what you're speaking or are you just parroting back what your instructor told you?
Structure of Flamenco
When the general public watches Flamenco, they see a dancer just stomping away on stage with an impassioned look on her face. Little do they know that there is a structure to the dance, a beginning, middle and end. Each person on the stage- the singer, guitarist, dancer, palmista- has a specific role to play during a dancer’s performance. There is a STRUCTURE to flamenco and with this structure, there is room for great improvisation, just as in a jazz performance. Rules with no rules.
Why is learning the structure of flamenco important? Well, if you’re dancing, you need to know what you’re actually dancing!!!
WHAT DOES THE STRUCTURE OF FLAMENCO EVEN MEAN?
It’s all the parts, sections or components of a dance. I’ve had countless dancers come to my classes (live or online) and lament that they took years of flamenco and STILL didn’t understand it. They learned plenty of choreographies but still couldn’t dance freely with the knowledge that they actually knew what they were doing!
It’s understanding the language of flamenco.
- - To watch it
- - To learn it
- - Ultimately to improvise
This structure applies to all the palos that are performed as a solo: Alegrías, Solea por Bulerías, Solea, Seguirillas, Tientos, Tarantos, Guajiras, Farruca, etc. So this wouldn’t be applied to the dances that are por fiesta like Sevillanas, Fandangos de Huelva, Tangos por fiesta or Bulerias por fiesta.
PROFESSIONAL STRUCTURE OF A DANCE
When you’re dancing in a tablao, everything can be done without rehearsal because of the implied structure of the dance. The musicians just need to know which palo you’re dancing and the singer may ask how many letras you want. The guitarist may ask if you want a falseta or not as well.
Everything else is implied and understood that the dancer/singer/guitarist can lead (“mandar”) and follow.
SUPER SIMPLE STRUCTURE OF A DANCE
A dance gets broken down to its essence of:
- - Letra(s) (verses)
- - Escobilla (footwork section)
- - Bulerías/Tangos/Macho (fast verse)
These are ALWAYS a part of a dance. Everything else is negotiable.
COMPLETE STRUCTURE OF A DANCE
Of course, there a lot of variables, but this would be a detailed outline.
- Falseta – Guitar melodic solo that always starts the number.
- Entrada – The entrance of the singer that generally begins with the “quejío” (ay, ay, ay!)
- Entrada & Llamada – The entrance and opening break of the dancer. She may enter during or after the singer’s entrada. Her llamada will be a percussive and dramatic move that spans a few compases and ‘calls’ the singer to begin singing the first letra.
- Letra – The first verse of song where the dancer follows the singer’s lead.
- Llamada – Another percussive and dramatic move by the dancer to call for the second letra.
- Letra – Second verse of song.
- Falseta – The dancer allows the guitarist to shine here.
- Escobilla – Long footwork section. There can be multiple rounds of escobillas.
- Subida – At the end of the escobilla, generally, the dancer will increase the tempo and then end with a cierre (a closing, just like llamada, but at the end) to call for the Bulerías, etc.
- Bulerías/Tangos/Macho – Fast verse of song with high energy.
- Estribillo – The singer sings the ending chorus while the dancer leaves the stage.
WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CHOREOGRAPHY?
Of course, if you’re dancing a choreography, you’ll want to feel confident and know it inside and out. However, there are some elements to always remember.
What palo is it and what is its “aire”? You want to embody it wholeheartedly.
How many letras are you dancing? Can you actually HEAR when the letra begins or do you start dancing your choreography right away without paying attention to if the singer actually started singing?
Don’t expect the musicians to remember ANYTHING about your solo other than the palo!! Really! It’s up to YOU to be able to LEAD, MANDAR.
So, when you finish a llamada, you need to do it with strength and clarity and conviction so that the musicians UNDERSTAND what you want. If not, then you can bet on disaster!
And finally, you are in control of your solo. You don’t have to rush through llamada/letra/escobilla, etc. You can take a breath for a compás or two and then move on to the next part. Those breaths in flamenco are so powerful!
Meet your teacher, Rina Orellana
It's my pleasure to offer this flamenco dancer's guide to palos & structure to help you reignite your flamenco practice (or even start one!)
I've been dancing flamenco for over 25 years and I've helped HUNDREDS OF DANCERS from all over the world unleash their inner flamenca with my Online Flamenco Studio.
It's my hope that I can help you to unleash your inner Flamenca and dance with power and confidence.