The following flamenco dance tips were born out of a longing to be back in class with Mercedes Ruíz. Because I love it there. I love how we learn, the focus on technique, the repetition, watching Mercedes move.
So here are eleven tips I’ve learned studying with her over the years. Each tip includes a brief exercise to help you apply it.
TIP 1: Breathe
In class Mercedes reminds us to breathe.
Respira, she says again and again.
I find it helpful to remind myself of this all. day. long.
Notice your body right now.
Where are your shoulders? Up or down?
How are you breathing? Barely or fully? How are your facial muscles? Tensed or relaxed?
Let’s take a moment to breathe fully and anchor into Your body.
Take a deep breath in. Feel the breath enter your nose, your throat, your lungs. Feel how it moves within your body. Now breathe out and feel the air leaving your body. Notice how the air creates movement in your body. Repeat with your eyes closed.
That’s easy enough to do while sitting and focusing on the breath alone, but not necessarily so easy to do while learning a new dance step or executing a difficult move. I get it!
We often unintentionally shorten our breathing when concentrating on something else. This inhibits our ability to dance with ease and grace. It can cause us to tire more easily. It can make our brains feel full and it cause us to feel separate from our bodies. We want to keep the air flowing steadily, so we must train ourselves to breathe consciously, and allow the breath to be a part of our dancing (even when learning something new).
Here’s an exercise to help with that.
An Activity for Better Breathing While Dancing
1. Choose a move or combination to work with. (It can be as long or short as you’d like.)
2. Dance it, and notice your breath. How does it flow? Is there a particular point (or points) where you stop or shorten your breath?
3. Stop for a moment, and close your eyes. Take one or two deep breaths to center into your body then open your eyes again.
4. Continue breathing consciously, and do the same move or combination again. Does it feel any different?
5. Do the exercise as many times as you’d like reminding yourself to breathe fluidly as you go.
Take it on the road:
As you’re going about your daily activities today, check in on your breathing. Practice adding more breath to everything you do today. (Washing the dishes, having a conversation with someone, reading, driving...) How can focusing on your breath during your daily activities serve you in flamenco?
TIP 2: Shoulders Down
Mercedes reminds us to keep our shoulders down in class.
We may accent with the shoulders, roll a shoulder, shrug the shoulders, etc. but these are isolated movements, and after we must bring our shoulders back down.
Here are three areas where the shoulders may want to come up:
1. When we bring our arms up
2. When we think about keeping the elbows up
3. When we’re not breathing
A closer look:
1. Sometimes as we raise our arms we bring our shoulders up with them.
TRY THIS: Take a deep breath in & raise your arms on the exhale. As you bring your arms up, engage your back muscles to pull the shoulders down. Notice how the muscles in your back can control your shoulders.
2. As we know, we hold our elbows up in flamenco which feels completely unnatural at first. Often times when we focus on holding our elbows up, the shoulders go up at the same time. Ack!
TRY THIS: Take another deep breath and on the exhale raise the arms to shoulder height. Shift your elbows up (like you’re a marionette puppet and your strings are attached to the bottoms of your elbows) Engage in your back to pull your shoulders down as you hold your elbows up.
3. Breathing helps us keep our shoulders down. If we stop the flow of breath, the tension may cause our shoulders to go up. Also, we can become so focused on correct form (in this case, keeping the shoulders down) that we forget to breathe well and become stiff.
TRY THIS: Bring your arms up halfway again. Make sure your elbows are up. Breathe consciously while circling your hands in and out. Use the breath to keep your shoulders down (while keeping your elbows up.)
Okay, now that we’ve had some practice, let’s move on to the exercise.
An Activity to Help Keep The Shoulders in Place
1. Choose a move or combination to work with. (You may choose to use the same one from yesterday or something new.)
2. As you dance, notice your shoulders. Are there specific points where they want to come up?
3. Do your move again, and use your back muscles to pull the shoulders down and keep them in place.
4. (If it’s a piece of cake to keep your shoulders down with that move, try the exercise with another combination, perhaps something longer.)
Take it on the road:
You can squeeze some more practice in when doing other non-dance things today. Explore using your back muscles to pull your shoulders down and back while typing on your computer, working in the garden, etc.
TIP 3: Plié
Mantener el mismo plié,
Mercedes says this a lot in class.
Maintain the same plié.
Or, as I like to say, Don’t bounce.
In flamenco dance we must remain grounded.
The upper body projects upward while the lower body connects with the floor.
Dancing in a slight plié is a big part of what keeps us grounded in flamenco. We may straighten our legs and come up for certain movements but we come back to, as Mercedes would say, the same plié.
This can be tricky to do because it feels unnatural at first. This means we need to give it a lot of attention and practice.
So, let's do it!
This skill is best to practice with a series of movements and while looking in a mirror.
An Activity for Staying in Plié As You Move
1. Choose a (longer) combination to work with.
2. Position your body for your first move making sure your knees are slightly bent.
3. Dance your combination very slowly without arm movements focusing on staying in plié. (You can check this by monitoring yourself in the mirror. If you see your head bobbing up and down, you're probably bending and straightening your knees too much.)
4. Dance it again, this time with the arms, continuing to focus on and monitor your plié.
5. Dance it again, a bit faster, remaining focused on your plié.
6. Repeat the exercise even faster if you wish.
TIP 4: Dancing Fingers
Mercedes has a very distinct way of moving her hands, and one thing that’s for sure is that no matter what, they ALWAYS look good.
She’s kind of obsessed with hands, so naturally we work our arms and hands like crazy in her class.
Todos los deditos.
This is what we hear Mercedes says as we practice our hand movements.
All of the fingers.
The fingers should be dancing too!
There is room for individuality in flamenco hand movements. All you have to do is view some clips of professional dancers to see examples of the different ways people move their hands. Some you will like, some you won’t.
It is important to dedicate time to practicing your hand movements, to explore, to look for shapes and movements that you like, and to develop the flexibility and muscle strength necessary to rotate your hands fully.
An Activity for Hand Rotation
1. Hold your arms out in front of you with your elbows up (and your shoulders down). Press your palms and fingers in toward your body. Engage the muscles of your forearms, and slowly twist the hands so that your fingers point down. Without dropping the elbows, continue twisting the hands until your fingers point up. Now go in the opposite direction. Press your palms and fingers away from your body. Again, slowly twist the hands so that your fingers point down. Continue twisting the hands until your fingers point up.
2. Practice rotating out several times, then in several times, then switching between outward and inward rotations.
3. Practice the same sequence this time fanning your fingers.
1. Now, dance a move or combination focusing on your hands.
2. Are there areas where your hands look awkward? If so, slow this part down and look carefully at what is happening with them. Perhaps you’re not rotating fully, perhaps your fingers aren’t dancing, perhaps you’re dropping your elbow… Experiment and find something that looks good. (Mercedes almost always rotates out. This is her choice. What will yours be?)
Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in learning complicated steps and choreographies that we neglect the hands.
Hands are one of the most important aspects of flamenco dancing. Pretty please spend time working on your hands.
Take it On the Road
We can practice hands just about anywhere. Try to squeeze in some hand practice while watching TV or in the car.
TIP 5: Go Slow
Mercedes is BIG on doing things slowly.
As are so many other professionals.
When I was first getting to know Ricardo, he told me about the beginning of his professional career when he danced with Rocío Molina in María Pages’s Company. He was completely blown away with her dancing and how well she executed every single step they had to do. They would practice together, and he asked her how she did it all so well, By practicing everything really, really slowly, she told him.
Sometimes going slowly can feel like a pain in the bottom, but we have to do it! (I love doing things slowly; it’s one of the reasons I so enjoy studying with Mercedes)
I heard an interview with a percussionist from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Patti Niemi. She talked about playing a difficult piece on the xylophone. She said the most challenging thing about it was that it relied on muscle memory for accuracy. Getting it right, she said, required a lot of repetition and slow practice, “If you're practicing fast and making mistakes, you are putting muscle memory with mistakes in, so you have to practice very slowly.”
This made me think of flamenco dance. Both footwork and body movement. It’s not just that we can’t attend to all of the details when practicing too fast, but we can actually train our muscles to do it wrong on their own. Ay! (You can read or listen to that interview here.)
Practicing slowly helps us to:
Develop correct muscle memory that will serve us when going faster later
Notice our mistakes and fix them
Let’s be clear; it's not that we only practice slowly, but it is a crucial step to correct execution, looking good, and getting ourselves up to speed.
An Activity for Slowing Down
1. Choose a move, a combination or an exercise to work with.
2. Do it super slowly. (Really, really, slowly.)
3. As you dance, notice your muscles. What muscles do you feel engaging?
4. Do it again slowly. If you make a mistake, take note of what happened. For example, was your weight off?
5. Do it one more time, looking at yourself in the mirror. Does anything look strange? What could you adjust to make it look better? Dance it again making that adjustment.
If you find yourself rushing, you can use a metronome to help you maintain a slow pace.
TIP 6: Use Your Skirt
Mercedes is huge on using the skirt in class. Not necessarily twirling it around or doing a million things with it but holding it correctly, being aware of it.
During our beginning of class body technique exercises the back arm is almost always holding the skirt.
Yes, that back arm that we can tend to forget about.
Holding the skirt inspires us to pay attention to the placement of that arm.
“Y tu falda, Laura?” I can’t tell you how many times I remember hearing Mercedes say this to me when I first started studying with her. I was so focused on getting the front arm and hand to do the right thing and look good that I would unintentionally neglect the back arm. Ricardo had long been on me about this too.
The truth is, it’s so easy to forget about the ‘other’ arm. The arm that is not in front. The arm that’s not ‘doing’ anything.
So we must train ourselves to remain aware of that arm, to keep the energy flowing.
Holding the skirt can help us do that.
In certain instances we also want to showcase the skirt and make it “dance” like you see Mercedes doing in the video below.
Ready to practice?
An Activity For Skirt Awareness
This activity is as much about awareness as it is about using the skirt. Things You’ll Need:
1. Choose a move or combination that you’re not used to incorporating the skirt with to work with.
2. Do your move(s) looking in the mirror and paying attention to your back arm. Are there spots where it’s not doing anything, where the energy stops?
3. In those places try grabbing your skirt and holding it at your waist with your back arm, elbows forward (and shoulders down.)
4. Do the combination again, this time experimenting with your front arm also holding the skirt (and even making it “dance” like Mercedes does in the video) in certain places.
*BTW, there are other things you can do to keep the back arm in line apart from holding the skirt, like just hold it in a correct position, keep the hand moving, etc...
TIP 7: Round Arms
we hear Mercedes say in class.
Ricardo says it all of the time too, redondo. 'You’ll like her, she’s muy redondo,' he’s said to me so many times referring to various dancers. Round, he means, by the shapes created when someone is dancing. It doesn't matter what shape your body is, you can create roundness.
How can we do this?
By imagining we’re holding a giant beach ball when our arms are out in front of us
By painting circles with our arms
By creating soft angles with our arms
By keeping air in between our arms and the sides of our bodies
An Activity for Finding Roundness in the Arms
1. Choose a move, a combination or an exercise to work with.
2. Get in your beginning position. Look at your arms in the mirror, and notice the shapes. What could you do to make them rounder? Maybe you need to straighten your elbows a bit, or bend them more. Perhaps you need to move your arms further away from the body. Experiment until you find nice round shapes.
3. Do the same analysis in another position that the combination puts you in.
4. Do this for as many positions as you want.
5. Once you’re done breaking your move(s) apart in this way, dance the whole move or combination paying attention to maintain the roundness you found. (If you’re struggling with this, no problem, simply slow it down.)
TIP 8: Bottom In & Body Upright
Pompi dentro, cuerpo derecho
We hear Mercedes say all the time
Ready to get started?
An Activity for Flamenco Posture & Your Core:
1. Stand profile in front of a mirror.
2. Notice your bottom (or as Mercedes likes to call it, your pompi.) Engage your core muscles (abs, glutes, all those in your trunk) and bring your bottom in.
3. Now notice your upper body. You want your back upright and rib cage in. Once again, engage in the core to make this happen and look in the mirror to see that it’s happening.
4. Hold for a moment just to feel which muscles you’re engaging. Let that go then engage again. You might even want to close your eyes here to better tune into the physical sensation.
(Move away from the mirror in order to focus on feeling the core muscles engage.)
1. Choose a combination to work with, one you know well so that you can easily tune into your body and not get distracted by your brain.
2. Run it as you normally would.
3. Now, engage in your core the way you did in Part One and execute your move again concentrating on the sensations in your body. How does this affect the move?
4. To further explore, dance it again disengaging then reengaging to feel the difference between the two.
👁 If you notice any pain in your lower back while dancing, you’re most likely not engaging well in the core.
Take it On The Road
As you’re going about your daily activities, tune into your core. Build the habit of engaging the core in other things you do, walking, typing on the computer, sitting in the car, etc. You'll see it spill over into your flamenco dancing and vice versa.
A Note About Keeping Your Body Upright:
There are definitely times when you bend your upper body or step away from that position, but this is what you come back to. Think of it as a default position, similar to how keeping your elbows up is.
Engaging the core is a huge part of good flamenco posture, but there is more. We won't get into it today, so start here, ok?
TIP 9: Dance
This series was born out of a longing to be back in class with Mercedes Ruíz. Because I love it there. I love how we learn, the focus on technique, the repetition, watching Mercedes move.
Most of all, I love the feeling I get from dancing in her class.
And that's what this tip is about,
Dancing and feeling good.
Below I talk about when in the learning process we should start to dance, and I give you an activity focused on dancing. (I know, hasn’t this whole series been about dancing?) Yes, but read on to find out more.
Do you ever spend so much time thinking that you forget to dance?
That must be why Mercedes always says this,
I've heard all of the excuses for not 'dancing,' ‘It’s because I don’t know the step yet...’ ‘I would but I’m still learning it...’ Trust me, I understand, but
A little bit!
The next time you’re in class, struggling to learn a new step, even though it may feel impossible, try to dance. Not later, once you already know it.
Train yourself to dance now, always.
Instead of just doing the step wrong, dance it wrong. That’s a much better way to to mess up.
Now, let’s dance.
An Activity for Dancing
1. Choose a move or combination to dance.
2. Find some music to practice with.
3. Turn the music on, and dance your moves or combination without looking in the mirror focusing on how it feels rather than what it looks like. Dance it over and over again without stopping. Go until the song ends if you can.
4. Play the song again, let go of your moves, and just move. Allow your body to do whatever it feels like doing. Have fun!
The time to dance is now.
TIP 10: Try
I remember when I first studied with Mercedes. I felt overwhelmed with all of the different classes I was taking. (I wanted to be in every possible class with her that I could.) Many things felt impossibly hard. ‘I can’t,’ ‘No way,’ ‘Impossible,’ Thoughts like this were constantly running through my head. I even declared them out loud. “No puedo,” I would tell Mercedes. Or, I would just stop dancing.
She would say.
Half of the time I thought she was confused about what I was capable of or wanted me to look like a fool. But if I was choosing to be in her class and she was telling me to try, I knew it was what I had to do.
Sometimes I’d try, and I would get it.
Other times I’d try, and I wouldn’t.
Sometimes after many attempts I would finally get it. Other times I still wouldn’t. Sometimes I felt frustrated. Other times I felt satisfied.
But there was no way I was going to get it if I didn’t try. I had to put in the work.
When I told myself I couldn’t do it, I definitely couldn’t. Only when I believed I could, and actually tried, was I able to get it.
I realized Mercedes was saying this, 1. because she wanted me to make the effort, and 2. because she believed in me.
An Activity for Trying
1. Choose a move you’ve been taught or been wanting to do but didn’t think you could or just felt too hard.*
2. Try it.
3. If you’re not getting it, consider which tips from earlier in the series might help. Perhaps you need to do it slowly, engage your core, or?
4. Experiment. Investigate. Try again.
5. & again…
*If you’re having a hard time coming up with a move or looking for more guidance, you could:
Look at an old video of a class or workshop that you took. Is there a move in there that you always wanted to get but struggled with and gave up on?
Even when you don’t think you can do it, try. Even when it feels impossible, try. Even when you feel like you’ll look absurd, try, or like there’s no possible way you can do it, try.
TIP 11: Do It Again
Mercedes says this all the time when we’re learning choreography because, like any good teacher, she has us do things again and again and again. And we don't just repeat choreography, we revisit technique exercises too.
We repeat movements so that they become natural.
Repetition allows you to:
Become comfortable with the material you’re dancing
Feel what is happening in your body
Develop muscle memory
Truly dance without having to think
Considering that you may have been repeating the same moves or combinations throughout the ten activities above, you have already been practicing repetition and feeling the benefits of it. Still, here’s one more exercise:
An Activity for Repetition
1. Choose a combination to work with.
2. Do it ten to twenty times in a row. (Yes, I mean it! Do the exact same thing over and over again. ,If that feels boring to you, spice it up.)
3. Remind yourself to apply the previous tips ( breathe, shoulders down, plié, round arms, bottom in, body upright, use your skirt...) as you’re dancing.
What did you gain from revisiting the same move or combination, viewing it from different angles during the different activities? Has it become easier? Have you learned to do it better? What discoveries have you made? Do you dance it with greater ease? Do you look better doing it? What did you learn about yourself as a dancer?
I originally developed this series of exercises to be completed over the span of eleven days. Doing one activity per day on a consistent basis helped me to become more comfortable with the material I was working on from both the repetition and being focused in my practice. I made discoveries around how to better use my body and my muscles, when I was ignoring certain parts of my body or stopping the energy, and when I was accidentally engaging in bad habits. The daily challenge motivated me to practice at least a little bit each day and helped imprint these technical reminders in my system. If you’d prefer to receive these tips one at a time along with my personal notes on my learning process and spread out over a number of days, you can sign up here.
What About You?
What did you discover about yourself as a learner? What will you take from the challenge into your flamenco classes or practices? What skill do you need to work on the most? Let me know in the comments below.
I’ve learned other tips from Mercedes, to listen, observe others, to look in the mirror … She has so much to offer a flamenco student. All of the photos and videos in this post came from the Flamenco Tour to Jerez. I’d love to have you join me there to experience learning with the amazing woman in Spain next fall.
If you’re anywhere near Portland, Oregon, join me to study with Mercedes Ruiz in May!