In response to a recent BBC video on castanets, Ricardo and I thought we'd share our thoughts with you....
I came across this interesting video by the BBC about castanets. Interestingly, an increasing number of my students (new and current) are requesting castanet instruction. So this video could not have been discovered at a more appropriate time.
In addition to my Flamenco dancing, I have played castanets for 23 years and I teach people how to play castanets. But I also teach my students how to be educated dancers. And that means how to determine when and when not to play castanets – that is, of course, if one wishes to pursue a traditional Flamenco education.
Castanets are not traditional to Flamenco, but it is one of the things that people recognize and enjoy most. When I tell people I am a Flamenco dancer, many say Flamenco? Then they raise their hands above their heads, bend their arms and click their fingers. I can’t tell you how many potential clients have called me asking “do you play those black clicky things? We want to hire Flamenco dancers that play them.” So if I want to accommodate my clients, I play them. But I play them when appropriate – which is why I say I dance Flamenco “and” Spanish dance. Castanets are part of Spanish dance, not Flamenco. I use them in Sevillanas, Fandangos de Huelva, Verdiales and in classical Spanish dances.
Now every now and then it is fun to cross a line – like playing castanets in Flamenco, but I know that I am crossing a line and I educate my audience to that fact. Usually I will only play castanets in a Rumba – which, originating in Cuba, is considered an “alien” rhythm to Flamenco; or maybe just jamming with the cajon player in a Rumba. I never play them in any other palo. And to play them in the serious palos, such as siguiriyas, soleares, peteneras, etc., in my opinion, is just one step below heresy; sort of like walking into high mass in short-shorts, a tube top and stilettos. Quite attention- getting and very popular with many people, but quite inappropriate for high mass.
So, play them when and where you will, but at least know what you are doing and why. And do your audience a favor – don’t perpetuate stereotypes of Flamenco dancers and castanets – educate them.
To better educate yourself about castanets and for an in-depth take on the subject – read what Ricardo says. But fasten your seat belts – it might be a bumpy ride!
Castanets have a very long history in Spain, much longer than Flamenco; in fact, castanets were used in Egypt. The Carthaginians, a Phoenician Middle-Eastern culture originally based in what is now Lebanon, were the dominant cultural force in Spain for 400 years preceding their defeat by the Romans in 146 BC. A form of metal finger percussion instruments were used by the Puellae Gaditanae, dancing girls from Cadiz described by the Spanish-born Roman writer Martial in 1st century AD Rome. Their dance was influenced by the Phoenicians, and probably resembled what we would call belly dancing more than Flamenco.
Castanets first appeared in Flamenco sometime before the turn of the 20th century, along with other influences from Spanish classical dance: the bata de cola (train dress), and the manton (large shawl). These dance props accompanied a turn to theatrical presentation of Flamenco shows in theaters, with choreographies and piano or orchestral accompaniment. This Opera Flamenca was designed to entertain audiences who had no knowledge of Flamenco, its traditions, forms, history, or artists. This type of Flamenco presentation was disdained by knowledgeable aficionados, and resulted in the well- documented decline of Flamenco in Spain during the 1st half of the 20th century.
The Cante (Flamenco song) was, and is, considered the central core of Flamenco; the primary source, the fountain of inspiration for all Flamenco artists. During the 1st half of the 20th century the major dance companies of a few classically-trained artists dominated Flamenco outside of Spain and put Flamenco dance forward as the major aspect of Flamenco. These dance companies (Vicente Escudero, La Argentina, La Argentinita, Pilar Lopez, Jose Greco), in looking for ways to increase their repertoire, used classical dances, regional Spanish dances, and began dancing Flamenco forms that had been too serious, or even sacred, to be danced: Seguiriyas and Martinetes.
The use of castanets is traditionally appropriate in Spanish regional dances (Sevillanas among others) and in Spanish folk-inspired Flamenco (Fandangos de Huelva in its many variations, and Verdiales, or Fandangos de Lucena). Castanets can be fun and creative in other light Flamenco forms such as Rumbas, Tangos, or even Bulerias. However, the use of castanets in Soleares or Seguiriyas debases a profound art form and ruins the line of the hands which are so important in Flamenco dance. Flamenco that is created to entertain a public with no knowledge of this great and serious art form will condone the use of castanets and anything else that entertains.
If castanets are the heartbeat of Flamenco, as stated in this BBC video, it’s only the theatrical, tourist Flamenco. Senor Vela laments that his art, and the use of castanets is in decline; Senora Ortega (mistress of a dance academy in Madrid) laments that Flamenco is in decline. If they are speaking of theatrical Flamenco and its ebbs and flows with popular or tourist interest, perhaps they’re correct. If they are referring to true Flamenco, the Flamenco of families, of village celebrations, of gatherings of friends in local taverns, they are mistaken. The families who produced great flamenco artists 200 years ago are still producing great Flamenco artists now.
To get the true story of true Flamenco, see: (all in English)
“Gypsies and Flamenco” Bernard Leblon
“Song of the Outcasts” Robin Totton
“Queen of the Gypsies” Paco Sevilla
“Seeking Silverio” Paco Sevilla
“A Way of Life” Donn Pohren
“Returning to A” Dorien Ross