Do YOU speak Spanish? If you do you’re probably be familiar with the word Jaleo.
Actually that’s not true. If you speak Spanish but have never had anything at all to do with the world of Flamenco there’s a very good chance that you won’t even have heard of the word, as it’s one of those “Flamenco” Spanish words you don’t hear used outside of the Flamenco world.
Jaleos is the word used to describe the shouts of encouragement, praise and admiration in a Flamenco performance. Jalear is the verb which means both “to shout out” and also “to give Jaleos” but when done really well Jaleos completely transcends the idea of just “shouting out” and becomes an integral part of the whole Flamenco performance. Good jaleos does not just add to the energy of the performance, it becomes a Flamenco instrument in its own right – and yet so much more.
When I try to explain Jaleos to non-Spanish students and in particular to younger students I often try to illustrate it by making them do it in English first. Dividing the children into two groups, one group performs their dance while the others sit in front of them and “give Jaleos”. They start out by shouting things like “that’s really good” and “I like your skirt” and then we swop over and the other group has a go. Then we have a chat about how it made them feel to have encouragement and praise shouted out to them while they were dancing.
All of them say things like “it made me feel great”, “it made me want to try harder” and this is how the jaleos penny begins to drop with our younger students. Then I teach them some jaleos in Spanish. We talk about what each word or phrase means so that they don’t just use them randomly, they think about where would be an appropriate place in the dance to use them. I have found through the years that both our younger students and our adult students really enjoy this process and particularly for the adults as for them it can be a light-bulb moment when it comes to the mysteries of jaleos.
After that, for the more experienced dancers and adults we then try take it to the next level, but this is when it gets more complex. The real beauty and power of Jaleos is when each phrase is not just perfectly timed with the phrasing of the music and the choreography, but the words are so perfectly apt and the rhythm, sound and cadence of the words not only fits into that place exactly – but actually enhances the music, song and dance, becoming another part of the wonderful jigsaw of talent that makes up top class Flamenco.
Learning how to drop that “perfect phrase” in exactly the right spot can be learned by watching and listening to masters of the craft – people like Luis de la Tota of Jerez. It also takes practice – a lot of practice, which means at some point even non-Spanish speakers have to just throw caution to the winds and give it a go. Practicing in the safety of your own house to recorded music at the beginning, so that when you go out to unleash that inner Jaleos beast, you at least have a clear advance plan about what you’re going to say and when you’ll say it.
We know that for anyone growing up in Andalucia, particularly if they grow up in families who are involved in any way in Flamenco (including people who just enjoy watching it and listening to it), they have heard jaleos all their lives in the context of both live and recorded Flamenco and already really understand how to use it, when to use it, know the words and the rhythm patterns. The idea of having to learn jaleos in such a dry, carefully explained way would be both strange and hilarious to anyone to who it’s as natural as breathing.
But if you grew up in a town in Oxfordshire and have only been to Spain (if indeed you’ve ever been to Spain) for a couple of holidays, there’s no reason in the world why you’ll even be aware that jaleos exists. In fact, before you come to a Camino del Flamenco class you may not even have known that Flamenco existed.
I’ve been to many Flamenco shows in the UK where there was no jaleos at all. Often there’s no-one on the stage who is Spanish and so no-one gives Jaleos naturally. Everyone on the stage would have learned to do it and may still feel a little bit silly and self-conscious about doing it, falling back instead on a few random Olés which most of the audience will probably think is the norm anyway. With no jaleos a Flamenco show feel empty, strangely quiet and too polite. The performers seem disconnected from each other – it’s like Flamenco but with something missing.
Non-Spanish dance students who live in Spain very quickly adapt and give jaleos as naturally as everyone around them. It’s so much easier when everyone is doing it! In fact when you attend Flamenco shows in Spain, even theatre shows, you will very often hear as much excellent jaleos coming from the audience as from the stage. I saw a great show in the main theatre of Jerez a few years ago that had more famous gypsy Flamenco artistes in the audience than even were on the stage and the fantastic quality of the jaleos from the audience became part of what made the show so outstanding. There were a few non-Spanish tourists in the audience who were confused by what seemed to them to be “the audience shouting at the performers”, but for most of us in the theatre it became a truly Flamenco, truly memorable night.
Some of best jaleos I ever heard came from two friends, both from gypsy families but both born and brought up outside Spain. They came to the UK to perform and I was lucky enough to be on stage with them, and they were simply amazing. They inspired all the dance students on the stage with them and raised the show to a whole new level.
So you really don’t have to be Spanish to do good jaleos, you just need to understand what you’re doing, enjoy doing it and practice it. Who cares about being the best dancer – you could be the best jalenda in your group!