Learning the marmite (not Maracas)

From time to time we teachers are asked if we teach "those things you hold in your hands", "clackers", "clacky things"......"you know, maracas!" There's two answers to these questions (not counting the rude answer which of course we'd never use!) which are "yes" and "yes, sometimes",

But just for the record I'd like to add that maracas are something totally different and have no place in the hands of Flamenco dancers. They would really get in the way when you're dancing and then there'a a pretty good chance you'd drop them during a chaine turn!

But castañuelas (from the word castaña, meaning chestnut as they often resemble these in colour) or palillos (meaning, little sticks) as they are very often referred to in Andalucia or just plain CASTANETS in English are something that every Flamenco dance student should learn.

For many years, we incorporated teaching castanets into our weekly dance classes, but we found that this just didn't work out well. By the time students have put them on, got their fingers playing well with some warm up rhythms and then started to learn a new tune, incorporaing it into the dance etc - that's pretty much half of the class gone. If you're a student who doesn't enjoy playing castanets that's certainly going to put you off coming to the classes!

So over the years we've evolved to the point where we now DO teach castanets, but we ONLY teach them in specific castanet workshops. We acknowledge that castanets are the marmite of Flamenco - you either love playing them or you don't. The interesting thing about teaching castanets is that the people who play them well are not always the best dancers in the class. It's a totally different type of skill and often gives different students a chance to shine.

But learning to play them can be relaxing, interesting and very rewarding, as well as using parts of your body that otherwise don't get too much used! (calm down - I'm talking fingers here). As your technique increases and you make your first roll, followed very rapidly by your next one until you can hardly remember a time when you couldn't just pick castanets up and play them, it gives a feeling of great satisfaction and achievement.

When I was starting out as a young dancer, my maestra was insistent that we all learn to play castanets well - well enough to play them as we danced and have a good command of how to play castanets well for all Flamenco palos. I wasn't the best castanet student with my tiny little fingers, but in later years I had cause to thank her many times. She used to say to us "if you can't play castanets well you will loose out on dancing work to others who can" and as I started getting dancing jobs I found that to be completely true.

These days many dancers, particularly those who weren't trained in Spain from a young age, can't and don't play castanets. However, you won't find any professional dancers in Spain who have come up through the dance school system who can't play castanets fantastically well. They expect to need them and they also expect that, in order to work professionally, they must be complete, all round excellent dancers - and for them, that includes playing castanets beautifully.

Far from being "clackers" or "clacky things you hold in your hands", in the hands of someone who knows how to play them well, castanets become a beautiful, dynamic and thrilling percussive instrument which adds excitement, rhythm and depth to your dance. You don't need to play them for ALL your dances of course, there's really only a couple of Flamenco palos where castanets are commonly used.

So now we come to the advert part......yes, we are bringing the marmite experience of learning castanets to a workshop near you soon (or maybe not so near to you, depending on where you live, but it's a great excuse for a day out in Oxford!). Our next workshop on Saturday 25 March, in central Oxford, is all about castanets. With two levels of workshop, you can either learn how to play them from scratch in workshop 1 which includes how to hold them (clue here: it involves your thumbs!) or if you already know how to play them, you can move onto workshop level 2, where you increase your castanet skills level and do more dancing with them. You'll find all the details on the "Workshop" section of the Adult Classes page of our website.

Either way, for us Saturday 25 March is "castanet day" and we'll be arriving with bags of castanets ready to take your fingers to a whole new place! We can pretty much guarantee that by the end of it you'll know if you love them or hate them, but one thing is sure - you'll never refer to them as "Maracas" ever again!

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