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Beginning Flamenco: How to Produce Contra Tiempo in Compas

Updated on March 30, 2013

Flamenco Underground, a Studio in Denver

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Flamenco Rhythms

Flamenco rhythms come usually in 12, 4, or 3 beat cycles, depending on the palo, or style. Within that rhythm certain beats are accented, again depending on the palo. A basic starting rhythm is a 12-beat with accents on 3, 6, 8, 10, and 12. It would look like the following:

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12

If providing palmas, the rhythmic clapping that accompanies the music and dance, a palmero will make the accented beat a little louder in the clap and usually with a stamp of the foot. These accented beats are essential to contra tiempo, the offbeat.

Palmas in action
Palmas in action

Beginning Contra Tiempo

When counting, contra tiempo would be represented with “and:”

1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-6-and-7-and-8-and-9-and-10-and-11-and-12

The concept seems simple enough, but like my flamenco teacher, Natalia, says, contra tiempo goes against the body’s natural rhythm; the instinct drives us to return to the beat.

In my experience, the first easy way to produce contra tiempo is to stomp the foot and clap the hand: stomp-clap-stomp-clap. This will give you the basic understanding of contra tiempo – and the coordination needed to produce the off-beat. In order to clap the off beator use contra tiempo in dance, more study is necessary.

Finding just the compás in flamenco music is difficult, much less trying to identify or produce the contra tiempo! One technique that Natalia recommended and that I have found useful for training my body to recognize and accept the off beat is tapping it while listening to rock music. The drums in rock songs offer a very clear beat – sometimes the counter-beat, too! It is easy to tap or clap the contra tiempo of such an obvious beat. (The first time I clapped contra tiempo to music was to Rammstein’s “Du Hast” – Schneider’s pounding beat is easy to identify!) In the beginning your foot can tap every beat while your hand taps the the off beat; after a while, though, you will want to wean your foot off of tapping every beat as Natalia assures me this is for novices.

Have you tried contra tiempo?

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Flamenco Metronome

Eventually, however, you will need to bring the contra tiempo to flamenco compás . If you are taking flamenco lessons or have people with whom you can practice, clapping contra tiempo with live palmas is the best. However, I wanted to practice before going to class. For this, a flamenco metronome works well.

When working with a metronome, the concept of clapping between the beats is the same as with a rock song. You can be counting in your head, “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and…” while making a point of clapping on the “and.” Again, you can begin by stomping each beat while clapping the off beat. The goal, though, is to eventually stomp only the accented beats while still clapping the off beat. Then you have entered flamenco compás in contra tiempo!

For either palmas or dancing, if you can identify the compás, you can produce contra tiempo with your hands or feet. This is why accenting is so necessary; the difference between a 3, 6, or 12-beat rhythm might not be clear unless you hear the distinctive accenting: 1-2-3 vs. 1-2-3-4-5-6 vs.1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12. Since contra tiempo should follow the pattern of accenting, identifying the accenting and the compás is essential.

Beyond the Metronome

If you still want some flamenco practice beyond the metronome but before practicing live, Solo Compás offers a useful series of palos. A series of discs that can also be downloaded, each offers a full example of a palo with all associated instrumentation. Following is a series of tracks of uninterrupted rhythm at different speeds; sometimes the rhythm is accompanies by guitar. Clapping palmas to Solo Compás is trickier than just a metronome, but the practice is more realistic.

Once your body is familiar with contra tiempo, you can use it both as a palmero and as a dancer. In palmas, the contra tiempo offers more interest than just clapping to the beat. For a dancer one beautiful move is marking the beat with your feet while clapping contra tiempo. Another use is in a subida, or a section that speeds up gradually. In an Alegria choreography Natalia has us mark the 12 hard – accented – then move into contra tiempo while eventually picking up speed. It is tricky, but once mastered it can enhance the excitement of flamenco!

The ultimate goal according to Natalia is to so internalize the off beat that you are no longer counting, “1-and-2-and-3-and…” but your body is actually following the rhythm wordlessly: oom-pa-oom-pa-oom-pa-ah…” When she does it, the compás emanates from her so naturally it is almost as if her heart is beating in contra tiempo!

Contra Tiempo for Tangos

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