No aspect of dance is harder to incorporate than what is referred to as musicality yet it’s the reason that we dance in the first place. It’s an advanced part of dance that has to be addressed and practiced. Therefore, it is imperative that we as dancers acquire this skill.
The problem is that dancers work hard on learning the steps of a certain dance then work on body styling so they look good but they sometimes forget about the next phase of the process called musicality. That’s because we start to reap the rewards of achieving an adequate level of programmed movement. We start to have fun finally and kind of want to stay there for a while. We don’t realize that we shouldn’t stop there. We have to advance to the next level. We get cozy in our comfort zone and want to wallow in the rewards of all of our hard work. We are tempted to stay stuck in this spot, just learning more moves and patterns. Many dancers never learn musicality because they must depart from the patterns they have learned and begin to develop the abstract part of dancing. It’s a whole new ball game. It stumps many dancers. Fries their brains. That’s because it’s is not easy!
As an experienced West Coast Swing dancer, I’ve had lots of training in this area. I’m always trying to improve, to have a superior knowledge of the music, to push myself to be more expressive and to make my body move with the music. Musicality is all of that – listening alertly to music, knowing music structure, timing, body movement in association with the music, creativity of expression and knowledge of the actual song that is playing during the dance. I recently got a very good lesson on the topic of musicality.
Two and a half years ago, I wanted to expand my dance abilities so I started dancing Argentine Tango. My learning curve seemed extremely slow as I had to re-learn how to move in Tango and adapt to this new, very close dance embrace. I had to learn a new way to lead my partner. I had to learn how to blend different patterns and improvise so I wasn’t just repeating a practiced routine but learn to join pieces of movement together.
That was a very humbling experience for me. I felt like I had to re-learn how to dance. All of the compression and resistance moves that I was doing in swing dancing had to be set aside while a learned the more chest-to-chest Tango style, moving with your partner instead of in opposition to your partner.. My persistence paid off when I finally got over the ‘hump’ and began getting the hang of it about a nine months ago. And just when I thought I was getting pretty proficient, I got challenged to dig deeper and advance to a higher level in Tango. It was time to take all my training and make my dance moves become musical interpretations of what I was hearing. The problem was that I wasn’t hearing the music very well. I was mainly just doing my fancy dance moves. So, I took a Tango class on musicality and got a very nice reminder that it’s time to improve by dancing to the music being played.
Musicality. It applies to all styles of dance. That workshop ended up being a gentle reminder for me to never be satisfied just being a good mechanical dancer. Be a musical dancer! This is how it happened:
Last month, I attended a Tango workshop weekend where Liz and Yannick Vanhove (2012 European Tango Salon champions) presented several workshops that focused on musicality. It’s the hardest thing to teach and very difficult for teachers to hold their class membership. Why? Because it’s HARD! It’s not easy!
Liz and Yannick are so smart, so knowledgable and so entertaining that they are a perfect couple to teach this difficult subject. I admire them as dancers, as friends and as teachers. Their love of tango would never let us skip a class as important as musicality. They wanted us to ‘get’ it and they did a great job teaching it.
A dancer needs to have a certain proficiency and have practiced enough to be able to think beyond placing one foot here or moving the lady to this side or that. You have to know that part already. You can’t move to the music if you can’t get several steps linked together – even if it’s just walking – you have to be able to walk around the dance floor in time to the music and on the beat of the music. Musicality goes beyond that.
In order to teach us these valuable lessons, Liz and Yannick taught two separate classes to accomplish their mission. They played the music of a famous Tango orchestra leader named Angel d’Agostino (see Adios Arrabal). The structure of this music is such that the orchestra plays a very enjoyable melody while we, as Tango dancers step and count the beats in a series of 8-counts, dancing some basic Tango movements. At the end of one of the eight-counts, there is a diminish in the orchestra followed by a quick piano flair or perhaps a violin arpeggio that take up the last 2 or 4 beats of that 8-count phrase. A Tango dancer then should be inspired to pause at these points which sometimes allows the lady to improvise or play a little bit. You can’t just plow through that music by just doing more walks or patterns. You have to stop and address this change in the music.
Liz and Yannick call this “Lady Time” – a time in Tango when the lady can stop following and take a moment to add some of her own flair by tapping with the toe of her foot or some other movement of her choice. It’s musicality! It’s where you pay attention to the music and recognize that the music has changed and consequently your dance reflects that same change. We practiced that for an hour. Walking, stopping, allowing the lady to do her embellishments or adornments then practicing it again and again until we got good at it. It was extremely hard but the feeling of modifying our dance to compliment the music was exhilarating! Here’s a quick look at that class. Look for Yannick to pause and allow Liz to do some adornments with her toe taps.
That prepared us for the next class and predictably, there were fewer dancers attending this class because like I said, this stuff is not easy. Liz and Yannick compared the orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo (see La Cumparista) with another famous Tango orchestra led by Carlos di Sarli. (see Bahia Blanca). D’Arienzo’ s music tends to be full and rapid and more energetic. Di Sarli’s music tends to be much more flowing and melodic. Those are generalizations. Each certainly can play both. It might be like comparing Glen Miller with Duke Ellington – two different styles but capable of both smooth or jump swing.
Since both D’Arienzo and di Sarli comprise a great deal of the Tango music that is played during a milonga, it’s important to know the music. That, then, becomes the secret ingredient for having really great dances – knowing the music. Knowledge of that specific song. Knowing when the singer starts. Knowing when the violin plays. Hearing the orchestra swell to a high pitch then settle back down to a chorus. Styling your dance to line up with the music being played. Pausing to enjoy the quiet moments in the music then increase to bigger moves as the music builds back to the full orchestra level.
Yannick did such a great job explaining musicality in his class and I got a kick out of how animated he got demonstrating the music using his ‘air violin’ or directing his invisible orchestra. As I watched Liz and Yannick perform later in the evening, all the elements that they discussed could be clearly seen in how they danced and how they moved. I could see it visually as they settled into a beginning step then advanced with power into long, leggy steps. They would pause and milk every second of a hold in the music. They’d accelerate and flash boleos and ganchos when the music reached a crescendo. It was amazing to watch. It’s equally amazing when I take my own baby steps at doing it and it begins to comes out in my dances. It truly is the difference between a nice dance with someone and an unforgettable dance experience.
No matter whether it’s West Coast Swing or whether it’s Tango, you have to know your music. It requires practice. It requires some study time. It requires alertness. The good news is that after you’ve put in your time on this aspect of dance, you will rise to a higher level as a dancer. Your dances will be more enjoyable. You will always be challenging yourself to make a good dance. You will hear the music differently. You will appreciate all the layers built into the music that you are dancing to. You will transition from simply doing patterns of a dance to actually interpreting the music with body movement. It’s your own personal expression of how you hear the music.
Then low and behold, you’ll finally ‘get’ it. Even better, everyone will want to dance with you because you’re the one who feels the music!