Recently Wendy and I were at a social dance event. Couples ranged from inexperienced social dancers to a few competitors in Bronze and Silver levels. One middle-aged couple stood out from all the others. They moved fluidly together, always in sync with each other and with the music. The thing is, this couple probably had never taken a formal dance lesson in their lives.
They didn’t know about or concern themselves with footwork or body flight or any other technical details. Yet they danced more rhythmically than anyone else on the floor, including the competitors. Why? Because everything they did was perfectly connected to the music. The man was clearly leading and his partner was moving in wonderful harmony, placing her feet on the ground in perfect time to him even though he was simply making up random steps. When the music slowed down, he slowed down and she matched the rhythm change. When the music was fast, he responded with faster steps and movements, which she always matched. It was quite mesmerizing to watch.
Of course I’m not suggesting people dance without training. But what I observed illustrates a point. The trained dancers were so busy trying to be technically perfect they forgot about the most important quality in dancing, the essence that must always be the foundation for all ballroom dancing.
People dance for many reasons. There are different kinds of dances. Different styles. Different genres. But all dances, whether they involve a partner or not, whether old or new, simple or complex, have one thing in common. They are connected to music.
Dance is always about the music. Watch what happens when a piece of music plays in public. Feet tap. Heads bob. Fingers tap against tables or thighs. A desire to respond to music with some kind of personal expression is built into us.
In ballroom dancing, two people who represent the very different characteristics of male and female biology move together in harmony with music. That contrast, working together to tell a story, is what makes this art form so beautiful. And nothing is more beautiful than when that movement is in perfect relationship to the music being played.
It’s no wonder that musicality is considered by judges at competitions to be the most important element in dance. Nothing can be more important. The best technique in the world, if danced out of time with the music, is empty of expression and disturbing to watch. Competitors who are unaware of music must be marked last. It has to be this way!
Musicality starts with a solid foundation
All dancers need to know how to count music. The foundation is to know where the “1 beat” is. I cover this in some detail in my article on counting music. Few things are more annoying than watching competitors on the floor who clearly have no idea how to count music. They may have spent thousands of dollars on lessons, costumes and even travel expenses, but they have ignored the fundamental issue of simply knowing where the 1 count is, making it impossible to even watch them on the floor. It’s like fingernails on a chalk board.
For people with no musical background, this can be a challenge when you first start. Train yourself. Listen to all music with a single purpose: to know where the 1 count happens. Count it out loud. Stay with it for several bars and ask yourself if you matched it correctly.
Next, learn how music is phrased. Most music is written in phrases. When you learn about phrasing, your dancing will improve significantly because you’ll be able to identify where a phrase in the music ends and another begins. This becomes the rhythm for choreography changes, even in social dancing. If you’re a competitor, you should design or have your coach design your choreography to take advantage of this phrasing, which will also help you to understand it more clearly. Count the bars on different kinds of music. See if it’s consistent. Some songs, especially Samba and Viennese Waltz, may suddenly shift from traditional phrasing to something unexpected. That’s because music is written for artistic value and not specifically for dancing. Specially created strict tempo music alleviates this problem.
Of course, this takes time. If you’re new to dancing, expect to spend the next few years learning how to hear music and phrasing more clearly.
The music is not always perfect
This need to express the music is also why I get so annoyed with dance competition DJs who don’t “get it” and play musical choices that are, at times, completely out of character with the dance. It’s equally frustrating when so-called “dance” bands don’t know the dance tempos that are necessary for couples to actually perform to their music. Time and time again I’ve witnessed couples standing awkwardly around the floor while a band plays a 34 bar-per-minute Waltz that nobody can dance to. How hard is it for them to do a little research and get it right?
I’ve been to competitions where selections are played that are so bizarre I can’t help but wonder if the DJ knows anything about dancing. Viennese Waltzes with heavy, angry beat patterns that have no relationship to the elegance of Waltz. Tangos so soft the character of the dance is completely lost on everyone in the room. Foxtrot music that is chunky and harsh instead of long and smooth.
One pet peeve at competitions is Samba tracks that suddenly switch from 8-beat to 6-beat or 4-beat phrasing. When this happens, the carefully choreographed routines couples have spent thousands of dollars developing suddenly look out of time simply because the DJ didn’t care enough or know enough to avoid those awkward selections. Once a competition DJ inexplicably played “Love for Sale,” a song about prostitution, for a Slow Foxtrot performed by young children. Some time ago, I wrote a guide for dance music DJs to help them understand what it’s like from a dancer’s perspective.
I’ve been to competitions where selections are played that are so bizarre I can’t help but wonder if the DJ knows anything about dancing.
At Seattle Star Ball a few years ago, I witnessed a conversation between a judge and a Pro/Am teacher who had just finished competing with his student. The judge said, “You sure didn’t like that Waltz.” The pro dancer asked how he could tell. The judge responded, “It was written all over your face when the music started. I could see you thinking, ‘what joker picked this song?'” We don’t always get the music we like.
The magic of musical expression
Unfortunately, as much as we hate it when a DJ plays a song that has none of the character of the dance, sometimes it happens. Performers need to understand how to deal with it.
Dancers need to practice to music that isn’t perfect. Try it. Take a song that is completely different from what you would normally dance to and ask yourself how you would move to that song. Couples who perform show dances tend to be very good at this kind of thing because they are always imagining the creative way they could choreograph things. Most dancers, and competitors in particular, get completely lost when the unexpected happens.
A number of years ago, during the showcase at the SnowBall Classic competition in Vancouver, one European couple chose to demonstrate something called “freestyle.” They had someone from the audience select random popular music from a CD. One song was Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Normally, it would be challenging for ballroom dancers to hear a song like that and interpret it into dance styles on the fly. But this couple did so in a beautiful way. During the song they switched from Slow Foxtrot to Tango and even a bit of Waltz. In each case, the character of the dance was not lost against the unusual music. The lead emphasized the musical characteristics with choreography that he decided on at the spur of the moment. The lady responded instantly to the changes in lead, able to feel how the man wanted to interpret the next part of the song and yet retaining her own individual style through that change. Even with the 4/4 tempo of the music, the Waltz sections managed to look on time. It was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve seen and taught me a lot about musical expression in ballroom dancing.
Everyone who has experienced formal dance training is familiar with the technical requirements. For example, in a Waltz Natural Turn you begin to rise at the end of count 1, continue to rise on 2 and 3, and lower at the end of count 3. What happens too often is that through the learning process, where the coach chides the dancer when they miss it (as the coach should do), the dancers get so focused on being “perfect” that they lose sight of musical expression. I should be clear that Bronze and Silver-level competitors should try to stay very clean in their musicality and not put experimental work on a competition floor. At these levels, judges need to see that you understand the proper technical patterns. But you can play with musicality on your own time in practice and social settings to get the feel of it.
Once you learn the proper musical requirements, you need to free yourself to express what you want to be within those rules. You must always be on time, but there is room for expression. It is boring to watch someone dance metronomically, like a robot. Light and shade are essential to creating a memorable performance.
Former world champion Luca Baricchi gives a seminar on musicality that I really love. You can see his lecture below. Note the differences between the “musical” version of a Waltz he demonstrates at 6:14 compared to the mechanical version he shows at 7:22. Similar examples are shown for Tango, Foxtrot and Quickstep throughout the lecture.
Near the start of this lecture, Luca expresses an idea that I first heard from him several years ago at a lecture in Vancouver. He says that you are either the master of the music or the music is the master of you. This concept dramatically changed my own thinking about music. It’s the dancer’s responsibility to live above the music, to interpret what is played and bend it to their will rather than chasing it and allowing it to rule over their actions.
You are either the master of the music or the music is the master of you. — Luca Baricchi
Know your own dance style
Every dancer has his or her own personal style. So does every couple. When Wendy and I were competing, we knew clearly that our style as a couple was an elegant, regal look that applied to both Latin and Standard dances. We made sure our choreography reflected that strength. Of course, to some judges who preferred the more aggressive athletic look we may not have been as appealing as someone else. Other judges liked that elegance. But I believe all judges responded to the fact that we knew what our style was and allowed it to be clear and visible through our performance. We weren’t trying to be something we were not.
Know your personal style. If you have never thought about it you should take time to evaluate your own style to understand what makes you different.
Once you understand what you want to express, look at each of your dances. Ask yourself how your choreography reflects your style. If there are things in your choreography that are at odds with the strengths you have, make some changes.
Next, evaluate how you might express that style musically. For example, since our style was an elegant one, we focused more on swing-type actions rather than the harsher, more athletic impact or percussive actions. Where impact or staccato movement are necessary, an elegant couple can lengthen musical expression on each side of those actions. In that way the action isn’t out of character with the couple, but it is still in character with the story being told.
Know your personal style. Evaluate how you might express that style musically
The other day I came across a terrific lecture on musical expression by Austrian professionals Manfred & Anastasia Stiglitz. Manfred gives an example of how musical expression can be shown even when music is played that has nothing to do with the character of the dance. He touches on this personal style and how you can adapt your dancing when the music doesn’t do you any favors. Take a look at this excellent half hour lecture here.
Take time to practice to unusual music, even tunes you might not like. Ask yourself how you would express your style against such music. And see your dancing improve significantly through this emphasis on the most important quality of dance: musicality.