We often refer to people, even people who don’t know how to dance, as “having rhythm.” But in ballroom dancing teachers are always talking about “musicality.” What’s the difference, or are they the same thing?
I was looking at several articles on this subject, including comments by some of the world’s best dance coaches and top champions.
It seems that most are in agreement that rhythm and musicality are different, but there are big variations in how the two are defined. Here’s some insight from what others have said around the world.
Jesper Fredricksen, who is in the process of writing a book on musicality, defines it as “a quality describing the dance performance, not the dancer and not the choreography.” He says that musicality in dancing is very abstract for most people. We know it when we experience it. It is somewhat subjective in the sense that we donʼt all agree on what it is and whether it is there when only some qualities in this area are present, but it seems very objective when musicality in the dancing is very good. When we see it we recognize it and everybody tends to agree it is there.
Rhythm: the foundation
Rhythm, in contrast is more objective. It is less abstract. I don’t believe you can have musicality if you don’t have rhythm, because you must be able to hear the music before you can respond to it, and rhythm is the foundation of response to music. Walter Laird, who is often thought of as the founder of modern Latin dancing, said “Rhythm is a regular occurrence of accented beats in a bar of music,” a simple explanation that speaks only to the music itself rather than the dance technique used. Famed choreographer Valerie Preston-Dunlop described it as something that “emerges by the way movements are put together so that they grow out of each other.”
Pamela McGill says, “Rhythm must surely start with the beat of the music, the accents that are being heard, then the body responds to that beat whatever it is.”
Children can have rhythm. Even animals can have rhythm. You may have seen the popular video clip of the dog responding to a musical beat. This is rhythm and it’s quite straightforward. It’s feeling or hearing where the beats are and having an innate ability to move your body in response to those beats.
Rhythm doesn’t require sophistication or understanding. It doesn’t involve technique. It is earthy and organic. I don’t believe you can teach rhythm; it is something you have or you don’t.
Musicality: the sophistication
Musicality, on the other hand, is sophisticated. It requires knowledge and skill. It gets better with practice and study.
Now, you can’t have musicality without rhythm. The one is the foundation that the other builds upon. In this, I agree with Peter Mueller who says, “If somebody has got a good rhythm in dancing it doesn´t mean he has good musicality. These are for me different things.”
The great ballroom champion Massimo Giorgianni says that you can show musicality without any music playing. When one is expressing musicality through dance, others should be able to feel the music even in a silent room. That is very different from simply having rhythm.
A sophisticated dancer can hear the different patterns of music within the piece and choose to accentuate one part or another at any point. You can even choose specific instruments. Some songs have vocals that use phrasing that is not the same as that used by the instruments, creating a unique challenge for dance. Do you dance to the lyrics or to the instruments? Dancers can choose, and a sophisticated dancer may even choose to use these in different ways at different times within the dance.
Luke Martin puts it this way: “Musicality, to me, is dancing with the music rather then dancing to the music.” This is a significant difference and what I believe illustrates the sophistication of musical expression. Rhythm is the basic foundation. Musicality is layered on top to create the sophisticated development that makes dance more beautiful.
I love how the great Anthony Hurley expresses the problem with musicality in today’s dance world, where the focus is too much on sport and rapid movement rather than the finesse of artistic expression. He says: “I have just enjoyed the Nicholas Brothers tap routine, I am even more interested to hear they only phrased from the musical accents and the punctuation. What they achieved was like hearing a good speaker with beautiful voice intonation. They became an integral part of the orchestra. I wish more of our Ballroom and Latin couples would do the same. It seems we have a lot of mathematicians counting to eight and although they hear music they do not listen to what it is telling them.”
A recent online discussion of the brilliance of Fred Astaire brought to light how he was so musical that he made simple things like walking musical events. You can see this at the start of Easter Parade where he taps the umbrella he is holding to the beat of the music as he walks down the street. Every nuance of his movements, even the turns of his head, were matched to music. He made difficult things seem easy. When we watch the most musical dancers, we might feel that anyone can dance like that, but in fact it takes incredible skill and understanding to make such challenging things look effortless.
Take a look at this great clip from the motion picture “Stormy Weather.” Fred Astaire called it the greatest dance number ever filmed. Certainly it can count as the most musical.