When you watch people dance, you may find that there are some partnerships that catch your eye more than others. What is it that makes some pairs more fun to watch? Is it their good looks? Is it the breadth of their vocabulary? Though looks and vocabulary play a role, what often makes a dance pair so fun to watch is their ability to reflect the music in their movements. They dance as if they know every note in a song and are able to share that musical intuitiveness with each other.
Many students, especially beginners, think that they lack the ability to be musical. There are some people who have a natural ear for music — they can easily translate a song’s tempo, flow, and hits into movement — but anyone can learn musicality with training and experience.
As an intangible component of dancing, musicality can be challenging to teach. It fundamentally, however, has only two main parts —
1. Song qualities that can be translated into movement
2. Partner dance elements that complement song qualities
(1) Song Qualities
The songs used for partner dancing have structure and predictability that are needed to understand musicality.
Partner dances comes from many places around the world. The waltz is old European, the lindy hop is rooted in Harlem, New York, USA. Samba gafeira is Brazilian and tango is Argentine. The salsa comes from Puerto Rico, while rumba and cha cha originate from its Caribbean neighbor, Cuba. Each type of music has its own arrangement with classically based instrumentation, as well as instruments that are indigenous to the country of origin. As a result, each partner dance style reflects the music typical of the culture that created it.
– Structure/beat emphasis
Most music for partner dancing is based one a four-beat measure or bar. Different songs highlight the start of a measure in different ways. For example, mambo and salsa songs use a clave and cowbell to mark a song’s structure. Cha cha uses a “tumbao”, or baseline drummed with a pair of conga drums. Foxtrot and big band songs use a stomp off before a measure begins and a snare drum on the backbeat, or even numbers in its structure. This structure also tells us the tempo, or speed, of the music.
Partner dance music has melodic progression on top of its structure. Depending on how the song is written, this melody can be told over 8, 12, or 16 bars of music. This melody will usually repeat several times with a refrain thrown in once or twice. Take a song like “April in Paris”. Various bands of all sizes have recorded it. Regardless of the band or the tempo, or whether the lyrics are sung or not, the melody lasts the same amount of time, 8 bars.
There are moments in songs when musicians strike a specific beat emphatically. This moment is called a hit and is often followed by silence before the musicians continue playing. Take the Elvis Presley version of the song “Hound Dog”. After he sings “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine,” there is a drum roll culminating in a strong drum strike. The drum strike is a hit which is then followed by a three-beat pause before the song continues.
(2) Partner dance elements
A partner dancer needs to train the body to become musical. The following elements are the basis for this training:
Body movement for a dance should reflect the cultural origins of the song. A good partner dancer can convey the stylistic difference between a foxtrot and a merengue through his/her movement. From the first day of learning a dance, style can be exercised and practiced. For example, in a cha cha class, students can work on shoulder and hip movement during the warm up. Even if the technique is not vigorously repeated, the seed is still planted for the future.
A good dancer is able to listen to a song and know when each measure and melodic progression begin. Focusing on patterns that can be strung together to reflect a song’s structure and progression is a great way to train the ears and the body to work together. For example, West Coast Swing uses both 6 and 8 count patterns. While dancing to an 8 bar song, the dancer has 32 beats to divide into any combination of 8’s and 6’s to follow the melodic progression.
– Variations off the theme
A dance pair has several options when there is a hit in the song they are dancing. They can dance right through it. They can freeze on the hit until the song starts up again. They can elongate the movement they were in the middle of until the music starts up again. They can redirect their energies into an entirely new move from where they were prior to the hit. These options can be mutually agreed upon, or more individual while still keeping true to partner dancing.
Defining what musicality is and how one can reflect it when dancing is subjective. However one defines it, there are elements in music and in partner dancing that can be well matched, so that even a beginner dancer is both proficient at patterns and musical.