By Jesper Frederiksen, 2012
High level of musicality can make a profound difference to the performance of Ballroom and Latin American dancing; both as experienced by the dancer and the spectator alike.
I am in the process of writing a book about this fascinating topic, having dedicated many years of studies and deep thinking to understand the nuances that makes a real difference. The book will cover what constitutes dance music, the detail about timing, the phrasing and about the dance and music relationships such as the relationship to dance mechanics, partnering and choreography.
Here is the short story: Musicality in dancing is a quality describing the dance performance, not the dancer and not the choreography. 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 – then everybody tend to agree it is there.
Musicality can exist on a more primitive level almost without any kind of technical ability and it should exist on some level in all kinds of Ballroom and Latin American dancing from the social dance level to top professional performances, from beginners to experienced competitors. It is not a special ability of the talented few, it is easy to learn up to a quite adequate level for a majority of people and possible to learn for almost everybody. The talented few often have a fantastic musicality in spite of their training that often include information and practice exercises that are very counterproductive for musicality in the dance performance.
When a dance performance works with the music, when the musicality is good, the essence is that the dance performance, whatever its purpose, makes sense relative to the music – to the dancers and to the audience.
On the simplest level of assessment you can look at a dance performance to see whether it is ʻin timeʼ with the music by watching the foot-timing of the dancer and see when the feet momentarily stop moving in relation to a quality in the music called the pulse. We use labels in the music such as 1,2 or 1,2,3 or 1,2,3,4 to describe the pulses in the music depending on the style of music. We also have division points between pulses where we use labels such as ʻ&ʼ or ʻaʼ depending of the type of division. Together, pulses and division points become the pulse of the music. Now that we understand the term ʻthe pulse of the musicʼ we can consider whether it doesnʼt just relate to feet but also to the timing of other parts (or ʻagent zonesʼ as I call them) of the dancer such as the hands, the head, the hips and the centre-lines of the body. I will argue that timing is equally about when these zones momentarily stop moving in relation to the pulse. So timing is to relate a momentarily stop of an agent zone with a pulse or a division point in the pulse of the music. These stops of agent zones are the time-able events in the dancing.
It is my experience that when the dance performance make complete sense relative to music, the timing will, for most time-able events, be rather sharp (coincide with pulses or division points in the pulse of the music). This ability to dance with sharp timing, the timing- ability, is as important for a dancer as the timing for a musician or a singer. Timing does not create the music or the musicality, but without it nothing else matters. This is why checking the timing ability is a priority for all good judges in a dance competition. If you understand the music well, you can do much more for the musicality of your dance performance than cure the timing. You can synchronise agent zone timing with selected rhythmical patterns (or accent patterns) in the music and you can create dance phrases out of a meaningful sequence of time-able events that make sense as a phrase (test it by ʻsingingʼ your dance) and execute these dance phrases suitably relative to musical phrases. Remember that the main idea of phrases is to make room for breathing.
To make musicality work practically when you dance you must make actions. An action is a intelligently chosen positioning and shaping made by selected ʻagent zonesʼ with a well-defined timing relative to the pulse. Actions should be combined into a phrasing relative to phrase in the music. The body (including arms and legs) will react, sometimes instantly, sometimes gradually after to the actions with fluent, beautiful and natural movements.
This way movement and gesture will be created by combinations of time-able events, some to do the intended action, others to power it. After the action energy will be absorbed in body (as gravitational potential energy by elevated agent zones, or elastic potential energy in muscles and tendons). This absorption follows an ADSR-model (attack, decay, sustain, release) very similar to that of the sound of a musical note. During this reshaping of the ʻagent zoneʼ can take place. As a dancer you can and should be very well aware of your actions while dancing and relate this to the music while dancing. How much awareness can very well be regulated by the actions position within the dance phrase and the musical phrase. This way the music will inspire you to regulate energy input, energy absorption and energy release while dancing and you will automatically create some of the more sophisticated relationships between music and dance. These relationships you might not need to understand if you dance and feel the music, but you probably need to understand them well if you will evaluate and improve the musicality of a dance performance.
The more important of these relationships are the relationship between imbalance/balance in the dancing and tension/release in the music, the relationship between starts and stops in the music and starts and stops in the dancing and the relationship between partnering activities in the dancing and transitions in the music. The musicality of the dance performance always exists within the framework of the music played and the choreography planned.
To begin with this means that choice of music is extremely important. Dance performances can be destroyed by unexpected, wrong, bad or uncharacteristic music. The capable dancers with a good understanding of music can adjust and change choreography during dancing, but recreating a choreography to music that is completely out of character while dancing in a dance competition is not possible for even the best and these situations with very bad music will eventually result in relative more success for the mechanical, musically insensitive dancers that could not care less about the music, since they never perceive it anyway. The audience will in these cases give up on watching dance competitions as a consequence — this trend is already a very common one in the recent years with many dance competitions mainly watched by fellow competitors and family of the contestants only.
For the choreography it means that it has to be musically danceable, constructed as a sequence of dance-phrases. Furthermore knowledge about the music has to be taken into account. Deliberately crossing the music for effect is fine. Making choreography that does not fit the music because of lack of knowledge and/or musicality will be embarrassing in the future as knowledge gradually will increase in this area as well.
The fact that we cannot always predict exactly what is going to happen due to varying music and floor-craft issues is no excuse for not planning using the knowledge available but a strong argument for flexibility, for dancers that understand the music played and for partnering skills. Dancing is about a lot more than musicality in the dance performance, and the purpose of the dancing can be something entirely different from enjoying and expressing music, but if you want your dance performance to make sense whatever the purpose, this area of musicality and music-dance relationship is where you should focus your effort. In return you will get inspiration from the music and the knowledge to improve not only your musicality but also your dancing in general.