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Musicality:  Using the Motivation of the Music

By Sandi & Dan Finch 

Dancing is music made visible.*  You enjoy music because it has a harmonious flow and some highlights to keep it from being monotonous.  Dancing should be the same. 

When you are moving harmoniously with the music, you can feel tempo changes that will give your dancing the richness and texture of an Andrea Bocelli concert.  Music is multi-layered—from the steady metronomic timing of the bass notes to the variations in the melody and the secondary accents overlaid by particular instruments, such as a saxophone.  You can dance with feeling to any of those layers. 

This dancing with feeling is called “musicality,” relating the steps and characteristics of the dance rhythm to the energy, melody, and mood of the music.  Musicality will give you a new range of expression and enhance your dancing pleasure. 

This variety creates the contrast we sometimes refer to as “light and shade” in dancing, but you can only do this once technique is automatic.  Former world standard professional champion Mirko Gozzoli says he thinks only about technique and movement when he practices, so that he has the freedom to concentrate on feeling the music when he competes or exhibits.  Practice with basic figures you know when “playing” with the music to start adding more feeling to your dancing. 

Musical Awareness

Writing choreography requires a musical awareness, so that the figures are in sync with the structure of the music.  Most music is written in two-measure groups (eight beats in foxtrot, tango, and quickstep, and six beats in waltz).  This is called a couplet, the first measure of which is more accented, referred to as the “question,” and the second measure as the “answer.”  Use a strong forward movement to start the first measure and a softer combination on the second measure.  At the end of the second measure, there logically would be a “quiet” figure with controlled body shaping, such as an impetus to semi-closed position, to gather energy before moving out on the next strongly accented measure. 

As round dancers, we don’t pick the choreography, so our opportunity to interpret the music comes in how we dance the figures.  Dancing “on time” means we keep up with the basic underlying tempo of the music—not rushing ahead of the measures or failing to keep up.  Some music written for ballroom use is “strict tempo,” meaning the music plays at a determined number of measures per minute consistently throughout the dance (that number being what is most comfortable to dance that rhythm).  Popular music, like that used for Boulavogue (Hall of Fame dance by Richard Lamberty and Marilou Morales), doesn’t maintain a consistent speed.  This means you must slow your steps and use more shaping to fill the music as it retards.

But we have license to do more than step monotonously on each beat played by the bass in any dance. You get to pick the part of the music—the metronomic rhythm or the singing/melodic timing—where you want to add feeling to your dancing. 

Playing with the Rhythm

Dancing staccato (meaning to “separate”) is taking steps with quick bursts of energy, sharp movements, usually with syncopations and holds.  We use staccato timing particularly to reflect the characteristics of tango, but Afro Cubano (Phase V rumba by Ron & Mary Noble) uses interesting music that invites some alternative staccato timing. 

Dancing legato (from the Italian legare meaning to “tie together”) is a smooth, even style without noticeable break between steps.  This is constant movement through the feet and body that we use for most foxtrot and waltz. 

Rubato (meaning “stolen time” in Italian) is a musical term for slightly speeding up or slowing down the tempo. This is rhythmic flexibility within a section of music. It is often used by singers for expressive effect by singing in a slightly different tempo than the accompaniment.  (Think of all those Frank Sinatra favorites.)  When you have trouble finding the beat, try isolating the underlying metronomic timing from the varied tempo of the singer or the softer instruments in the orchestra.  Chopin used rubato timing in many of his pieces, having the left hand play strict tempo and the right hand play freely.  Your chasse in waltz should always be danced with rubato timing to emphasize the peak of the rise. 

Applying the Concept To A Basic Step

When you dance foxtrot, a subtle form of rubato timing helps fill out the two beats of the slow count (SQQ). 

Consider two couples dancing a feather step side by side.  The first couple takes the first step on beat 1, waits as beat 2 goes by, then steps when they “hear” beat 3, and again on the beat 4.  By all accounts, they are dancing the three steps of the feather SQQ

The second couple swings through from their previous step and their feet go into position at the beginning of the slow count (beat 1), not taking 100% of their weight.  Their weight is transferred to that foot well into the slow count (beat 2). The movement continues “in flight” through the end of beat 2 with Man rolling through the foot from heel to toe and swinging his free foot forward. He steps onto the toe on the first quick (beat 3) and, using rubato time, he steals time from the second quick (beat 4) before taking his third step onto the toe and lowering to a flat foot.   The movement flows continuously, avoiding the “step and stop” style of the first couple on the slow, by playing with the last two beats. 

To understand this more clearly, consider that a “beat” of music occurs over a span of time.  A measure of music is like a section of fencing. Each beat in a measure is like the distance between fence posts; the “time” between the posts is the “beat.”  In the picture above, beat 1 starts with the first post and beat 2 starts at the second post.  How you spend your time going from post to post is up to you. 

*Anne Gleave, world professional standard champion, married to Richard Gleave, eight times undefeated world professional standard champion, both coaches of champions.

Dan & Sandi have other essays and helps on their site.
This article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, April 2010

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