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Musicality: Using the Motivation of the Music

by Sandi & Dan Finch

"Dancing is music made visible."* We enjoy music because it has a melodic, harmonious flow and some highlights to keep it from being monotonous. Our dancing can also have a flow and highlights, and it feels so good when we experience that.

Understanding how music works is essential to dancing. At its most basic level, this is what allows us to be “on time”. Having a working knowledge of music also allows us to better interpret new choreography, both as dancers and as teachers and choreographers.

Once we understand music technically, we can develop a feel for being musical and on time.

Musical Awareness
Choreography has to be in sync with the structure of the music. The characteristics and timing of the music dictate what rhythm we should dance: Waltz or Samba, which have very different timing and feel; or Bolero, Foxtrot, or Slow Two Step, all danced SQQ, or any of the other rhythms we dance.

We talk in terms of beats. A beat is a basic unit of musical time, an interval of sound struck by an instrument. Music is written in groups of beats, each group called a measure. (This is sometimes called a “bar” of music because, on sheet music, the end of a measure is denoted by a vertical bar.) Each rhythm has a prescribed number of beats per measure. That number shows up as a fraction: the numerator tells you the number of beats in a measure; the denominator tells you, in 4/4 timing for example, that each quarter note is one beat.

That 4/4 timing is used for most of our rhythms. Groups of three beats make up a measure of waltz, denoted as 3/4 timing. Samba and marching music are in 2/4 time, two beats in a measure.

Our figures are written to coincide with a measure of music; some figures are one measure long, some take two measures; some use only a measure and a half. You can count beats to know where you are, or you can develop a feel to recognize the emphasized downbeat that typically begins a measure.

Beats give us a structure, but like mile markers on a road trip, they only tell where you are. What you do between mile markers makes it a memorable trip or a boring ride. What you do between beats is what makes you rhythmical.

fenceTo understand this more clearly, remember that a beat of music is a span of time (see above). If a measure of music were seen as a section of fencing, each fence post is the striking of a beat. The actual beat is the sound from one fence post to the next fence post. In the picture at left, 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.

As round dancers, our opportunity to interpret music comes in how we dance the figures. Dancing “on time” means we keep up with the basic tempo of the music—not rushing ahead of the measures or failing to keep up. Some music written for dance use is “strict tempo,” meaning the music plays at a determined number of measures per minute consistently throughout the dance (at a speed that is most comfortable to dance that rhythm).

Popular music doesn’t maintain a consistent speed. This means that you must pace your steps or use more shaping to fill the music when it retards or speeds up. You experience this in dances like “Boulavogue” (phase VI Hall of Fame Waltz by Richard Lamberty and Marilou Morales).

All music is multilayered. In a typical orchestra, the percussion instruments play a steady metronomic timing to create structure for the other instruments. Those other instruments and even the singer can add delays and syncopations. In your dancing, you get to pick the part of the music—the metronomic rhythm or the melodic line (the singing/other instruments)—through which you want to add feeling to your dancing.

In Smooth rhythms, we can easily isolate the sounds of the drums and the few other bass instruments (bass guitar, bass fiddle, left hand of the piano player). Isolating those sounds is harder in Latin rhythms because additional percussion instruments are added—such as bongos, timbales, claves, guiros, and marachas, each playing its own rhythm. These create the flavor that distinguishes a Latin rhythm from a Smooth—for example, a Bolero from a Slow Two Step.

Consistently throughout a Latin song, those other bass instruments will each play one pattern, depending on the rhythm. For example, in a rumba, the patterns of those instruments would be:
Guiro: &1 2& 3 4
Claves: 1 2& 3 4
Marachas 1&a 2& 3& 4&

In a Cha Cha, the guiros and marachas play the same rhythm as in Rumba, but the claves would play: 1234 123&4

For our purposes, knowing the differences is not important. It is helpful, though, to know that these variations occur. They can make it harder to hear the basic rhythm, but they also create interesting patterns that invite your interpretation. (Listen to “Afro Cubano,” Phase V Rumba by Ron & Mary Noble.)

Playing with the Rhythm
We are all familiar with staccato (Italian for “separate”) timing, which encourages dancing with sharp movements, usually with syncopations and holds. We use staccato timing particularly to reflect the characteristics of Tango.

Music is also played in a style called legato (from the Italian legare meaning to “tie together”), which is smooth, without noticeable breaks. This encourages the flowing movement of most Foxtrot and Waltz.

Rubato (meaning “stolen time” in Italian) is a musical term for slightly speeding up or slowing down. This is rhythmic flexibility within a section of music. Singers often use it for expressive effect by singing in a slightly different tempo than the accompaniment. (Recall all your Frank Sinatra favorites.) When you have trouble finding the beat, try isolating the bass. Chopin is said to have used rubato timing in many of his pieces, playing strict tempo with his left hand and allowing his right hand to play freely.

“Hang time” is a term used in dance, meaning to steal time from one beat to add to another, like creating your own rubato as the music plays smoothly. Your Chasse in Waltz should be danced with a form of rubato to emphasize the peak of the rise.

Applying the Concepts
If you can distinguish the musical differences, you will be able to use all the music to better fill the “time” you have for a figure. You can play with the timing in a syncopation or apply rubato to smooth out a figure or give your partner more time to follow. Here are some ideas:

Foxtrot Feather: One couple may dance “on the beats” taking the first step on beat 1, waiting as beat 2 goes by, then stepping when they hear beat 3, then beat 4. By all accounts, they are dancing the three steps of the Feather SQQ in the four beats of one measure.

Another couple dancing the Feather will swing through from their previous step allowing their feet to go into position at the beginning of the slow count (beat 1), but not taking 100% of their weight. Their weight is transferred to that foot well into the slow count (on beat 2) as their shape has changed. 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 then to the toe on second quick (beat 4) lowering at the end, maybe having stolen some time from beat 3 to decelerate. The movement flows continuously, avoiding the “step and stop” style of the first couple.

Waltz Chasse: The timing for a Chasse is 12&3, meaning four steps in three beats of music. The “&” count doesn’t mean to go faster, but to stay longer on that next-to-last step.

Impetus: Consider getting on the first step sooner, so you can steal time to shape the rotation. Man needs to stretch his right side as he is rising to step 2 to help his partner balance through her turn.

The idea is to go into a figure on time, come out of it on time, and use the time in between as you enjoy. Dancing is like this: You have an evening out, going to a progressive dinner at three houses on the same street. You have a fixed time (the evening) and distance (the street), but you spend less time at house one and house two, so you can linger at the third house and still get home on time.

Can you hear that in the music?


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

Musical detail from The Enjoyment of Music by Machlis & Forney, 1995, and Dance Music
Fundamentals by Dennis Lyle, ballroom coach and judge, 2018.

From the Education Syllabus, RAL Convention, July, 2018, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, December, 2021. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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