Most people within the social dance world will tell you that the most important thing to develop is musicality. But exactly what is musicality and how does one go about developing it?
Within the context of dance, musicality is the ability to demonstrate kinesthetically the structure and emotion of a particular song. In other words, the body becomes a musical instrument capable of being altered and tuned for the purpose of expressing the texture and emotion of music.
To develop musicality in dance one has to know the music physically. It is a state where the body takes on the shape of the song similarly to the way you might effortlessly slide your foot into a well-worn shoe because your body “knows” so well the exact shape and interior of that shoe. As you listen and dance to the music, the body learns over time the specific nooks and crannies within various songs. You begin to recognize certain details that make the songs individual because your body learns to “hear” them. When you dance with a partner whose body also has that knowing of a song, total synchronization occurs. The song becomes a container for a totally unique combination of movements to occur. This is when we experience that sensation of effortlessness, where we transcend the body - the dance high.
We can liken the body to a magical stringed instrument that can be played like a violin or plucked like a guitar. In addition it can move from high pitched sound of a violin to a deep groan of an upright base. All of this is achieved by alternating between gathering the energy towards the center through increasing tone, or radiating the energy out by relaxing the muscular tone down. Imagine rubber bands throughout the body. Some songs would call for tight rubber bands that keep everything close in, the steps are smaller, allowing for faster speed and lots of excitement. Other songs demand that the rubber bands allow for more give and stretch before recoiling, the steps slow down and the movements become larger.
What “low tone” and “high tone” mean depends on each individual body. The goal is to find the appropriate individual range between high tone and low tone so that you can use it to express what you hear.
How does one begin to develop an awareness of that range within their own body?
“Recognize what is there and what is hidden will be revealed.” - Unknown
We look to the music! Or more precisely, we observe what the body wants to do in response to what it hears in the music.
Based on this premise, let’s visualize the relationship between music and the body
All music (and every song) is built upon the interplay between rhythm and melody. The body responds to rhythm with pulse like movements, whether it be moving the hips side to side, tapping, clapping, snapping the fingers, etc. When melody begins to dominate our awareness, there is a desire to gesture or draw in space (think of a classical orchestra conductor), we want to follow the undulating line of the sound. Melody is also the carrier of emotion and frequently triggers feelings of nostalgia and sadness. Melody and rhythm are always present, but in different proportions. So the question is not “is a song rhythmic or melodic?” but “what is my body hearing/following?”
What makes tango music unique is that it doesn’t have drums and conveys rhythm through instruments that are also used for melody. As a result, tango movements do not express rhythm by pulsing through the hips and knees the way blues and salsa movements do. In tango we pulse through the step by playing with how we push off and arrive from one foot to the other. Some music makes me move as if I am running across hot coals, barely touching the ground, trying to escape the flames. Other music makes slow down and drag my limbs as if I am walking knee high in mud.
We come up with four main possible qualities of movement:
Low Tone Pulse in response to slow rhythmic music
High Tone Pulse in response to fast rhythmic music
Low Tone Flow in response to melody that expands and projects out
High Tone Flow in response to melody that contracts towards center
This graph can be used to analyze any music that you might dance to, but to make it more specific to tango I will use four of the most popular orchestras that you are guaranteed to hear every time you go dancing to represent the four main qualities of movement.
Your first task in developing your musicality is to learn to recognize these four orchestras with your body. To do that you must be able to answer two main questions:
Does this song make my body tone go up or down?
Are my steps showing the rhythm or the melody?
Considering this map, listen to the four songs below and see if you can recognize the four different ways you would dance these songs.
Most other orchestras can be grouped into one of the four quadrants, however, sometimes you will hear music that can be danced either rhythmically or melodically. Keep coming back to the question “what is it that I WANT to show?” in that particular moment to help you identify which quadrant the song belongs in.
Your musicality will get better just through the process of attempting to identify!
Listen to these four songs and see if you can place them into their “appropriate” quadrants.