Music As Food for Dancers

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Over the last year or two, I’ve been focusing on getting more satisfaction out of my dancing.  I used to have nights when I came home deflated, because things just weren’t clicking.  Then I’d have other nights, when I felt like I was completely in the zone, and everything just flowed.  In an attempt to have more nights dancing in the zone, I began reflecting on the cause of my differing experiences.  What I realised is that, more often than not, the common denominator for me is the music.  This might sound obvious when explicitly stated, but music matters a great deal to me as a dancer, and other dancers I speak to feel the same way.

After I had this realisation, I made a conscious choice to seek out great music, and attend socials where the DJs are committed to playing great music.  I realise that some people just dance to socialise and have fun on the dance floor, and that the music being played is not all that important to these people.  I am not saying that there is anything wrong with that, and I admit that when I started my dancing journey, I had a similar attitude towards the music.  The music functioned as my cover, my camouflage, background noise to legitimise my random movements, and make them socially acceptable.  At some point though, this changed.  The music became my inspiration, my reason to dance.  I stopped using the music as a tool, a shield.  That is, I stopped using the music, and started to allow the music use to me.

This article is mainly for dancers who have already developed a strong relationship with music, or dancers who are just starting to explore the universe of music, and how it relates to dancing.  My dancing turned a corner, and became vastly more interesting and fulfilling, once I established a relationship with the music.  This is another way of saying a strong connection to the music.  As I dancer, I am moving to music, but it is more than that.  Aerobics is movement to music.  Zumba is movement to music.  Dance Dance Revolution (from Konami entertainment) is movement to music.  To me, what makes dancing different from these things is meaning.  Dancing has emotion, ideas, and culture, and I can access all of these via music.  It seems that, the more my relationship with the music grows, the more rewarding dancing becomes.

When I was in high school, and in my early 20’s, I was depressed.  Part of the problem was that I was hanging out with the wrong people.  I was not managing my relationships well.  I was spending too much time in the company of people with toxic tendencies and questionable character.  You could say that my life had become a product of my relationships.  It took some time to figure this out, and to take action, but once I did, the quality of my life increased dramatically.  It occurred to me I can apply that the same idea music.  If I want my dance experiences to be profound and fulfilling, and to nurture my soul, then I need to manage my musical relationships.  I want to spend the majority of time listening to, and dancing to great music, by great artists.

So what is great music?  Music is art.  So this is a highly subjective question to contemplate, and there are many people much more qualified than I to critique music.  However, can we all just agree that there’s a difference between:

“Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby?
Let me know.
Girl, I’ma show you how to do it and we start real slow.
You just put your lips together and you come real close.
Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby?
Here we go…”


“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold,
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed,
With a word she can get what she came for.
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”

Lyrically, musically, conceptually, artistically, can we all just agree, right now, that one of these songs represents great music and the other does not?  I’ll let you figure out which is which.  No offence is intended to Tramar Lacel Dillard.

Another way you could think of this is as music as food for dancers.  As dancers, we consume music, and this music, hopefully, nourishes us, and allows us to be healthy and grow as dancers.  If you are not enjoying your dancing as much as you feel you should, perhaps it is worth reflecting on your musical diet.  Are you regularly consuming great music, by great artists, and great musicians who are expressing profound emotions and thoughts (preferably through a high fidelity sound reproduction device)?  Or, do you mainly listen to Spotify remixes by some unknown DJ, sampling some forgettable track from this year’s “Bangin’ Beats of Summer” (through your shitty $10 laptop head phones)?  Are you getting enough variety in your musical diet, or do you keeping eating the same “meat and potatoes” over and over again, and then wondering why you feel creatively stifled?

If music is food for dancers, and we are what we eat, and we are mainly eating junk food, our dancing is probably going to be a reflection of that, junk!  I’m not saying it’s wrong to listen to certain types of music, or artists, but I encourage you to be conscious of what you’re listening to, and, if you’re a dance teacher, to be conscious of what music you are introducing students to.  I encourage you to spend more time listening to, and dancing to, music of substance, and to keep that sugary pop music as a sometimes food, and see what difference it makes to your dancing.

1 Comment

  • Fred says:

    I’ve had your experience with salsa music, and several people I know have similar thoughts. Also, one source I find interesting for music, for dancers who like NYC style/mambo salsa is the renowned salsany website by Charles Shaw. It has a lot of information about NYC salsa, but somewhere Shaw goes into some detail about what sort of music NYC salsa/mambo dancers typically like. He talks about how to dj such music, what salsa NYC mambo people typically will not like (romantica etc etc) and has a long list of examples of songs, the ingredients of a good song, the tune, melody, percussion etc. Also, there is or used to be a youtube clip of Jimmy Anton discussing his social and how he plays his music. He is very careful about how loud it is, the songs etc etc. I used to just go to salsa parties etc, took classes, went to congresses etc, but didn’t really know or understand the music. At some point I started paying more attention and learned there was a world of difference between Gilberto Santarosa and, say, Hector Lavoe. I started to understand the stuff I really liked and the stuff I liked less. Today Music is like a HUGE part of my experience at socials, can’t overemphasized it!! If the music is great, I have a great time, period! Even when I watch youtube clips, i’ve noticed it’s the ones with music I like that I like more! I spent two weeks last summer in NYC and saw firsthand how important the music is! All the venues I visited, one thing was clear: they have good music down to a near science! Even the sound is amazing, nothing noisy! Just loud enough, it’s such a pleasant experience! Jimmy Anton has guaranteed great music, Salsamania and DJ El Maestro, LVG, the congress etc etc, the music is so so so good!! The music, I found, was one of the main differences between NYC and smaller towns like where I usually dance. And quite apart from the music, many places they also play music too loud! People can have varying taste in music, but it should never be too loud! In short, for me music over the last five years has become a big factor, I’d say it’s my no. 1 factor determining where to go dancing. Also, as a dancer, i’ve found that salsa dancing has specific types of music that work best for each style of salsa dancing. So, for mambo style or linear style dancing, for me the best stuff is mambo old school stuff by guys like Barreto, or Lavoe etc. Or for Cuban, timba may be ideal etc. One problem I see often with smaller cities and towns where people simply attempt to dance ‘salsa’ to anything, is that the dancing just doesn’t seem to work well when done with the wrong music! I see people doing mambo moves to raegaeton or other stuff etc, and then they say they’re finding it hard to dance salsa! Well, people are not being educated about what goes best with what! NYC people don’t just dance their style to any stuff, and not all ‘latin music’ is salsa!! And then I hear people complain that they’re not improving or improving as fast as they’d like etc. Most of us have heard these conversations! I think it often comes down to the music! There’s one place I used to take classes! The music was mambo/NYC style during classes. However, after the classes, when the social started the dj would play hardly any salsa!!! He played ‘latin music,’ but it wasn’t ‘salsa!’ so, people had a hard time applying class lessons to the wrong music, the moves just didn’t work. This happened every week for years! If people don’t have the right music, they can’t really practice or social dance proper salsa, so week after week after month etc, people don’t see any improvement. Now imagine practicing to the right music a few times a week in a place like NYC! Of course one will improve!! So, I do agree the music is super super important!

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