This is something that has been nagging at me for a while now, but I feel that I’ve consolidated my thoughts sufficiently to write something about it. This article is about musicality.
I invite you to consider the notion that musicality does not exist. It only exists in the minds of some. What first prompted me to start questioning the whole concept of musicality is that, every time I have a discussion with another dancer about musicality, at some point we get down to defining terms. However, everyone I speak to has a different definition of what musicality means. For me, this was enough to start ringing alarm bells. If we can’t agree on what musicality actually is, how can anyone argue that such a thing even exists?
When I talk to other dancers about musicality, despite the the lack of a universally agreed definition, some common threads emerge. Ideas that are commonly mentioned in reference to musicality are:
- Connecting to the music
- Having a relationship with the music
- Moving rhythmically to the music
- Grooving with the music
- Accentuating the breaks and/or hits in the music
- Dancing with feeling to the music
- Reflecting the vibe/mood of the music
- Telling a story through the music
- Dancing to a particular instrument or vocal in the music
- Dancing as another instrument of the band
I think it’s fair to say there’s some truth to most, if not all, of these ideas, and that these ideas are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, then I started thinking. Aren’t these concepts what dancing is supposed to be about anyway? In other words, if you’re not doing any of these things, are you even dancing in the first place? I mean, do you even dance?
Then it occurred to that the idea of musicality only exists because, for some people,dancing has been distilled down to a set of steps, techniques and/or movement patterns. The way dancing is commonly taught today, the musicality (music) in dancing is separated out from the physicality of dancing, processed, and then, musicality (music) is considered and added back in, after the fact. This is a bit like bread with added fibre. It sounds like it’s healthy, but it’s really not. You can’t remove essential nutrients from food, process it, add some nutrients back in later, and expect to have the same healthy, quality food source. By the same token, you can’t extract musicality (music) from dancing, process it, add music back in later, and expect the quality not to be affected.
In my opinion, it is only because the way that dance is commonly taught has been bastardised, and this has caused the people within the dance industry to perpetuate concepts such as musicality. Dancing to the music is not an “add-on”. It’s not a module or class you take as part of a dance qualification, after you’ve completed dance 101, 201, and 301. It is integral to dancing. It is dancing. If you are dancing without acknowledging the music, then you are not dancing. Musicality is dancing, and dancing is musicality. There is no separation between the dance and the music. Any perceived separation is an illusion.
The second idea I’d like to challenge is that musicality can be taught. Even if one can make a case that musicality does in fact exist, I don’t believe it can be taught. However, I believe musicality (music) can be learned. Wait a minute, how can something be learned, but not taught? I believe that the expression of all of the ideas, feelings and emotions that music evokes can be learned (or perhaps discovered is a better word), but I don’t believe that any teacher can teach musicality to an individual. Expression of music is a highly subjective and personal experience. The best any teacher can do, is expose student to various possibilities, and provide channels through which to access these ideas, feelings and emotions. However, the actual expression, and learning this process, can only be undertaken by the individual. A great teacher can open doors, but each individual must step (or is that dance) through the door themselves.
So what can teachers do about this? While I don’t believe it’s possible to teach musicality, I absolutely believe it’s possible to teach about music. After all, the key word in musicality is music. I have heard some teachers say that it’s not possible to teach music to beginners, that they won’t get it. Too often I’ve observed musicality classes and workshops targeted at more advanced dancers. Some people believe that beginners can’t understand or appreciate music, or that they will be bored by it. I think that sells people short. I believe that, even with zero formal musical background, if a person can count to 4, clap their hands and hum a basic tune, then they can learn to appreciate music to a reasonably sophisticated level. There aren’t many people I know who lack these abilities. If a student demonstrates an inability learn about music, I think that reflects more on the knowledge and ability of the teacher, rather than the student.
So what can dance teachers do, make music a part of every single class? Here are some ideas:
- When you play a song in class, afterwards mention the song name and artist(s), as well as one thing that is notable about the song. This takes about 5-10 seconds, so there’s no excuse not to do it. It gets students familiar with artists and their music, and encourages them to explore and find their own connection to the music they love.
- During the warm up, or when demonstrating techniques for students, don’t just dance through the breaks. Try and honour the music in some way, even if it means occasionally having to deviate slightly from the pattern being taught. Students will get to see first hand how more advanced dancers play with the music, instead of just dancing set patterns. I believe the importance of this “learning through osmosis” approach cannot be overstated.
- If you’re teaching a pattern, at the end of class, demonstrate it once with counts and then again to music with flavour, so students can see the difference between moving to counts versus dancing to the music. You can also add a few bars of freestyle at the very end for inspiration, and to expose students to further possibilities. I love it when teachers do this, and I wish teachers would do this more often.
- Each week, encourage one student to bring in a song that they like and play it at the end of class, then ask them to very briefly talk about what that particular song means for them.
- Let your students know when relevant artists are performing in your town. You could even organise a group of you to go and check out some live music.
- If you have a a warm-down or practice time at the end of class, quiz your students on what you told them at the beginning of class. That is, what is the name of the song and the name of the artist(s)? Again, this only takes a few seconds, but over time this will seep into their consciousness, and encourage them to appreciate the music.
Try and make musical interpretation and appreciation a part of every single class, from beginners to master classes. It doesn’t have to be an hour long, sit-down lecture. Often, it only takes a few seconds, but, over time, this will make a huge difference in how students relate to music.
What can you do, as a student of dance, to learn more about music? There are lots of things you can do. Here are some ideas:
- Pick some of your favourite songs and dig down on them.
- Find out who different artists are, and learn a little about their culture and background and how they came to create the music you love.
- Listen to the lyrics, and translate them if necessary, to gain a deeper understanding of what songs are really about.
- Actively listen to certain songs many times over and try to isolate different instruments and voices within the music.
- Broaden your musical tastes by listening to jazz, classical, hip-hop, rap, country and folk music.
- Attend live music performances. You can learn a great deal about music from watching musicians play live.
- Talk to local musicians about their music. Many of them will happily talk for hours about their music, because they don’t often get asked about it.
- Join a local choir.
- Learn to play an instrument. I’ve found that guitar is quite easy for beginners to pick up, and you can buy a suitable second hand guitar for $100-200. There is a vast amount of free information available online. You can play a lot of your favourite songs using only a handful of chords. In my experience, nothing will teach you more about music than learning to play an instrument.
All of these suggestions can help you better appreciate music. Note that none of these ideas mention anything about taking a dance class or musicality class, and these ideas don’t have to cost a lot of money.
In summary, I invite you to forget about musicality. Consider that there is no such thing as musicality. There is only music. Try and focus on making music a part of dancing every single time you dance and see what a difference this makes.