What is Musicality for Dancers?

musicality social dance Apr 08, 2021

Within the dancing world, we use the word “musicality”. We try to be “musical", but what does it really mean? We have some kind of idea. We talk about it. There are classes on it. And quite often we know it when we see it. But can we explain it? If I would ask you what musicality is, how would you define it? And would others define it in the same way? 

This is an excerpt from my book about musicality - "The Secrets of Musicality for Dancers - Learning Nine Essential Skills for Musicality in Dance" Just click the link. 

I think there would be a lot of different answers. Some would simply talk about “understanding the music”, but I think that is both too vague and too limited.

To vague, because what does that really mean? Understanding the music?

And too limited because I think musicality is more than that. It is not something purely intellectual, like “understanding”. Musicality has an expressive side too. I think it isn’t just one thing. It has many different layers or skills. It is not that easy to define, but we will give it a try. 

But before we dive into that, let’s first take a glance at what music is. Quite often it is contrasted with noise and randomness. Noise is not very pleasant, so music should hopefully be pleasant to listen to. And since it is contrasted with randomness, music should also be deliberate and planned in some way. There should be some thought behind it. Some kind of idea behind the sounds that we hear when we listen to music. This is good to have in mind when we talk about it. And we will come back to it later.

Returning to musicality, it can be different things for different people. There is no clear definition accepted by all, and even though many people say they want better musicality, what they mean by it might differ, since musicality is also something personal. We like different music, and our way of hearing and expressing music is also different.

Musicality is personal, but if we want to improve it, we need to start from somewhere. We need to have a starting point, some kind common understanding of what it is so that we can figure out how we can improve it.

The definition we will use in this book is from Wikipedia:

“A person considered musical has the ability to perceive and reproduce differences in aspects of music including pitch, rhythm, and harmony. Two types of musicality may be differentiated: to be able to perceive music (musical receptivity) and to be able to reproduce music in addition to creating music (musical creativity).”

Now we have something to work with. For a dancer, the exact definition of musicality can be similar, but not exactly the same. 

The ability to perceive music would still be the same. How good are we at noticing what is happening in the music? How well do we hear the different aspects of music? 

The second part would be a bit different though. We neither reproduce nor create music. We would still need to be able to express different aspects of music, but we are dancers. We create dance. Our instrument is our body, or bodies in the case of couple dancing. 

So, a dancer would need to be able to perceive differences in aspects of music, interpret them in a creative way and then also express these differences in the dance. These are the core elements of musicality for dancers.

If I make a more personal interpretation I would say that the creativity for a dancer can be expressed as an ability to connect with the music and interpret it, making movements that relate to the music in a way that makes sense, both visually and in how they feel in the body. In a way it should be possible to “see the music” when we see dance. Even if we would turn the music off, the moves should still look like the music sounds. Does that make sense? 

And a move should “feel right in the body”. In a way it should feel as the sound sounds. Or maybe the move should look like it could produce that sound. There needs to be a connection between the sound and the move. They should work together. 

So, to be musical we have to be able to perceive the music. And we also have to be creative in how we interpret it and express it. Only one of those skills is not enough. We need it all. Just perceiving the music doesn’t help us expressing it in a creative way. And just being able to express it doesn’t help that much if we can’t perceive all the nuances in the music. And we need to be creative to connect the music with the dance in a good way.

A Metaphor

Now I would like to introduce a metaphor here, something that we will return to over and over, and which will hopefully make it easier to understand.

I would like to think of music as one language (the source language) that we have to translate into another language – dance (the target language). I am the dancer and therefore I am the translator, but none of the languages is my mother tongue. The better I can perceive the music, the better my understanding of the source language. If I don’t perceive music very well, I will not be able to translate it very well either. 

And if I want to translate the music into dance in a good way, I also need to know the target language, dance. A translator needs to know both languages well. The worse my dance skills, the more limited my expression will be. If I don’t have very good technique, or I don’t have that many moves, it is the same as having bad pronunciation or a limited vocabulary. It will be difficult to express myself well. The dance might be a bit stiff, maybe not very varied.

But even if we know both languages, it doesn’t necessarily mean we will be good translators. It doesn’t mean we will be musical. We might lack some skills that a translator need. Maybe we will not find the right words, or we don’t find them fast enough. Maybe we will not find the right nuances. Maybe we can’t translate the right feeling.

For dancers, if we are missing the creative part of musicality, we might not be very good translators of the music.

We might perceive the music well, and we might have a good “vocabulary” in dance, but we still don’t find the right word. We will still miss the feeling of the dance.

The better we are, the more our dance will match the source language, the music, and the richer the translation will be.

So, we have found something to work with. We know we need to improve how we perceive music. We know we have to listen to different aspects of music. And we know we have to become creative in how we express what we hear when we dance.

So, for example, musicality can be how we can catch many different aspects in a song and represent them with our bodies. It is dancing to the rhythm. It is changing tempos and the timing of moves to fit with the music. It is catching the dominant feeling of a song. It is catching different aspects of specific sounds, whether it is the size of the moves, the level we make the move on, or how soft it is. It is using silence in music. It is predicting the music, what is going to happen, and preparing for what to do with it. It is using the vocals, sometimes playing with different words and actions in the music. And it is even using breathing in our dance, in a way that also plays with the music. And finally, what really sets a dancer apart, it is picking and choosing from all of the above, combining this into a whole, expressing the music through the body. 

Musicality is dancing not just to one instrument, but to several different instruments, all the time picking and choosing which sound we want to highlight, and sometimes even dancing to several instruments at the same time. 

Musicality is one of the signs of a more advanced dancer - someone who is able to hear what the music calls for and express it in dance. When we become better dancers, we listen more to the music. And when we listen more to the music, we become even better dancers. 

That's it! If you liked this article about musicality, feel free to share!

See you on the dance floor!

Suggestion - Check the kizomba & fusion courses here.



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