Hitting the breaks… or not

In exploring blues music, one inevitably comes across the infamous “break” – the last 8 beats of a major phrase during which the instruments build up tension that resolves with the new phrase. Sometimes this break is a hard stop of all vocals and instrumentation (what we often think of when we hear the word “break”). Other times it is a change in instrumentation (some instruments temporarily stop playing), and sometimes it’s simply a big percussive crescendo that ends on the first beat of the new phrase.

Lots of dancers can feel the build up to the break and in response they hit the break hard, stopping completely and holding until the new phrase begins. If it’s a hard break and the music stops, it makes sense that the dancers should likewise stop moving (of course, I know of others who may disagree). But while we occasionally encounter hard breaks (a stop of all vocals and instruments), most songs have breaks that include some vocals or instrumentation. In those cases, a hard stop might not be the most appropriate (read: musical). (NB: Even during a hard break, picking up momentum and building to the new major phrase is a great way to create tension and contrast.) But there are several different ways for interpreting the break section, depending on the nature of the break and what’s occurring musically. I would argue that the four primary ways of dealing with breaks are the following:

  1. Ignore the break and build up to the first beat of the new phrase.
  2. Build up to the break and then stop or hold until the new phrase begins (hard break).
  3. Build up to the break and then dance through the break but with less momentum (soft break).
  4. Build up to and hit the break and then build momentum again to the first beat of the new phrase.

It’s good to be able to do all four options, so you can adapt to whatever song is playing and so you have a wider range of options for responding to breaks, leading to more variety and different creative opportunities. And, as noted in my previous post, it’s always better if you can execute in a way that is comfortable and inviting for your partner.

Of course, the idea here is that at a minimum, whether you have a hard stop or simply change your movement in some way, you should acknowledge the break in your dancing. If the music is changing during the break, then your dancing should likewise change. If you maintain the business-as-usual momentum and dance through any accents or crescendos or stops, then you’re missing the break altogether; it’s not musical, and it probably won’t feel as good.

What is your approach to breaks? How do you describe or identify breaks? How were you taught (or how do you teach) about hitting the breaks?

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