Moving beyond rhythm

As I work with my students on musical interpretation, I often have them focus on articulating the lyrics of a song. But every time I do this, at least one student points out the difficulty of hearing the melody, adding that they naturally turn to the rhythm.

The rhythm is often dominant in the music we dance to, in part because it has a driving beat that lends itself to swing, but also in part because much of the music we dance to today is increasingly rhythm-heavy. This makes the rhythm easy to hear, but the problem with letting it drive our dancing is that the rhythm of a song is inherently flat. Sure, a good beat often compels us to dance, but the primary purpose of a rhythm section in a band is to keep time, and to that end it is deliberately repetitive and monotonous. If we let the timing of the song be our only guide, we might as well dance to a metronome or someone clapping.

Not only does dancing to the rhythm or timing of a song create flat, monotonous dancing, but flat, monotonous dancing in turn creates a weak foundation for partnership. As humans, when we receive the same stimulus over and over, we start to tune it out. It becomes white noise that fades into the background. The same thing happens with monotonous partner dancing: the repetitive feel of it leads both partners to tune out and detach from one another.

So how do you keep the dance interesting and engaging? A good place to start is by connecting with the variable part of the song: the melody.

The melody is where the variation is. Whereas the rhythm chugs along at a steady pace, the melody ebbs and flows with changes in both rhythm and energy. The melody is also the emotional heart of a song. Whereas rhythm provides the beat and groove for a song, melody expresses the feeling and soul of a song. Whether it’s a voice or an instrument, connecting with the melody not only helps you mix things up but it also gives you emotions to incorporate into your dancing. And dancing that captures emotions is certainly more interesting and engaging.

So learn to hear the melody and learn to connect and stay connected with it in your dancing. You’ll be more likely to have an exciting dance and to create an engaging partnership.

What is easiest for you to hear in a song? Where does your ear naturally go when listening while dancing? How does the genre of music affect what you hear? Teachers, what do you have your students focus on? How do you teach your students to hear different parts of the song?


  1. I wish the majority of the social dancers would try to determine only one of two things about the music: does the music sound like long flowing lines or does it sound choppy to you? How ever it sounds to you, dance that way. Let your moves represent the music YOU are hearing. Everyone doesn't hear the same thing in the music and it doesn't matter. Some hear the melody very clearly and others hear only the rhythm, and the melody may be flowing but the rhythm may be choppy or vs. Whatever the dancer hears is what is important to that dancer. Once the dancer has learned to listen and dance to the overall sound of the music and determine whether it's "flowing" or "choppy", then they need to understand that the patterns that they hear often change back and forth within the song, and they should strive to listen for the changes in the song and change their styles accordingly within the song. I believe that would be a giant step forward. Just my 2 cents. Milton Oglesby

  2. I hear the melody, but don't always understand the words, so I tend to focus on the feel of the melody (or other intricacies within the music) rather than what the words are actually saying… What happens if the song is sung in a foreign language… or what if it's a song with no singing. Now that we're moving past the rhythm in our dancing… the lyrics aren't the "end-all, be-all"… just sayin'. ;)CJ

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