A phrase by any other name…

Oftentimes when we are taught musicality and phrasing, we are taught, appropriately, to mark the phrase change. The biggest accent is on the one of a new phrase and we strive to reflect that in our dancing.

But there’s another part to phrasing: the fact that phrases are different. A verse is different from the chorus, and the chorus from a pre-chorus, and all of the above from the intro. Phrases differ in their chord progressions, their melodies, and their lyrical rhythms, but the difference most notable for dancing is the energy level, indicated by the volume and complexity – and sometimes emotion or expressiveness – of the music. If we are to really phrase our dancing with the music, we should dance each of these phrases differently.

Phrasing our dance means thinking about how the energy and feel of our dancing matches the energy and feel of the song. This is reflected in our choice of patterns and styling, the complexity of our movements, the size and pace of our dancing, and the overall dynamic we create with our partner. As the song changes, so should our dance.

And if we do dance these phrases differently, we create a dynamic and growing dance, riding the rollercoaster of energy that good songs have. If we don’t, we miss an opportunity to be musical, to create variation in our dance, and to engage our partners on a different level.

How much do you pay attention to making one phrase feel different from another in your dancing? How much do you just focus on the phrase change? Have you ever been taught how to phrase in the way described above? Teachers, do you work with your students on this level of musicality, either hearing the music in this way or how to dance to it in this way?

Go on, slow down and get intimate…

Some songs just call for intimacy with your partner. You know what I’m talking about: those slow, drippy, emotional songs – sometimes sad, sometimes sexy, sometimes light and dreamy, sometimes down and dirty. Those songs that call for the lights to be dimmed, or the songs that make you want to kick back with a glass of wine (or scotch – your choice), or the songs that make you want some privacy.

Too often, when these songs are played, I see dancers get out onto the floor, do their 4-count starter step, and then rush out into open position and their standard patterns. To me, this is not only antithetical to the music, but also a wasted opportunity to engage with your partner on a more intimate level. I don’t mean getting romantic and invading each others’ space (unless, you know, that’s what both of you want); I just mean taking time to connect with your partner and the music without the usual distractions of patterns and embellishments.

These kinds of songs just cry out for you to slow down and take your time. So what’s the rush to move out of closed position? While the dance is danced mostly in open position – and while some people may not know how to dance comfortably in closed – there’s a lot that can be done in closed. And not only is closed position more intimate, but it has the two partners’ centers closer, where you can feel more of your partner’s movement. And closed position forces you to strip away the fancy patterns and turns and styling and just focus on moving together with your partner to the music. Since I’m guessing you do partner dancing in part to share the experience with a partner, and in part because you like the music, what could be better than taking your time to do both of those together?

So my advice? Listen. And if the song calls for it, stay in closed position a little longer. Explore the possibilities. Take the time to engage with your partner and the music more directly.Go on, slow down and get intimate…

How do you feel about dancing in closed position? Reflecting on your own dancing, how often do you dance in closed? And how conscious are you of slowing down when the music calls for it? Teachers, how do you imbue this side of musicality in your students?

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?

I Got The Blues

Blues music derives its name from “blue devils” – melancholy and sadness. Blues music in all its forms are about hard times, sometimes to express sadness, sometimes to celebrate resilience in the face of such hard times. But from a technical standpoint, blues music can be defined two ways: as a musical genre with a given style, and as a musical form with a given structure.

Blues music as a genre is defined by a few characteristics. One is the instruments themselves, usually grounded in rhythm-based instruments, such as guitar, drums, and bass, though often incorporating other instruments as well. The second is the lyrics, which, again, are often about sadness and resilience, and which reflect the call-and-response scheme of African and African American music. And there’s the walking bass line, which sometimes swings and sometimes moves up and down a progression of notes (or both).
Blues music can also be defined as a cyclical musical form, meaning it has a repeated chord progression. Unlike ballad or song form, which has several different kinds of phrases (e.g. verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, etc.), blues music is one chord progression repeated over and over. Twelve-bar blues is the most common progression, but there are many variations on twelve-bar blues, and there are other common progressions, such as eight-bar blues and sixteen-bar blues.
What I find interesting is that despite the repetition in structure, to me blues is rarely boring or monotonous. For one thing, each chord progression is a little rollercoaster, growing and building and then resolving by the end. And this rollercoaster plays out over the course of the song too: blues songs tend to grow in emotion and intensity as they progress, dropping during instrumentals and picking up for the big finish. And though the chord progression repeats, oftentimes phrases differ greatly in feel and style, mixing lyrics with instrumental solos, playing with rhythm and volume. And even within phrases there are riffs, accents, breaks, and lots of emotion behind the lyrics.
Though more modern songs have variety in the chord progressions, I find they can often feel repetitive, because they are frequently so rhythm heavy and the rhythm is constant, and because they often don’t vary much in volume or emotional intensity. Not true of all modern genres, of course – there are lots of pop ballads that have great variety in emotion and feel – but I find I feel this way about much of the “dance” music we dance to these days.
How do you define blues? What do you listen for in a song that tells you its blues? What do you like or dislike about blues? And how do you think blues music compares to more modern genres we dance to?

Layers of musicality

When I explain the abstract term “musicality” to my students, I usually break it down into three nested layers:

  • General feeling of the song. Is this a slow, drippy song, or a fast, sharp song, or a groovy, mid-tempo song? This level of musicality will determine the overall shape and styling of the dance.
  • Phrasing. What is the structure of the song and how does your dance reflect that? This manifests itself in the way we distinguish one phrase from the next, and how we note the change to a new phrase.
  • Texture. Where are the accents? Where are the drawn out notes? What are the lyrics doing? What’s happening with the rhythm and where are the riffs? This is the detailed level of musicality.

I find a lot of dancers get good at the texture dancing – using syncopations and patterns to texture their movements – but many don’t learn to mix that into a broader framework of structure and feeling.

How do you think about musicality? How do you capture as much of what you’re hearing into your dancing? And if you teach, how do you approach the subject? What exercises do you use to help your students to hear the music and be musical?