musicality

The Choreographer

When I was first learning to dance, I took a lindy hop workshop with a great teacher from Ithaca named Bill Borgida. I don’t remember what he taught in the workshop, but something he said stuck with me: “Count Basie is my choreographer.” Count Basie is of course the great swing band leader, and his point was that the music was telling him what to do.

We often think of the leader as the choreographer in the dance, or at least the lead choreographer. He is responsible in many ways for setting the tone and directing much of the dance. But ideally what he choreographs is not born solely out of his knowledge of patterns, but rather his inspiration from the music.

Putting the leader in touch with the music has many benefits. Not only does it create a more musical dance, but it makes his choices clearer to the follower, who can hear what he’s trying to choreograph. This should also make it easier for the follower to engage and add some choreography of her own, knowing that she is on the same page as the leader, both of them connected by the music. It should also be a bit of a relief for the leader, who can let the music guide his leading rather than having to come up with moves on his own.

Who do you think of as the choreographer in the dance? Who is it now and is that how you want it to be? Teachers, how do you help your students to understand choreography and its relationship with the music?

Take a little out

Last week’s post explored the concept of pattern extensions as a way of adapting patterns to fit the music. 
Similarly, pattern compaction – the process of linking two patterns by replacing the anchor step with a rock-and-go – can also be used to help fit patterns to the music. For instance, compaction can help get to the end of a pattern to fit the phrase of a song, rather than hitting the phrase change in the middle of a pattern. Compaction can also create a rushed feeling that fits well to the build up of a song before a phrase change or break. 
The trick to successful pattern compaction is creating the spring action of the rock-and-go. Though you remove the anchor step – the triple that ends patterns – there should still be an anchor – the extension that results from changing direction. The leader will still slow down and change the direction of his own body, causing the follower to reach the end of the slot before being redirected down the slot again. The only difference is that in a rock-and-go this now happens in one beat and one step (the first step of the rock-and-go) rather than over two beats and three steps, as in an anchor step. Getting this stretch right is what facilitates a smooth and easy change of direction. 
Too often leaders aren’t clear on the anchor, sometimes even pulling the follower out of her anchor step. In some ways, learning pattern compaction can help leaders improve their anchors by learning the difference between an anchor step and a rock-and-go, while also teaching followers to seek the stretch at the end of the slot. 
Have you learned pattern compaction? How do you use it in your dancing? Has it had any impact on how you execute your anchor steps? Teachers, do you teach pattern compaction? If so, how do you help students to get that spring action on the rock-and-go?

Give a little more

As I noted in an earlier post, there are a lot of pattern dancers out there – people who know the beginning, middle, and end of what’s next before it even begins. They don’t necessarily connect with the music or adapt their patterns to fit what they’re hearing.

This is where pattern extensions come in. A pattern extension is when a dancer adds an even number of beats to a movement to either delay its conclusion or delay the start of the next movement. They generally fall into three buckets or types:

  • Repeated movements, where the partners’ positions relative to one another are kept the same but they keep moving;
  • Stopping, where the partners hold still for a period of time; and
  • Continuous movement, where the partners add movements in a fluid way to keep moving and delay the end of the pattern.

Aside from executing them clearly and comfortably, the trick, of course, is to use these pattern extensions where the music calls for them. Repeated movements (e.g. continuous whip, walks, side-to-side grooving, etc.) are best applied where – you guessed it – the music repeats, either lyrically or rhythmically. They are also useful where the music slows down and you want to slow down your dance as well. Stopping is most appropriate when the music stops or drops off in a significant way, either during breaks or as a transition to a lower energy part of the song. And continuous movement is useful to lengthen patterns where the song builds up, so that you keep moving and building while the song does the same. And I often use repeated movements and continuous movements for phrasing, particularly to extend a pattern to end on 1 of a new phrase, rather than ending during the build up to a phrase change.

We often learn pattern extensions by learning patterns or amalgamations that have extensions in them, but learning to view these tools separately and apply them where relevant is a valuable skill to have – for both leaders and followers. Leaders can use them to adjust their patterns to the music, while followers can use them to appropriately interrupt patterns to fit them to the music.

How have you learned pattern extensions? How do you think about them and use them? Teachers, do you teach your students about pattern extensions, and if so, how?

Detachable feet

Last week I wrote about how we become pattern dancers and the effects that has on our relationship to our partner and to the music. Just as we tend to get locked into patterns, we also get locked into specific rhythm patterns with our feet.

A rhythm pattern is a specific sequence of doubles and triples that forms the foundation for patterns. For example, the rhythm pattern for a six-count pattern is double-triple-triple. These rhythms are fundamental to our dance and are closely tied to the execution of patterns.

However, we spend so much time working on rhythm patterns that we can have difficulty breaking out of them. When we attempt syncopations or a change of rhythm with our feet it can be disruptive to our movement and to our partnership. Our bodies become highly dependent on our feet, sometimes to the point that we are moving from our feet instead of our centers. This isn’t entirely surprising, given the strong emphasis on when and where to put your feet in dance classes. After all, how we talk about the dance influences where we focus our dancing.

Learning to decouple footwork from movement frees us up to be musical with our feet without interrupting the flow of the dance. It allows us to take advantage of our feet as instruments of expression, particularly when the partnership demands attention of our bodies and a continuity of movement. Besides, being able to separate our footwork from our movement is indicative of a higher level of dancing, where the center drives the body and we don’t need to be mentally focused on our feet.

Do you find that you have to focus on your feet when breaking out of a standard rhythm pattern? Are you able to let your feet play without disrupting your movement or the partnership? What have you learned about footwork and rhythms that has made things easier or more difficult for you? Teachers, how do you talk about footwork in your classes and how do you help your students get comfortable with their footwork?

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?