‘Musicality’ classes

Every dance class is a ‘musicality’ class.

Here are some simple ways I like to build ‘musicality’ into classes*

  • Begin and end and continue with the ‘beat’.
    I like to emphasise ‘bounce’ (or ‘pulse’) quite strongly when I’m teaching, particularly with brand new dancers. The very first thing we do when we start warming up is some bouncing in time. And we don’t let students begin dancing out a sequence until they are all bouncing. We use expressions like ‘make friends with the music’, and ‘show your partner you have a nice, solid beat’, or ‘use the bounce to get connected with your partner – use this time to find a shared sense of beat’.

    That last one is a particularly useful tool when you’re talking to more intermediate dancers, because you can show them how the beat is about consensus, or shared timing between partners. I usually emphasise this by saying something like (as we listen to a big band track), “There are fifteen men playing music together here, and they all get together and find one common beat, so let’s do the same, and use that common beat to get together with one other person.” Incidentally, there’s also a lovely moment(s) in class, where you’re all facing into the circle, bouncing in time, and you get that powerful feeling of connectedness that improvised music brings: humans keeping a shared time.
    Using the beat as a way to connect with a partner is another lovely tool for talking about the role of leads and of follows. I like to talk about how each partner has a responsibility to ‘take care’ of the beat, particularly when the other partner is pulling out some crazy rhythm work. It’s as though we each have a responsibility to maintain a sort of rhythmic compass, so each person knows where they are in the musical landscape, even when they’re going crazy.
    We just taught some workshops in Christchurch, and in the lower level class we did some work with basic rhythms in open, face to face position. We had taught a handful of different rhythms, and the students were dancing through them in their own time, mixing and matching and figuring out how to lead and follow them, how to transfer between them, etc etc etc. It was just magical watching these newer dancers at work. They were all looking into each others’ eyes, eyebrows up, grinning like fools, pulling out these complex rhythms.
    It was great when they were both doing the same rhythm in unison, but I was especially delighted by the moments when they were doing different rhythms at the same time, looking into each others’ eyes grinning. It was polyrhythms in action, and they clearly felt that pleasure that comes from each being able to dance their own thing with their partner, yet still as a coherent partnership. And the thing that held them together as a partnership was this shared sense of beat. It was truly complex work, but even brand new dancers can do this, because humans are amazing.

    This emphasis on beat/bounce results in dancing that is in time. I don’t use numbers at all in lindy hop classes (unless we are doing a combination of steps that start on 1, 8 and other beats), which means that you need to give the students a way of ‘getting ready’ to start dancing. I think it’s really hard to find just one beat (‘one’) when you’re a beginner dancer, which is why I like to give them a tool to find all the beats.

    When we work with different types of dancing – 1920s partner stuff, for example – we talk about how the beat is still there, and we still need to find it with our bounce, but that it’s a slightly different beat, with a different emphasis. I’ll talk about this with brand new dancers as well as more experienced ones, but when we work with the latter group, we talk more about how you might vary your bounce for different music. And when you might drop it completely to make a point. This, of course, feeds in nicely to discussions about how to dance faster, and the biomechanics of lindy hop.

    With our solo classes, keeping a sense of timing with your bounce is even more important, because we do such rhythmically complex steps, where a broader understanding of timing (and where you are in the timing or progression of a routine) is even more important. In solo, in particular, the 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 5 & 5 & 7 & 8 & counting is particularly unuseful. We work with much more subtle divisions of time, so we need a strong sense of the ‘beat’ to keep ourselves oriented. I find the idea of ‘and’ as a halfway point between counts especially irksome – syncopation is much more interesting than a ‘half way point’. The exciting about solo work is that it gives you the chance to experiment with incremental divisions of the beat, and then inspires you to take this to your lindy hop. Why wouldn’t you do this with your lindy hop as well? The Swedes do it, and Frankie Manning embodied it.

    Bounce is also very useful for helping people discover the ‘swing’ of swinging jazz. A bounce is a longer trip between two points than a straight line – your core goes down towards the ground, then back up to the second point. Your steps involve a sort of compression and delay, because you are ‘bouncing’ rather than sliding or moving directly between beats. It helps that the music makes this very clear: a plucked bass string has a built in delay, where the sound resonates for a while before the next note is plucked. It _feels_ like a bounce.

  • Rhythm.
    It seems very fashionable to talk about rhythm a lot at the moment. Of course, the Swedes have been talking about rhythm forever, and people like Norma Miller have been yelling at us for counting instead of rhythm for years. But what makes this a practical teaching tool/paradigm?
    I like to think of all the ‘steps’ we do as rhythms. Mostly because we are dancing, so music is the heart of what we do. I can represent pitch and notes with my body, but the rhythms of the notes is what makes all this interesting, and what makes swing swing.
    But really, and most importantly, weight changes are the heart of each ‘step’ or ‘move’, and a weight change really is a way of portraying timing. Of committing to timing. So when I walk in time, with a bounce, I am one hundred percent committed to the basic beat of a song. Bounce and weight change are about clear, effective engagements of core muscles, which in turn affects and dictates how our arms might move, or the angle of our shoulders, and so on and so on. So, biomechanically, dancing rhythms rather than ‘shapes’ is much more interesting and challenging. And (confusingly) make it easier to communicate with a partner.
    My favourite part of this approach, though, is that it feels like we’re playing a really interesting, challenging game. What’s that rhythm? Can I recognise the pattern? Can I recreate it? Can I do it so clearly that I can communicate it to my partner? FUN!

    This leads me to my next teaching tool or strategy. We teach a lot of rhythm sequences as ‘rhythm breaks’, where we set up an AAAB pattern, with a single rhythm repeated 3 times, then a second rhythm serving as a ‘break’ in the B section of a phrase. We do this with total beginners, and we might have them do step-step-triple-step, step-step-triple-step x3, then a mini-dip. We teach the mini dip as a solo step first, where we teach the rhythm first. Then we have them move through the shape, then we add in the rhythm. We find that we get much crisper, clearer dancing, and the mini-dip (or whatever) is very clear. After we’ve got them cool on that break, we say something like “Now, don’t neglect that original rhythm: you can’t have a contrast if you don’t set up that first rhythm properly.” Of course, we’re talking about the power of repetition to build suspense, and the break as a rhythmic contrast to climax and relieve that suspense, but we don’t talk about that. I’ve noticed, though, that dancers feel that resolution. There’s something really nice about about doing that AAAB structure all together.
    This is how we teach beginner students: using the AAAB structure of a phrase, a basic rhythm (which we use as a foundation for most of the moves in the class), and then an additional rhythm ‘break’. All with an emphasis on the ‘beat’ to hold it all together. We might add a second rhythm break if things are going well. Sometimes we do the break side by side in closed (the easiest approach), or we use turning steps with levels – like the mini-dip.

    When we’re teaching solo dance, we often do exactly the same thing: three charleston steps, then a charleston break = AAAB. But we are more likely to do other combinations: ABAB is also very nice. And then we might build it up across phrases, where we recreate that ABAB structure across four phrases. We do tend to do this more in our solo classes than our lindy hop classes, partly because the lack of partner work makes it easier to learn more in a solo class, but also because we tend to work with much more complex content in our solo classes: old school routines which are quite challenging. Now I’m thinking about it, I see we need to perhaps be more challenging in our lindy hop classes, and think more about ABAB, as well as just AAAB.

    It’s quite simple, really, but it actually results in quite sophisticated dancing, which feels really really nice, and is very interesting and stimulating to watch.

    Sneakily, this is how we teach students to relax their arms and upper bodies. If you want someone to relax their upper bodies and arms, to have good posture, to keep their weight over their feet, and to have a loose, elastic connection, the best strategy is to get them thinking about walking about in funny rhythms. It distracts from the arms, but it also forces them to engage their cores, which in turn allows them to release their upper bodies, because they are much more stable through the torso.

    And doing shared rhythm work is a very good way to get partners communicating. Ramona said this in a workshop recently: when you dance, you are giving your partner a gift. You’re giving them something. When you dance with a band, you’re giving the musicians a gift. When you dance alone, you’re giving the musicians or people around you a gift. I found this a really nice way to get over feeling shy about looking at myself in the mirror when I danced, and other people found it a good way to get over feeling nervous in performances.
    But we use it when we’re teaching lindy hop and solo dance. We say, “When you dance this rhythm, imagine you are demonstrating that rhythm for someone watching – you’re giving them a little rhythm so that they can do it themselves. So it has to be really clear and really obvious.” This is fab when you’re doing partnered work, especially call and response work. But it’s also proved very successful in solo work, where we want dancers to enunciate very clearly.
    All this is lovely hippy talk, which leads to the best feelings in class. But it’s also a very clever way of getting dancers to do very clear, efficient movements, which facilitate good connection with a partner, and very good proprioception, which then makes it possible to dance very fast or very slow, to pull off complex choreography, or to do sophisticated competition dancing.

    But for me, as a teacher, it brings very great joy. All those new dancers looking into each others’ faces with those crazy grins: it’s Frankie crystalised and reproduced. And it just relaxes everyone and is so much FUN! Suddenly the simplest shapes – swing outs, under arm turns, circles – are vehicles for incredibly complex play and interaction. It’s lindy hop at its very finest. And people can learn to do this in just ONE lesson!

    This AMAZES ME!

    Of course, when you’re working with more experienced dancers, the rhythms get far more complex, and your ‘basic’ rhythm is more involved. So what was your ‘break’ step can become your ‘basic’ rhythm, and your additional sections of rhythm can layer up and become even more complex, working across phrases. This is when you get Swedish. This is when you get Frankie Manning and Norma Miller and Sugar Sullivan.

  • I don’t count.
    Because I can’t. I’m rubbish at counting. But also because I don’t like the way it makes students think about the timing of a song as an absolute relationship between beats. The beat of improvised music, especially swing, is a consensual thing – the musicians find a common beat, and then they work with that. There’s no absolute relationship between the beats; the relationship between beats is relative. And counting is absolute.

    I find that brand new dancers are totally ok with scatting and no counts. But dancers who’ve been learning for a while with counts find it very, very difficult to adjust to the lack of counts. They do get it, but it usually takes at least a quarter of a class, and even then they’re not totally ok with it.

    I especially hate the way we use the word ‘and’ when we count ‘one two three and-four, five six seven and-eight’, because it suggests that the last three beats are equidistant in length, or that the ‘and’ is half the length of a single beat. But as we all know, syncopation is more complex. And a triple step isn’t exactly like a stomp off in terms of timing, and when we do something like a full break, the timing changes depending on whether we’re jumping into the air, stepping gently or taking big or small steps. Our own leg length changes the way we swing the timing, or adjust that distance between the beats. And of course, the song tells us how to do each beat or portion of a beat. So numbers are not the right tool.
    Scatting is the tool. At first it’s embarrassing, but then it’s not. You love it.

    I get very cranky about people insisting that 8 and 6 count steps are completely different dances. They’re not. We tend to only teach 6 count steps as step-step triple-step, triple-step, which is just one step step away from an 8 count rhythm. The only difference is two fewer counts. When you make a big deal about 6 and 8 count steps being really different (to the point of describing lindy hop only as 8 count and ‘6 count’ as a separate dance like jitterbug or whatevs), you make it confusing for the students. We dance 6 and 8 and 10 and 2 and 12 step movements in lindy hop ALL THE TIME; we definitely don’t have rules about the precise number of counts in lindy hop. That is the point of lindy hop as a vernacular jazz dance: it does what it likes. Yes, we do tend to move towards 8 count steps, but that’s because we’re working with music in 4/4 (common) timing, and we like a bit longer than one bar to get things done. But even our basic ‘step step triple step, step step triple step’ rhythm can be evenly divided into two bars of 4 if we need it.

    Jazz: there are no freaking rules, so ease up on the goddam counting.

  • I start students dancing at the beginning of a phrase.
    When I’m getting the students to dance a series of moves to music, I begin at the beginning of the phrase. At the beginning of the class, I’m usually guiding that, but by the end of the class students figure out where the phrase begins ON THEIR OWN! And I don’t even need to talk about phrasing! This might mean that we spend a few eight counts standing and bouncing together, but this is good – it helps us work on our bouncing and timing and partnership. Then when they are dancing on their own, deciding which steps to do when, they have three major points of reference in the music: the beat, the phrase, and the beginning of a bar or 8-count.
    This often means that we have to wait out a bridge or a big solo in the music, but we will often say “Uh, oh, let’s wait til Cootie gets past this solo, then we’ll start,” or “Come on, Nina, play that weirdo piano breaky bit so we can get going.” This signals to the students that there are things happening in the music that are more than the beat, that are aurally interesting, and that this affects our dancing.
  • And, finally, dancing to the music in class.
    Another way we think about music in class comes in when we are doing the ‘dance it out’ part of the class. We used to structure our classes around a set sequence of steps, where we moved through a mini routine in the class, just teaching step after step. This got BORING. Now we tend to teach progressively, or cumulatively, where we begin with a basic shape, and then make it more complex.
    We teach total beginners in their very first class lindy hop. We start with the basic rhythm in closed, then we rotate it (circle in closed), then we have them let go half way (swing out from closed), then we have them come back together, with a bit of rotation (circle from open), then we have them swing out from open to open. Then we add swivels and bows. Same basic rhythm, with each step building on the one before. The core element is the rotation – the circle – because that’s what makes the follow drift out into open position when the lead lets go, and that’s what helps the lead redirect the follow’s momentum once they’ve started moving in at the beginning of a swing out. Swingouts = leads initiating momentum, then redirecting it, follows maintaining and shaping momentum. Or, ‘some times we are together, and some times we are apart.’

    By this point, they’ve got 5 moves, a couple of jazz steps, and one solid rhythm. Then we have them dance a lot. We usually begin by having everyone dance a particular sequence as a group for perhaps two rotations of partners, or 2 or 4 phrases of a song. Then tell them the leads get to choose what order they do things in, and how many of each thing they do. Then we the music on and they dance and dance and dance – at least a whole 4 minute song, usually two songs, with rotations (though letting them have a few phrases with each partner).
    We stand about in the middle or on the side watching, and doing a bit of spot checking if they need any tips, or answering questions. We use one song for all this, so they get to know the music really well, and we usually use something like ‘Easy Does It’ by the Big 18, or Basie’s slower ‘Splanky’ – something that swings like a gate, is a big band, is a slowish tempo, and has lots of texture and dynamics. While they’re doing all this dancing, we usually let them count themselves in (unless they’re struggling), and the only time we’ll address the whole group is to say “Yes! Beautiful!” and other positive things – when they do actually get to that point (I don’t tell them it’s brilliant if I don’t think it looks brilliant).
    Here’s where the serious musicality comes in: when the song changes dynamics quite dramatically (eg from very loud and intense to calmer and quieter), we usually call out “Ok, the music has changed! It feels different now!” and then they just adjust their dancing to suit the music. It’s amazing to see – they go from huge and crazy to smaller and gentler in their shapes and communication. We don’t need to explain this – they just know how to do to it, because they are humans and humans are astounding.

So these are some of the ways we build musicality into our classes. And this is why I have never felt the urge to run a special ‘musicality’ class – every class I teach is a musicality class, or else I’m not teaching dancing.

*When I say ‘I’, I really mean ‘my teaching partners and I’, because it takes two to lindy hop.