Getting a grip with musicality - the most vague and insightful part of dancing (part 1)

Musicality is to me one of the most important aspects of dancing. The best dance partners are gifted in many respects; technique, style, connection and they are overall great people. Musicality is one important trait among those, it helps an otherwise good dancer rise to an extraordinary dancer. And for me it's the thing that makes the magic happen on the dance floor.

Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.
— Deborah Wingert

In the words of ballet teacher Deborah Wingert. “Musical dancers don’t just turn until they stop. They turn until they have to move on to the next point in the music. Musical dancers never get so caught up in steps that they ignore the music.” 

Theories on musicality

Musicality - no matter how important it is to me - is something that I've always struggled to really explain or quantify. Even some of the definitions I've come across are extremely vague, such as this by choreographer Wade Robson: “Musicality is understanding music on a technical level, and then dropping all of that knowledge so you can sit deep inside the music. It’s dancing inside the music, as opposed to floating on top of it.”

Well, how is dancing "inside" the music more musical than "floating" on it?? Or if your dance teacher tells you to increase pace or make a movement bigger it is usually quite clear, but if he or she would tell you to increase musicality, what do you do?

What is musicality?

Wikipedia defines musicality as "sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music. A musical person has the ability to perceive differences in aspects of music including pitch, rhythm and harmonies." In respect to dance, musicality means "relating the dance to the music's rhythm, melody, and mood" as opposed to e.g. only stepping on the beat. "This is the key characteristic of improvised dancing. [...] Lindy Hop, West Coast swing, Argentine Tango, for example, view matching your dancing to the spirit and mood of the music as the highest goal achievable." This goes for Brazilian zouk as well; it's all about painting a picture of the music with the dance.

Cambré - one of the key movements in zouk and deeply connected with the music's breaks and accents.

Nichelle Suzanne describes two types of musicality: "Musical receptivity is ones ability to receive, comprehend, be sensitive to, and have a working knowledge of musical concepts like rhythm, tempo, phrasing, and even mood.  Musical creativity (or musical artistry) is the ability to connect with accompanying music, interpret it, or phrase and add movement dynamics that relate to music even in the absence of accompaniment, in a way that is unique or interesting. Musicality in dance then might be considered a measure or degree to which a dancer is receptive and creative in his translation or rendering of music through movement. It is a key ingredient in a dancer’s display of artistry."

Like you notice from above, there are various aspects that are linked to musicality in dancing (see the sources in the end of the article for more insight!). Below a summary of how I see musicality is connected to dancing zouk:

  • Understanding music:
    • Understanding song structures and different elements.
    • Counting 8s, phrases, and choruses.
    • Anticipating breaks, bridges, rhythms, repetition.
    • Discerning which instruments are playing.
    • Identifying different types of music.
  • Visual artistic expression of the music.
  • Relating and adapting basic dance movements with the music's rhythm, pace, mood, melody, accents, phrases, breaks and endings.
  • Creating your own variations of known dance moves and new unique ways to moves in tune with the to music.
  • Combining musical improvisation with good communication and partnering (leading and following).
  • Connecting the motion with emotion.

Musicality in leading and following

I took an interesting leading and following themed workshop with Ludek and Pavla at London Zouk Fest this spring. Ludek asked the students there what is the first thing you should do at the start of the dance. Many said instinctively "connect with the partner". True, this is very important and something you should do before you rush into dancing. But actually, the right answer was listen to the music. Before you can connect with your partner you need to connect with the music. The music is what first and foremost determines how you will dance (or if you even want to dance at all), it's the basis of it all. What follows then is the partnerwork (one of my other favourite topics); first connect with the music and then your partner.

A follower, as well as the leader, may think that musicality is only the leaders' responsibility. The leader makes the dance and decides the moves and is the make-or-break factor in musicality. True - and false. The leader's musicality is in a key role in creating the dance and making it a good one. But the follower has her own role. To make the dance best respond to the music the leader should not lead too strongly, for example when attempting to make the moves smaller or bigger, sharper or softer. Strong-arming the follower to fit your musicality may just limit the follower's flow and natural body movement. Connect with your partner, lead firmly but gently (don't use too much force). Allow the follower to complement the lead with her musicality in the way that best fit her style and natural shape of movement.

Just as the leader, the follower needs to carefully listen to the music; this is easy when you are in a natural dance flow that is also helped by good connection and gentle lead. Be ready to respond to the subtle and less subtle changes in pace, volume, mood, melody and breaks. A musical follower dances in tune with the music and can anticipate those moments when the mood rises or calms down, the accents and pauses - just remember that anticipating doesn't stop you from following!

Chicote and elastico are marked with the famous zouk hair movement. Typically these moves accent strong beats and breaks in zouk music.

What musicality and music in relation to dancing means to me

One evening when I was listening to a zouk track, just sitting on my couch... I was deeply enveloped in the music, imagining moving to the music, thinking what moves would best accent the song. Zouk moves. Chicote, turn, cambré, the flowing basic step, body roll. And a thought ran through my head - if I didn't know zouk, how much of this fantastic piece of music I would be missing. How much it gives to me, as a music lover, that I can interpret with my body this music I feel deeply about. What a loss it would be not to be able to dance zouk!

In a way, zouk to me is a language that allows me to better articulate what the music means to me. It's also biggest reason that makes me want to learn new dance styles, new "dance languages"- I want to know all the dance styles that best accent those music styles that I love!

The best part about couples dancing - especially zouk where the connection between two dancers is in such a significant role of the dance - are those moments when you connect with a person in a new level. I'm always in awe of those times when I get to dance with a fellow zouker that shares the same kind of musicality as me. With musicality I mean here basically "how to express different types of sounds with your body". It's more than what you might say being in the dance flow or what comes from a physical connection. Sharing musicality can lead to an almost telepathic connection, moving in perfect harmony with the music - it's something almost indescribably satisfying for me.

Connecting with your partner - physically and through music.


In the next post more about how to work on your musicality!

What is musicality to you?

How important is musicality to you in dancing?
Have you ever worked on improving your musicality? How?
Tell me in the comments!


Wikipedia: Musicality | Unlikely Salsero: Musicality theme | Dance Spirit Magazine: Musicality matters
Dance Advantage: Musicality in dance | Ludek Luzny