How to improve your musicality? 6 exercises for dancers (part 2)

This is a sequel to Getting a grip with musicality - the most vague and insightful part of dancing.

There I discussed about musicality in dancing, how to define it, the theories involved in general, in zouk and in leading and following as well as what musicality means to me.

From theory to practice - how can you improve your musicality? 

“And if the music's good, you dance."
- Unknown

See my zouk music playlists

Perhaps you've taken a musicality workshop with your dance teacher or at a congress, and you have already an idea how to work on your musicality (I fully recommend taking workshops and private classes!). But there's plenty of exercises you can do on your own, and this will allow really to dig into details and work at your own pace. Below a collection of exercises that will flex your musical muscles! I hope you'll find these tools useful - I've worked with a variation and combination of these over the years and I feel they've helped me.

NB: If you're worried about wearing out your favourite song in the exercises below then by all means pick song that is not your most loved tune. I wouldn't worry though; the song may wear out for a while as you do this, but you will get more kick out the exercises with a song you really enjoy and will probably in the end love it even more. And after intensive listening sessions you can take a little break from that song and it'll be sure to regain its power.

Ok, lets get to work!!

1. Listen (over and over again)! Distinguish the different elements in music.

The key in developing musicality lies in the music. Before anything else you need to learn to recognize the key elements and how each song progresses. Pay attention to:

  • Pace; Is the pace constant? Is it fast, slow or medium?
  • Rhythm; How is the rhythm structured?
  • Instruments; You don't need to be a musician to be a musical dancer but it helps you to understand more about musicality when you can distinguish the instruments. Listen to recognise the main instruments in the song (various drums, guitar, bass, piano, flute...). How does the use of the instruments vary?
  • Melody; How does the melody fluctuate in the song? What patterns in the melody you may find at different parts of the song?
  • Volume; Does the volume build or drop at any point?
  • Breaks; When do you hear breaks or pauses? Are there any discernable patterns or melody changes that lead up to or follow the break?
  • Mood; Is there a particular mood in the song and does this change?
  • Lyrics; Can you pick up the lyrics? If you don't understand them, can you find out what they mean? 

Find a song you like and let it play - just take it in. Then look again at the list above and pick out the key elements to you and that best apply to the song (all of them if possible). Play the song again, but listen only one element or instrument at a time. Try to block out all the others. For example, first take the melody. Listen the song from start to end only focusing on that. How is the melody in the song? Does it change or stay the same? Can you find any patterns in the changes? What are the key moments you'd pick out in the melody? Then take another element and play the song again from start to finish, only focusing on that single element or instrument.

Repeat this exercise for every key element in the song. You'll end up listening the song 10-30 times, depending on the complexity of the song. Take a break and think about what new you found out in the song, what are your favourite points and what are the most important elements in different parts of the song. Return to the song later that day or perhaps another day and play the song again, taking it all in, not focusing on anything specific. You should be able to hear all the elements and instruments more precisely, both individually and the tune as a whole.

If this is too intensive workout for your musical brain then try this optional way to deconstruct the song more casually, as Don Baarns instructs: "Sometimes it's fine not to focus on anything specific during some of the listenings, instead letting it wash over your brain without worrying about the details. I let it play in the background while thinking about other things. The idea is to go back and forth between picking out specifics and occasionally just taking it all in as one complete work."

Let the music wash over your body.

What type of musical elements would go along these move?

2. Improvise!

When improvising, you are forced to spontaneously pick up on musical elements and interpret them, and this can help you unlock your own intuitive approach to music. Us social dancers are used to improvising, that's what you're always doing in socials and parties - and surely a night out dancing is a good exercise on musicality on its own. But to really get the musical juices flowing try improvising by yourself!

Pick a song of your dance style and play it on repeat; spontaneously improvise a dance to that song. Try to pick the key breaks, melody changes, high and low points, the various instrumental key moments or lyrics - and use moves that you naturally feel accents these points the best. You can try this in front of the mirror but to really let you focus on the music don't look at the mirror - in stead film yourself improvising. Do this a couple times in a row.

Now watch the videos; Do you think your dancing went well with the music? What were the best, the most musical parts? Can you think of what it is especially that you liked the best? What did you do the same and what differently on each try? How could you improve? For the camera shy dancers I can say that even without filming your improvisation it is an extremely good exercise, go for it!

On the dance floor you're always improvising - but you can practice it too (practice makes perfect)!

See here how differently each couple is improvising at one particular moment in a party in Santa Susana.

3. Match the elements in music with dance moves.

In the first exercise you've been taking in one song and separated the different musical elements. Now try to think of how you can use the elements of the music in your dance, with the set of dance moves you know (of any dance style). If you already improvised to a piece of music (second exercise) you may already have bit of a feeling of what moves you'd naturally attach to the musical elements - this will give you a head start in the following work out. You can do the following alone or with a partner.

Take a song - possibly the one you've listened to, broken down and improvised to earlier. Think of moves and ways to move that best fit the particular elements of the music. For example, thinking about the pace, if the music is slow, you could dance in slower motions. If the music is loud you can make bigger movements, and so on. Do this with all the elements; think of a move that accents a sudden rise in the melody (a subtle lift maybe or if alone, rise on your toes or look up), a break (chicote, cambré, a simple stop), repetitive lyrics or change in tempo (stepping forward/backward at that tempo)... As before, use a video camera to view results and get ideas how to improve.

There are infinite opportunities to use the music when you dig deep into it and the moves you know. Remember you can modify the tempo or direction of the moves.Think outside of the box! Advanced dancers can think of different ways to move - how to place your your arm or your step, for example softly, sharply, pointing your toes or your heel first; touching the ground only gradually or all at once...

Preferably do this outside the dance floor; at social dancing events, like zouk parties you need to focus on your partner, the space around you, the other dancers... Especially if you're relatively new to dancing, you have many other things going through your mind and you will not be able to focus enough on the exercise.

Bonecas and spins are typical zouk moves. What musical elements you feel best work with them?

And how can you modify the moves to different musical elements?

4. Connect emotionally.

Music is a great way to channel your emotions - that's perhaps the one reason why music is so powerful to us! A song always a certain feel to it. And beyond the feel or mood of the notes there is the emotional connection you may have with that song. When you hear a song you love you can almost travel into the music and let it envelop you. Use your emotions, the mood of the song, its dynamics and let your feelings be reflected in your movements. Channel the energy of the song and pass it on. The most musical dancers are great in mirroring and interpreting the moods and emotions of the music in their dance.

Take a song that awakes a particular emotion in you - joy, longing, love, hate... Like in the improvisation part, find a private place and play the song very loud and just dance! Don't think how to specifically connect the moves with the music. Don't think at all. Just take the music in and let go! Express the emotions in the music with your dance. After the dance reflect - did you manage to let go or was something holding you back? How was your dance different from normal?

Music awakens many emotions in us! What is the emotion that drives you to dance?

5. Identify key styles - and learn new ones.

A great dancer is familiar with the different styles of music and how they relate to different styles of dance. It is not important in my opinion because a person would have to dance in a specific way to specific type of music - an exceptional dancer can incorporate any type of music to dance in his or her own style. However, understanding the different styles of dance and their music styles goes a long way to increase your musicality - as well as your dance repertoire!

In zouk there are many "sub styles". The main two derivations are lambazouk or zouk-lambada that has a faster tempo, the dance usually includes more spins and is danced more upright; and Rio style which is typically slower, more dramatic or romantic and where the body is tilted more often to the side. Other styles include VeroZouk, Mzouk, NeoZouk SoulZouk and FlowZouk, to name of few of the current names of derivations floating around.

To dance zouk you basically need to know only one zouk style. Then you can dance with any other zouk dancer, no matter where or from whom they have learned. That's the basic idea. But knowing more than one style will open up a new chest of zouk moves to use in you dance, ways to accent the zouk music and new songs that can inspire you - these are key in developing your musicality.

Obviously this applies to styles beyond zouk and beyond your own! Especially dance styles that use the same music - for example if you dance VeroZouk style you may get great musicality ideas from hiphop/street dance styles. This will help build your musical muscles!

Step out of your comfort zone and visit a new dance class at your local dance school. Perhaps your dance teacher can even recommend a style that will complement yours (or theirs)! Think of this as a long term project on your musicality (as well as dance) - you may not see results in your musicality after one session but in the long run you will get more and more creative!

Different styles of zouk dance share the same moves.

How do you adapt the move to fit the music - how you use your musicality in this move?

6. Watch and learn: pay attention to social dancing and choreographies.

Seeing others dance in the parties or while performing demos and choreographies is a great way to pick up new musical cues. I - like many other zouk dancers - love demos: they really capture the on-the-spot, improvised dancing. And this at it is best is what musicality is all about.

I always recommended seeing dancing live - there's nothing like it. But there's a certain benefit also to watching videos; you'll be able to really pay attention to each move (nowadays the videos are so high quality that it's almost like being there). You can pick a certain artist you like, watch them dance socially or see them perform. You can even just look for choreographies that are made to your favourite song (irrespective of the dance style use). Whether at a live dance event or in the video, pay attention to the musical elements the dancers highlight. What moves are used for different types of elements? How is the styling used to accent the music? How are music's mood and emotions shown in the dance?

Zouk shows - all about making an impression and bringing the best out of the music.


Zouk musicality demos

For inspiration below is a playlist of zouk demos on the theme musicality. Which of the demo videos you feel best represent musicality?

What is musicality to you?

How important is musicality to you in dancing?
Have you ever worked on improving your musicality? How?
Did you try some of the exercises above? How did you they work for you?

Tell us in the comments!



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