I’ve heard many great instructors say, “We don’t dance steps, we dance rhythms.” I appreciate that as a musician and a teacher. I’ve been mulling over the concept of dancing rhythms as I practice, and thinking about musicality. I’ve heard a lot of amorphous explanations of musicality over my years as a dancer and student. What does it mean to express the music? To dance a line or the melody? When we say, “we dance rhythms,” what rhythms are we talking about. I, myself, have been guilty of these broad sweeping statements, but grandiose ideas without any sort of practical grounding leave students confused and never really help their dancing. So I’ve taken my experience as a musician and dancer, and tried to connect them.
The most central instrument in the rhythm section of a jazz band isn’t the drums. I know this might seem odd and shocking to many, but for me the key is the bass. A strong bass player is setting the pulse for the entire band. The bass is also the link between the drums and the melodic instruments, tuned in to all of the changes and to the rhythms on the drum. When I’ve got a bass player holding down a steady pulse, there is a certain freedom for all of the other musicians. As dancers, the pulse of our body, the steady bounce, mimics the role of the bass. That pulse is the core of dancing rhythms, establishing the beat and communicating/sharing that beat with our partner. I realize that I neglect to mention that a solid rhythm guitar can often reinforce the bass. For me though, it doesn’t replace the bass because the mid frequencies of the guitar are often covered other instruments where as the low frequencies of the bass stand alone.
Next, as a dancer, I think about the drums. The drums fill out the rhythm. Think of a hi-hat swingin’ with a “Chi-ChuChi” in that slow-quick-quick pattern that matches the basic triple step rhythm. Our feet are like the percussion section. Tap-dancers have a deep understanding of this. I’ve talked with a good friend of mine, Andrew Nemr, about this often. He says that taps have many different tones, hi, low, mid, muffled, sharp, etc. A tap dancer is using all these different tones to create the rhythm, sometimes to even imitate or create a melody. If you watch this clip of Andrew dancing with pianist, Gordon Webster, you might hear what he’s talking about.
For us as swing dancers, I find that thinking about my feet and footwork as an expression of drum rhythms helps me dance rhythms instead of steps, and pushes my feet outside the safety of triple-steps to add more interesting syncopations.
Lastly, there’s the keys. Well, sometimes its the piano. In a big band, it might be the horn section. The keys or horns are the accents, the hits, the pops. While I can dance the bass part through my pulse and the drums through my footwork all by myself, I need a partner to capture the rhythm of these hits. Through those points of stretch where my partner and I bounce off our point of furthest connection rebounding towards each other or move into compression bouncing away from each other, I begin to feel those accents, hits and pops. There’s a rhythm to every move in the feelings of stretch, absorbing of momentum, the point where the tension releases that punctuates the rhythm just like the keys and the horns. When I get all of that going in my body in alignment with both my partner and the music, that’s when amazing things start happening on the dance floor.
One last note about musicality: Dancing these rhythms doesn’t mean duplicating what the band is doing with a 1:1 correlation. Good and musical dancers can add to the music or subtract from it. Being musical is about being in synergy with the band. And I’ve heard lots of appreciation from dancers/bloggers when bands “listen” to the dancers and respond in their music. After years of dancing, I don’t often think about steps or moves. I just hear music in my head that comes out in my body.