When I first visited Cuba back in 1985, I remember feeling so unmusical in comparison with Cuban dancers. I couldn't follow their music or even count it, everything felt so distant, unknown, scary in a way. My fears and doubts paralysed me. Being an observer rather than joining in and participating, I played a safe game – learn first and then maybe... Over the following decades the situation improved, I started to participate, allowing music and dance to became my lived experience. It was my self-inclusion which made it happen.
Your musicality is your sensitivity to music and your own state of being musical. It refers to how you perceive specific qualities in music, such as rhythm, melody and harmony, pitch, dynamic and sound colour. When you perceive just the overall sound, you miss the details. The beginning of your musicality in dancing is your awareness, your ability to intentionally direct your focus and look for nuances, rather than averaging out. And most important, observing how that makes you feel and respond.
Musicality seems a gift, but it is not, it's just your lived experience. A true artist would know that to perform with great musicality requires most of all a lot of studying and experimenting. To create a dialogue with the music, your mind, senses and the body have to be trained in a way so that your body can respond without delay to what you are hearing.
Take and give back
In Western world we take music as an inspiration, it is the music which gives us a particular feeling, it guides us and creates an atmosphere for us. The question here is whether we give back to music. If you want to be seen as a musical dancer, you have to answer back, express an emotional meaning of the dialogue.
Your musicality is a subjective quality which has a visual component. It refers to how the music is felt and expressed by you through actions, dynamics and moods. You make music visible. The viewer can hear the music and at the same time see your dance expression. In order to move the audience, the two have to connect and make sense.
Benny Tolmeyer and Sylvia Sylve
Merce Cunningham wrote: “Necessary for the dance is to stand on its own legs rather than on the music and the two arts could exist together, using the same amount of time, each in its own way – one for the eye and the kinesthetic sense, the other for the ear.”
It is easy to learn or to teach how to follow the music and to time actions and movements to fit in. We invented the counting with numbers, expressions like 'slow' and 'quick', all with the sole purpose to dance with the music in time. But this is only the beginning, probably necessary for our 'intellect control' addiction.
Being a musical dancer is a two-way street, you give meaning to the music as well. You can always participate actively in the movement and music dialogue, rather than being just a follower. Start with voicing your movements, sing them, fill them up with the sound, desired time, shape and energy.
In previous articles I explained how you can relate your movement manner and your decisions regarding movement dynamics with rhythm, melody and harmony. I hope that they helped you see in how many ways your movements and music can relate. You have to decide to which aspect of music your movement is referred to. Or what if your movement is supposed to be in contrast with the music? Can you say 'no' to the music at times and with your disagreement insert a new meaning?
Mind you, your ability to be musical is often diminished because of technical problems (balance, tension, mechanics of movement, coordination), partnering/connection problems and other obstacles during the performance.
A dancer's musicality cannot compensate for limited quality of movement, and vice versa, a highly developed correctness in the technical sense in not necessarily musical. Too spontaneous can appear messy and too technically correct can be felt dry, over mechanical, kind of artificial. Find the balance and take occasional risks. You cannot be completely effective without technical skill, but correctness for its own sake is not necessarily effective either.
Distinction between reality and real
As a young dance teacher I was constantly counting steps, making choreography with exactly prescribed timing, especially in Paso Doble where we aim that the timing of the choreography fits the timing of the music. When dancers danced my prescribed timings with the music, it suddenly didn't work together. They timed their movements differently. My suggested timing didn't fit their feeling. I started to understand that there are two kinds of time - external timing of the movement connected with the timing in the music and internal time that the dancer feels within.
In order to protect the dancer's inborn, individually experienced, internal sense of time, I had to reverse the process. First I let dancers to time their movements, using their own sense for movement duration, changes, sudden and sustained attitude to time and after, upon recognising their perception of time, I re-defined the timing of their choreography.
To understand the difference between external timing and internal perception of time, the distinction between reality and the real might be helpful. According to Jacques Lacan 'reality' is external, your social and material space to which you are used and within which you are able to orient yourself and interact with others. Music time and movement timing belong to external reality.
The 'real' is a ghostly entity, invisible and for that reason appearing as all-powerful. Your internal perception of time is real and when it becomes a part of your reality, when you express it, its power is localised, it becomes visible to others.
As long as the transposition of your inner sense of time of the movement into reality cannot take place, you will feel trapped. Acting out or pretending will not make it, quite the opposite, it will make you feel fake and anxious. It is because there is no flow between your internal perception of time, your ‘real’ time and external reality (music and standardised timing of dance movements).
You have to find strength to pull it out and trust your unique sense for time as it defines your musicality. Keep your perceptive channels open and let the flow circulate. Is it your inner peace that helps, the state of feeling relaxed and free. Trust your intuition and instinct rather than always relaying on intellect.
Your musicality depends on many factors – DNA, trust into your tacit knowledge, environment, culture, experience... The proportion between your inherited predispositions and your lived experience in company with music will probably remain unknown, but actions taken to improve your musicality can be rewarding. Listen attentively to various kinds of music and observe your reactions – how do you feel, breathe, does it excite you or calm you down. Is it triggering an idea? How would you answer to it?
You don't need to accept the role of interpreting music or translating it for others as it talks for itself anyway. Your musical expression adds to music and movement a unique dimension which arises from you. It is your gift to the music and dance.