A few weeks ago I had the privilege to listen to Mr. Ashley Frohlick's lecture about Paso Doble music. He opened many horizons and a new awareness regarding the phrasing, rhythmical structure, melody and countermelody, harmony, instrumentation and atmosphere of this unique dance. When he was asked how he, the conductor of The Empress Orchestra and composer, sees the dancers performing to his Paso Doble music, he answered: "I wish I would see less terror."
Does this answer make you think? Should Paso Doble really imitate an aggressive bullfight - or should there be room for a less pretentious, more personal interpretation of what used to be a determined yet composed ballroom dance?
It definitely made me investigate my own believes and here are some trigger warnings to enable you making your own decisions regarding the character and most of all your interpretation of this dance.
Playing a role and acting out the atmosphere
Many believe that this is a "male" dance. The man is supposed to symbolise the torero and the woman changes her role from Spanish señorita to muleta or capote. Therefore, dancers can be easily objectified, degraded to the status of a mere object.
Is this dance about anger and aggression? It appears many competitors see it like that. Well, toreros (bullfighters) definitely don't feel or act that way. Quite the opposite; they are humble, attentive, present, elegant, they look like good dancers, totally involved with the task and the ritual. Before the start of the corrida (bullfight) toreros would pray in the chapel behind the arena. They are scared to die. After the performance, if successful, they might appear proud and confident. Therefore, the best bullfighters of the past have been honoured with pasodoble tunes named after them.
Toreros don't call themselves matadors as 'matar' in Spanish language means 'to kill'. But in fact, they are killing bulls as Cubans are killing goats and chicken during their religious rituals, the chicken or cow you had on the plate was killed and every war is about killing innocent people...
Dance can symbolise the fight for survival or death. Fictional supplements are a necessity in everything what you do. If you take away the fiction, you may loose reality itself. You might experience the reality as magical fiction. The question to be asked is what kind of fiction you have or want. Strolling through the history, music and technical specifics of this dance might offer you some support.
A bit of history
Paso Doble music was being written as early as the 1780s. It originates from Southern France, where its march-like steps were used in the military, called "Paso Redoble". The steps travelled to Spain easily, because of its close proximity. At the beginning of the 19th century, the "Paso Doble" was already played during the bullfighter’s entrance into the bullring/arena.
Music and dance have both Spanish and French characteristics. The steps often contain French terms (Huit, La Passe, Coup de Pique), but the dance resembled the nature of Spanish national dances (Sevillanas, Farruca, Flamenco) and romanticised techniques used in bullfighting, mostly the relation between a torero and a muleta.
The Spanish composer Pascual Marquina Narro’s 1923 composition "España Cañi", meaning "Spanish Gypsy", a song with 2/4 marching rhythm is still one of the most popular tunes today. Most choreographies are created following the phrasing of this song. Unfortunately, there are many other tunes with different phrasing that require your skill of adaptation and/or improvisation. The musicians always test a dancer's artistry and ability to respond to the music.
Paso Doble was very popular on the Continent after the first World War, it was presented as a competitive dance at the World Championship in 1920 in Paris. Monsieur Pierre and Doris Lavelle introduced the Paso Doble in England. Later on, experts like Walter Laird and Lorraine, John and Christie Delroy added new flavours and choreographic upgrades to the dance.
Paso Doble music is in the first place joyful, festive and as stimulating as "march" music could be. There is an ever present buzz of excitement which starts far before corrida for the purpose of anticipation. Melody then sets you up to what is coming. Rhythm plays with two beats in the bar in various ways of dividing beats in half, quarter or triplet. Very strong accent after every 4th (4+) beat creates a dramatic feeling. Rhythms change with instrumentation, providing the sense of pick up or lead in towards a climax/highlight.
It would be easy for a dancer or choreographer if all music was written in 8 bar phrases. But it is not for a very simple reason, a musical phrase conveys a complete musical sense of its own, equivalent to the complete statement of a sentence in a language. There is a sense of question and answer, a vital communication among shorter or longer phrases. Therefore, the phrase can comprise any number of bars as long as it conveys a complete musical thought/idea. A phrase will end with a stronger or weaker cadence, the point of harmonic closing or pause.
Oftentimes, movement has its own phrasing in order to convey its complete sense, or its idea free of external influences. Be aware that a movement message can stand on its own feet. The beauty and power of phrasing is that it makes music and movement easier to perceive, for artists and audience, but on the other hand it can surprise and excite everybody involved.
Design and timing
This dance talks through shapes, timing and stillness. We can put Paso Doble dance figures in three categories:
1. Pasos (steps) – mostly from Sevillanas (Basic Movement, Sur Place, Chasses, Separation, Spanish Line, Flamenco Taps),
2. Faenas (tasks) – movements that imitate torero using muleta, capote, banderillas or sward (Huit, La Passe, Sixteen, Chasse Cape, Twists, Coup de Pique, Banderillas, Ferol, Fregolina),
3. Paseos (walks or promenades) – movements that give the dance the true flavour and place it in the category of Latin ballroom dances (March, Stalking Walks, Attack, Promenade Close, Deplacement, Promenade, Promenade to Counter Promenade, Fallaway Reverse, Telemark, Fallaway Whisk, Travelling Spins from PP and CPP).
All figures require distinguished posture, poise and shaping, inspired by the Spanish heritage of the dance. You can pay more attention to actions like arching, curving, inclining/swaying and twisting of the spine (upper, middle and lower). The dance can be flavoured by particular wrist, hand and finger articulation and some bravado gestures, incorporating clapping, high chin and alert nostrils. If torero is your role model, then observe his or her (as there are also many female bullfighters) movement poetry, control, steadying the rush, supervising the situation in a plastic, smooth, gentle, graceful, effortless and elegant way. They are not fighters, they are artists in the most tragic ballet ever staged.
Today's Paso Doble is danced in quite a square manner, frontal, attacking space and time forward, with the dancer's chin often kept down to the chest most of the time. It appears like being captured in meaningless gestures and positions. Far from Spanish and Gipsy shaping and sculpting specifics where the head often turns sideways, there is a shoulder lead, lots of twisting, arching and curving of the spine in order to convey indirect, provocative and mystic messages. From shape to shape with shape could be your motto.
With precise timing and interplay between bound and free energy and sudden and sustained movements you can create a dramatic and passionate atmosphere. Like in Tango, the silence talks and stillness is golden. Being still doesn't mean you do nothing, quite the opposite, your inner activity is preparing an outward burst. Don't count the silence, but live it.
Is your Paso Dable interpretation based on automatically borrowed and accepted beliefs? Double question yourself and try to elevate above mere storytelling as an endless quest and seeking might open new horizons.
As long as you and your partner are expected to play a role and act it out, neither of you can be free in expressing the real felt sense of the movement. Both of you can be treated and mistreated in hideous ways. Equality and freedom of expression cannot be compromised, they can only be understood and acknowledged in all aspects of life.
Paso Doble partnering is intense, harmonizing the beauty in line and timing with lots of contrast between surrendering and rejecting. When you react spontaneously, you will go your partner's way. If you respond to your partner, you will go your way. When you will respond consciously, you will recognise your life instinct rather than follow an artificial drive which could be dead from the very beginning.
Source of inspiration
'Flamenco Styling for the Latin - American (Exhibition) Dances' by Luis Arnold