The Importance of Musicality
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On this week’s episode of Making the Impact, Courtney and Lesley are joined by IDA judges and teachers Christina Yoder and Tommy Scrivens to talk about the ever-important topic of musicality, or a dancer’s ability to connect with their music.
To get started, it’s helpful to define what musicality means to the judges. Tommy describes musicality as how students take in what they’re listening to and how they interpret what they’re hearing, while Christina adds that musicality helps the audience to understand our dance language; it gives dance pieces peaks and valleys, and ebbs and flows.
Tommy notes that in tap dance, it’s a duet between the steps and the music which have to meet with tone and shade. Christina agrees, explaining that tap dancers are musicians and should be adding something that’s not there, versus competing with the existing sounds. But this is true in any style! How can you better tie your movement to the music and create rhythms visibly in your body?
While our minds might go straight to tap when we think of musicality, it’s critical in all styles and the judges agree that ballet classes are a crucial step forward in teaching and honing musicality. From our first plié, ballet teaches us to count our music, especially at the barre. We come to understand how long a demi or grande plié takes, if a tendu happens in two counts or one, and the crisp, quick action of a degagé. Ballet barre is often the literal first step in dancers beginning to understand musicality.
However, judges note that this clarity from ballet often doesn’t translate into contemporary or lyrical. Part of the problem could be that many dancers are no longer taking full ballet classes and are subbing out these traditional approaches with new “technique” or “leaps and turns” classes, which are doing them a huge disservice across the board.
Another reason for the disconnect could be that many young dancers prefer to pay attention to the lyrics of a song and not the counts, but as Tommy explains, lyrics still have rhythms and words have beats, so if you’re listening to the lyrics instead of counting, you still should be counting and need to pay attention to the rhythm and timing of the words. Judges agree that dancers and teachers should focus on connecting to lyrics AND counting their music, especially given that everyone has a different learning style and both of these skills are important.
But before we even get to understanding what a tendu really is, most dancers are exposed to musicality in baby ballet and tap/jazz combo classes, whether the dancers are told to clap, stomp, or skip on the beat of the music. Music classes in schools also used to be a great place for children to gain exposure to how to count music through activities like bouncing a ball on the beat of the music. Unfortunately, lots of music programs in public schools have been cut due to decreased funding and an increased focus on test scores, and if they do have a class, Christina mentions that there is a lot of video viewing as opposed to hands on activities. Given these shifts, it’s more important than ever for dance teachers in studios to take it upon themselves to teach musicality to their students. School teachers are bound by state-wide curricula, while dance teachers in the private sector have more freedom to design lessons that best suit their students.
So how might dance teachers go about teaching musicality? Christina likes to play a game called “find the one,” where she will shuffle up her evolving playlist of complex songs and ask dancers to perform an action on the "one" count; they might jump, stomp, clap, etc. She continues to add songs with tricky time signatures to this playlist to keep the dancers on their toes. Another strategy is to put on a song and ask the dancers to count it. Start simple with an eight count and then evolve into a three or six, and eventually a dreaded seven, five, or twelve. It’s crucial for dancers to be able to count and understand music in any time signature, especially if they plan on pursuing a professional career—and with practice, those uncommon time signatures will no longer fall into a category of dread!
Remember that if you can’t find the "one" count, neither can the judges, so it’s going to be really hard for them to offer helpful feedback around your rhythm and timing in any style! Keep practicing how you listen and respond to different genres of music, and teachers, keep encouraging your students to diversify their musical palettes!