Musicality is a term bandied around a lot in the industry, and for every dancer as you progress and hone your skill, you realise that technique is a beginning, not an end. But what exactly is musicality and how can we tap into it? In a nutshell it comes down to how we interpret what we are hearing. Dance is almost like a physical reflection of the piece we can hear. So ask yourself: If this piece of music were to be viewed as movement, what would it look like? With this in mind, let’s delve a little bit deeper into this. Here I’m going to be talking about the two things you need to know.
- What musicality is, and
- How we access it.
So Exactly What Is Musicality In Dance?
Watching a dancer without musicality is a bit like watching paint dry. Chances are if you’ve seen a performance like this you’ll remember it (perhaps by the sense of boredom you felt.) In this case a person purely dances the steps. This is more often the case as we are learning our skill and still learning to sit into the musicality of things, than with a fully fledged pro. This is simply because, the likelihood is that you won’t get hired without musicality. It’s that important. It separates the pro from the amateur. Interestingly, you can get hired without the best technique. In fact, some of the greatest names in history were not fantastic technicians eg Margot Fonteyn. However, they were great because of their musicality and their artistry. So it’s pretty important. With this in mind, (they say knowledge is power) it is something that anyone who wants to improve and become proficient will want to grab onto with both hands.
So first things first, let’s break it down: in terms of specifics, what is musicality?
Put simply, musicality is the ability to differentiate a musical phrase, or note and actually interpret the emotion and feeling behind the piece. It’s a bit like a conversation. In a conversation, there is back and forth, it journeys somewhere. There is also different dynamics (louds and softs) depending on what’s being said. This can translate into dance, by thinking about whether something is sharp or soft, smooth or staccato.
How Is Musicality Executed?
The key thing to remember here is musicality is fundamentally the ability to think about and actively make CHOICES depending on what is being conveyed. And it is for this reason that choreographers may be quite particular about how a move is executed–because it is their interpretation– it SAYS something. The flip side of this is there will also be times when you will be asked to call on your own musicality (particularly in class or if some new choreography is being workshopped) because people want to see your interpretation and what choices YOU make. This is a great way to improve your musicality. So now I’ve answered the question, ‘what is musicality in dance?’ let’s take a look at how you can practise.
Think Big Or Small.
It’s important to think about how big or small you can make a move. The same move can come across very differently depending on the size of it, in connection with what is happening musically.
Again it very much comes back to intent, what the music’s doing or what is being said. It’s also important to think about what you want to make sharp, and what you want to make fluid. You might also want to bear in mind that you don’t necessarily want to start too big, but somewhere in the middle–otherwise you’ve got nothing to build to!
Not every second of the music has to be filled. Some of the most powerful moments are the moments of complete stillness. In fact, it is these moments which give the movement its significance. Just like a conversation can contain pauses, so too will your choreography. Play around with moments of suspension and stillness.
Be Specific: What’s The Story?
If you’re still struggling to tap into your musicality, rather than asking ‘what is musicality in dance?’ the best question you can probably ask yourself is: what is the story behind this? What am I trying to tell? It’s no coincidence that almost all dance takes place in the setting of a story (musicals clearly have a plot as the backbone, ballets are generally based on a fairy tale narrative. Even contemporary companies, which generally can be considered more abstract, will generally have an emotion or concept underpinning the performance.) so always always, think story first. Story is essentially what takes dance from set movement to a place of power. By adding story, our movement is given the ability to move people.
So we know story is a great place to start. However, if that seems a bit overwhelming, another avenue in is to focus on the emotion.
What is the basic feeling behind this music? Is it happy? Sad? Longing? Cheeky? This will tell you a lot. Once you get used to this, you can then focus on the nuances within the piece.
Look To The Band
Another thing to look for is key emphasis in the music, or particular instruments– does the drum hit a particular accent? Does the piano do something you can pick out and accentuate with your body? Look for these cues, they’re gold dust!
Don’t Let The Audience Say ‘Cheer Up Love, It Might Never Happen.’
Why? You never notice it until you see a dancer not use their face whilst dancing. It can deaden a performance quicker than saying presto. So consider the words and what your body is doing and make sure you are communicating with your face too. It can be anything from a smile, to a raised eyebrow. Your eye line also plays a part too.
To see these in action, check out the video below. Notice when they make things sharp and when they’re smooth. What’s big and what’s small. Also note how particular movements match what’s being said, and also how they bring emotions into it (there’s a playful moment where he taps her on the shoulder and then she looks over at him.) There’s also a story element as she disappears and comes back into the shot, mirroring the song:
Building The Skill.
Some people think that musicality can’t be taught, but whether that’s true or false it absolutely can be cultivated. So now we now the rudiments, how do we build on this?
Musicality is one of the main reasons why I tend to drill steps to get them into the body. It is near impossible to execute musicality, if you’re thinking constantly about what is coming next.
It’s also why it’s better to make these choices earlier whilst you’re learning the choreo (for example in an audition situation) so you can get them into your muscle memory. It’s also good to practise performing facially from as early on as possible and really making it part of the choreography.
Another great exercise, is to take a short line or phrase of choreography, set it to music and then dance it in different ways. What happens if you make it sharp? Now feel what it feels like to dance it smoothly. Play around with the timing, draw out certain steps. Then try making some moves faster. It doesn’t matter if the rhythm changes or the length of the phrase– the key thing here is to get you tapping into that intuitive sense of what feels good and experimenting with making different choices.
Another suggestion would be to put a piece of music on and improvise. I know this can seem scary at first but it doesn’t necessarily have to be big, it can be something as simple as moving a hand. It’s about finding a way to creatively mirror what the music is doing.
So there you have it! I’ve included a checklist below of the key things I’ve talked about so feel free to check it out. And as always if you have any questions drop me a comment. Or even if you want to just share your experiences, I’d love to hear how you’re getting on!
— Map out where you want the piece to go. What emotions does it go through? When do you want the piece to build? (Don’t peak at the start– remember like a book it needs somewhere to go.)
— Think about rhythms in the music. What needs to be sharp and what needs to be soft? What needs to be big, and what do you need to pull back on and make smaller? Don’t forget to also think about moments of stillness.
— What’s the story? (where applicable.)
— What moments do you want to accent? Is there percussive or instrumental moments in the music you can accentuate?
— Drill the choreography so you can focus on expression. And get your artistic choices into your muscle memory as soon as possible.
— Don’t forget to communicate with your face 😉 Let it become part of the choreography.
To finish, I’m going to leave you with one of my favourite clips. It’s from White Christmas and has musicality in spades! Check it out: