~ Written by Danielle Lee-Hogervorst, Outreach Coordinator at Ballegro Player, Dancer at Arts Umbrella’s Graduate Program.
Musicality is a hot topic within every studio practice and rehearsal. Why? Because it is the essence of all movement. It is always present, whether you are listening to the actual progression of notes or the spaces and silences in between.
As I began brainstorming for this post, I ended up asking myself the reverse question: What is dance without musicality? The answer I came up with: Nothing. You can choose to dance in all one, legato quality, but this is still a choice and is still a form of being musical. You can choose to dance in silence, but this only heightens the importance of creating musicality inside of your body. You can be still, but even when you are not moving in space there is a buzzing within you, whether it’s an emotion, sensation, thought, or experience. So that is why musicality is important; because even when it is not obviously there, it still exists!
Music is energy.
As dancers, we are often being asked, “Are you listening to the music?” and “How is the music informing your movement choices?”. The music is more than a beat or metronome. It saddened me to hear, when having a discussion with Yawen, the founder of Ballegro, that she often feels that when she accompanies for ballet classes, dancers hear the music as a background soundtrack. If we can tune in (no pun intended) to the musical aspect of dancing, this will make our dancing more exciting for us to explore, and more engaging for the viewer as well!
Music is energy. Music is movement. It is movement of sound and vibration, which physically exists in the space. You would know that this is true if you have ever been in direct contact with the ground near a loud speaker with your bare feet, or stood near a big drum being played. You can physically feel the radiating vibrations! This is precisely why it is always easier for singers to sing in tune with an acoustic piano as opposed to an electronic piano, and why acoustic instruments (as opposed to synthesizers) seem to have more impact on movers. When we learn to move with that unseen energy - that groove - it assists with our own movement. Here is a little experiment: in your fitness class at the gym, try to move WITH the music and to move AGAINST the music; and try to lift some weights when you sync to the rhythm versus to not use music at all. The result is obvious. The moment we learn to utilize music to help with our movement, a feeling of effortlessness becomes present, and we feel that we are doing nothing more than riding on top of the musical waves, allowing the music carries us through it all! Movement is kinesthetic music. Music is sonic movement. They are but the two sides of the same coin.
Musicality helps movement.
In ballet class, teachers have brought up the idea of how each exercise should spark something different in you. How you execute a Plies exercise is different from Frappes, Grand Battement, Adage, and Pirouettes. The qualities between exercises may be similar, but there is always an aspect that differentiates them; the way you use a Plie differs when it is a part of your Warm-Up exercise, a Pirouette, or for Grand Allegro. Musicality helps movement. It helps the dancer facilitate and access movement in a fresh way. It adds an additional language for you to enrich and incorporate into your vocabulary. It helps you find your own phrasing and dynamics within the context of the choreography. AND, when you are feeling uninspired or in a rut, it can help rekindle your joy and excitement to move!
Seeing the bigger picture.
Especially in ballet class, I often find myself getting caught up in all of the little things I am not doing and am wanting to do. Thinking about the musicality of the movement allows me to switch my mindset from a ‘nit-picky’ one, to one where I am envisioning the overarching melody of the music. This translates directly to the melody of the movement and creates the space for adding breaths, pauses, and exclamation points when needed! When I really hear and indulge in the music, it seeps into my body and I find I am having a unified and full-body experience! I am able to connect my focus to my movement, find the oppositional length in my torso, feel my legs drilling into the floor, and activate my pelvis - all by ‘just’ thinking about my relationship with the music! How does this work? I believe it has to do with our ability to make decisions based off of the musicality of the movement as well as the song the accompanist has provided.
Music is directly related to making clear decisions.
This brings me to my next points: music is directly related to making clear decisions. I have recently discovered this for myself as I have been investigating this question in my everyday ballet class. The times when I am able to really listen to the music and indulge in the musicality are the times when I have really figured out what the exercise is: the sequence, the coordinations and relationships of my entire body, and its purpose. Knowing these things allows me to take this next step of being musical.
As I am making decisions of what positions I want to hold longer and which I want to reach quicker, I have found that I have not only become more consistent and able to execute the difficult technical steps, but I have also become more engaged with the exciting task at hand! Playing with the musicality has almost turned into a game I play between the ideas I want to investigate, my bodies ability to translate these into movement, and the music being provided by the accompanist. And all of this is accomplished as a result of the informed choices I am able to make.
Finding internal musicality.
This is a big topic in the studio; identifying how the music can be something that initiates what you are doing, instead of something that is added on top of the pre-existing steps. Even if the choreography is created without the music that will be used, there is always a musical intention. Accessing music from within makes the dynamics and rhythms of the movement come from a much more authentic place. For me, this allows me to access more movement in my back/upper body, as opposed to getting stuck in trying to find more turnout or a higher arabesque.
Finding a deep connection to the music can also help access these technical things that we, as perfectionists, are always craving more of. Music helps us indulge and find the juiciness and fullness in our movement. If this is the case, I don’t see why this can’t help us reach a deeper Plié or a longer balance. We can use our internal musicality to test our limits by being playful with it.
Being musical creates dynamics, and being dynamic informs your technique.
As I discussed above, I believe being musical deepens your understanding and connection to technique. For example, part of the technique of a Frappé is a quick striking action, followed by an energetic hold. By understanding this, and by striving for this dynamic attention to detail, you will also access a more technical Frappé! In turn, the most suitable music to accompany Frappés is one with sharp, precise and brisk articulation. Same with Pirouettes; these are often done to a 3/4 Waltz or a 2/4 Tango. A typical 3/4 Waltz groove is that of the “Strong - Weak - Weak” pattern. Utilizing the “sub-beats” in a rhythmic groove can be a magical shortcut to accomplishing your triple (or quadruple!) Pirouettes. For example, by spotting your head on the 3 sub-beats of a Waltz, you will likely have a more dynamic and successful Pirouette! Moreover, when you understand the inherent groove associated with the rhythms in the music, it is much more likely for you to have a successful Pirouette if you: 1) don’t sit too long in your preparatory Plié, 2) have a quick rebound from you Plié into Passé position 3) sustain this position throughout the turn, and 4) anticipate the suspension and control as you end it. Thus, in order to best execute your Pirouettes, or any technical movement, it is necessary to tap into the musical aspects of the technique.
The music we listen to feeds us. It affects us whether we know it or not. It can be driving, soothing, melodious, expansive, melancholy or upbeat, allowing us to access different dynamics and qualities. If we are really lucky, we have access to music that will enhance our experience of the movements and even push us to reach new territories we haven’t yet explored. When feeling stuck, uninspired, or out of energy, music can act as a useful hook to pull us out of our rut. It is a fresh way to inspire and ignite us and allow us to really indulge in our movement fantasies!