Friday, September 14, 2007

Musicality: You Have It or You Don't?

Is musicality teachable to a dancer?

I'm in this discussion and one lady says, "I don't think you can teach musicality. It's an individual thing based on your personality, your partner, the music, the moment and more. There are too many factors involved and there are no rules, so I don't think so."

From her perspective, you either have it or you don't, and if you have it, you can't teach it to others. I disagree, although I share her observation that it's not a trivial task to teach, and I'll add that for some people, it's more effort than they want to invest in their dancing.

Assuming you want to be musical in your salsa dancing, what does it take? Awareness is the first step, and that includes learning some core concepts about the music.

Anybody can learn the core concepts, even if they don't fully master all of the details. You need to know the music, have reasonable control/dance experience, and be able to reflect the music in real time, including your partner in the process. Most people will take a while to mature into it because it requires a set of skills to come together.

Most people will NOT become world class just because they learn a few musical concepts. However, those that decide they want it can become dramatically better at it, especially as they become more and more aware of the different elements. Beginners rarely have all the skills, but that doesn't mean they can't be building awareness and putting a set of foundational pieces into play. Intermediate/advanced dancers will have a much shorter path since they have many of the body control pieces already in place.

Teaching dance musicality is similar to teaching someone to play jazz music, where improvisation is the cornerstone of the art. On one hand jazz appears to be somewhat random, but there are significant structures and foundations behind the scenes. You learn the overall structures, work through a set of exercises and concepts, learn from the masters before you, and with some effort and practice, you can dramatically improve. Over time you develop your own "voice", even though the foundation is similar for most people.

Many people won't put in the effort to learn all the components, and that's fine. Salsa dancing works for a wide set of people at many different levels and that's part of the beauty of the dance. Nobody has to do any of this for social dancing because it's not required to have a good time with your circle of friends/partners. A few people will pick up the musicality with little formal training, just like a few learn all social dancing without ever taking a class.

Most people grow faster with some assistance from those already down the road. The few people that decide they want to get to a different level will take the musicality seriously and will learn as much as possible from those who are already strong in that area. None of that negates your personality or the interplay, you simply have more tools to use as you grow your dancing.

Musicality awareness is a logical extension from the current state of the scene. Ignore it, embrace it--your choice. I suspect you'll see more people embracing it as it gains additional visibility over time. Dance continues to grow, mature and morph. Musicality is one more branch for people to explore, and it does set you apart when you become above average at it.

Check out the "Music4Dancers" series on YouTube if you want some foundational concept.

And be sure to leave your comments and feedback. I always enjoy hearing from you.
I wanted to make it really special on Valentine's Day, so I tied my boyfriend up. And for three solid hours I watched whatever I wanted to on TV.
-Tracy Smith


  1. Hey there Unlikely...

    You stated at the top that you thought musicality could be *taught*, but then you spent your whole blog entry talking about how it may be *learned*.

    You did mention that foundational concepts can be taught, and I don't think it would be reasonable to argue against that. But I'm not sure that foundational concepts = musicality. Maybe they're a prerequisite, but the musicality (imho) is the individual expression that gets layered on top of the foundational concepts. It's your own individual thing, the spice you add, and hence by definition I'd say not something you can be systematically taught to do.

    I do think you absorb principles of musicality from the people around you and incorporate them into your own dancing. They are not consciously teaching you, but you are learning from them.

    But consciously trying to teach someone musicality - e.g., "for a conga solo, use shine A... for a clave change, use styling element B..." well, I just don't think that's likely to produce the sort of individual expression that (imho) constitutes musicality.

    - noobster

    ps - cool blog, keep up the good work :)

  2. I think we are pretty close and your comments are appreciated.

    I agree I talk about learning musicality and there are core concepts that can dramatically accelerate the learning process. Those core concepts can be taught to anybody, although I agree that will NOT make you musical just because you have some head knowledge. The core musical concepts can make you MORE musical, and most people are much more musical when they are aware of music fundamentals. A minority of people will just feel it, but I believe even they would be even more musical with a greater depth of understanding.

    Learning and teaching are related, but I need to find a way to express the process in my articles. Since I've watched a large set of jazz musicians go through the process, and improvisation/musicality is the name of the game, I see major parallels in the dance world.

    I like your comments because you make me think!

  3. Hey Don! Great article. Really enjoyed it. I agree with you. I think musicality can be taught. One of the defining moments in my salsa career still stands out crystal clear to me. It was when I took Edie's musicality class with Al long time ago. That one class made a lasting impression and helped shift my awareness to understand more what happens in the music especially from a dancers perspective. Not only did that class help me become more aware of how I can become a more musical salsa dancer, but ever since that class I have also enjoyed listening to salsa music much more.

    I can't wait to see your videos as well!

  4. "I don't think you can teach musicality. It's an individual thing based on your personality, your partner, the music, the moment and more. There are too many factors involved and there are no rules, so I don't think so."

    I actually agree with her. I don't think you can teach it, but, just because something can't be taught doesn't mean that same thing can't be learned. All teachers can do is better facilitate the dancer expressing themselves, because musicality is expression and it's totally individual and can't be taught. So it's not a case of you have it or you don't.

    The best way to learn musicality is to imitate others who approximate what you need to express and then hone and adapt it until it truly becomes your own original expression.


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero