Sunday, March 31, 2013

Musicians Don't Dance

Have you ever noticed that musicians rarely dance?

I believe it's similar to "white men can't jump". It's a myth, but it has some truth to it. The reality is, most musicians avoid dancing. It's a different skill, and most musical instruments are played with fine, small muscle control (think fingers for piano, guitar, drums, violin, flute, etc.)

Oh sure, there are a few exceptions (mostly the singers) but most others don't do it, and I have some ideas why they just watch. Their reasons are generally similar to others who don't dance, but you'd think it would be much easier for musicians to learn.

Great dancers will tell you that understanding the music is half the battle when it's time to dance, so what's up with musicians sitting on the sidelines? In theory, they start with a huge advantage over a friend who doesn't know music and is starting dance.

Here's my theory: Musicians spend years learning to express emotion via our primary instrument. We work thousands of hours listening and refining small muscle movements to control our instruments. Many of us sit while practicing or performing. For most instruments, too much body movement has a negative effect on our sound. Often we work toward "body calm" as part of the practice goal

It's a rude awakening when we figure out our full body can't express the same emotion without a ton of practice. Dancing primarily uses complete body control with balance, weight shift and mostly larger muscle groups engaged, a big difference compared to playing an instrument.

As a musician, I watched people dance at thousands of events over the years. In one year alone in my early twenties, I played over 225 events, ranging from weddings, recordings, nightclubs, corporate events and beyond. At 95% of my gigs, people were dancing and I always thought, "Someday I should learn to do that." I waited over 20 years for my "someday" to start.

Knowing the mood of the music doesn't give us the tools to express emotions via the dance that are effortlessly expressed via our instrument, due to years of practice. Worse; Knowing the feel of the music almost instantly tells us our dance/movement isn't expressing the real feel of the music. It's disheartening at points, and the obvious disconnect between the music and dance gets in our heads during the early days.

I've already spent thousands of hours of practicing and performing on drums, and now I have to start over with a new instrument: my body. I've had moments where I thought, "Hmmm... Do I really want to invest years into this new instrument?" I knew from the start that being a high-quality dancer was a multi-year project.

It can be downright frustrating. Musicians hear the music being romantic, but have little idea what moves would fit that feel. Or they see the appropriate moves on others, but haven't invested the time to express that with their own body. The music amps up and it's easy to recognize that it's time to crank up the dancing, but they don't have the body control or the experience to make it happen. It's easy to see on others, but that doesn't mean we can do it without practice.

Sometimes it seems easier to just go back to things mastered earlier in life. Great musicians have already gone through the painful ups and downs of learning one complex creative craft; learning to dance requires the same commitment all over again. If they have high standards for their music, they will probably have high standards for their dancing.

Mastering either one puts you closer to the other, but still requires years of practice to become above-average. A seasoned, world-class dancer has heard great music for years, but learning the piano, drums or guitar would still require practicing hundreds or thousands of hours before they could perform effortlessly.

On the flip side, knowing the music intimately pays off big time AFTER a significant investment in dancing. Most musicians have the potential to be excellent dancers far sooner than a peer who starts dancing without a musical background.

The road map for becoming a great dancer parallels the map for being a strong musician. When you've been down the road before, it can be very helpful, because you clearly see what it takes to excel. But it's still easier to practice your strengths (your primary musical instrument) rather than develop your dance moves.

In some ways, it was easier learning music because I was so ignorant about musical excellence along the way. By age twenty I believed I was a hotshot, so I practiced like crazy, got lots of positive feedback and was a big fish in a little pond. I was truly humbled when I moved to LA to be around the big guns in the music business; I soon saw that there was a whole new level of elite skill that I had never seen before.

That experience means that, when I looked at dancing in my mid forties, I realized from the start that it would take me three to six years to become "reasonable" by my definition. I see the best in the dance world, and know that reaching that echelon is a decade or more of hard work.

Make no mistake, it's worth the effort; still, musicians are often frustrated when they find it's like starting over with a brand new instrument.

Most go back to practicing their first instrument rather than go through the learning curve again. The ones who push through it have the potential to become excellent dancers, but that assumes they put in the effort just like everybody else. It may be less work than a peer without musical training, but it's still plenty of sweat and frustration, and the path of least resistance is often going back to playing the music.

I hope more musicians make the journey, because at some point the musical background becomes a huge asset. Then they have two creative outlets, and that makes life much richer.

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  1. Hi. i just stumbled on your blog and was very interested to read your piece on musicians and why they don't dance. I played bass guitar in my 20s and started learning salsa at 39, but was frustrated as I could clearly hear the music while being unable to express this in my dancing. I was told by a few people to "listen to the music", but your article explains it all very well - you just have to be patient and keep going. I've been dancing for 4 years and I still have a long way to go before I can dance to the music and the different instruments in the way I want to! Eliza

  2. Eliza,

    Yes, the "just listen to the music" comment makes it sound like that is the "key" to dancing well. (Similar to the "let the music move you" comment which also makes me smile.)

    Part of that is the realization that many dancers don't really understand the music well, and that is their weakness. When they start hearing what you are hearing, their dancing soars quickly, because they already know their instrument well (their bodies).

    The musicians have to give it enough time and effort to get to the "feeling it" stage that many dancers have due to their experience. In some ways we "think to much" because we recognize the feel of the music.

    Best to you! Keep on dancing so we have more musical dancers in the scene.

  3. I found this to be a more coherent explanation for these sayings about musicians lacking in dancing skills than I found over at Dance Forums.

    Maybe I'm just rephrasing your words here, but I would also suspect that a trained musician would be more prone to take the music more "seriously", and tend to not enjoy dancing "badly" as much as the average beginner, as well as being more aware of the actual difficulties involved when learning a new instrument.

    Could make it more understandable if musicians might hesitate to enter the dance floor altogether, they already have a pretty good way of using the music already.

  4. Your rewording is accurate. When you feel the emotion in the music, it's easier to recognize the dancers who are in sync with the music.

    You also quickly know that your moves are NOT representing the music, and it can be disappointing because you hear it, but can't express it with your body.

    In order to dance well, you have to dance for a while and gain some experience. People who grow very quickly as dancers often have some background (martial arts, gymnastics, or other athletics) which provide foundational body control that kick starts their dancing.

    Musicians often sit and watch dancers, and that is fine. But listening to music doesn't make you a strong musician unless you also practice your instrument consistantly.

    To dance well you have to be willing to dance poorly for a while, and that can be tougher when you went through a similar learning curve before.

  5. Just heard the phrase 'musicians don't dance' so I googled it and here I am. It makes sence since I'm a musician (band experience in rock, punk, hardcore, jazz, folk, - nowadays 95% classical) and don't dance. I think it's because we - the royal musician we (i.e. creative artists, no dj's etc.) - tend to analyze what we hear. Even subconsciously. Most cannot rationalize (listen instead of hear) and emotionalize (physical expression) at the same time. I'm not a dancer and never will be. Which is fine. I'd rather be a musician than no musician and a bad dancer.

    Greetz from Old Europe

  6. Whatever you do first you do best. If you started playing music at a young age then you are developing your fine motor skills at the expense of your gross motor skills. If you started off running around playing football etc you are going to be training your gross motor skills at the expense of finer motor skills. Being able to hear the music well gives and advantage but equal advantage to well coordinated large muscle groups. Another point is that it is very rare for someone not to have been exposed to a lot of music throughout their life - especially in this stone age. I would have thought that "feeling" music is pretty standard and much of why we like it so much, it is an integral part of every culture on the planet. Dancing well shows that you are an all-rounder with skills across the board -which is perhaps why good dancers appear quite attractive. I believe that a musician would be just as good at dance as a sportsperson would be playing an instrument. You cannot say that a musician can move any better or worse to music than a footballer can listen to or hear it. Whatever you would rather be is irrelevent.

  7. Nice piece, pretty much hits it on the nail.

    However, I have to challenge the last paragraph. One of the more striking things you learn as a Musician/Dancer is how musically deaf most people are.

    About 1 in 4 people can hold a beat, maybe 1 in 10 understand rhythm and syncopation.

    The whole concept of strict tempo ballroom dancing implies the dancers can't dance to syncopated, rhythmic music (and mostly they can't, even at very high levels of physical performance).

    Although we are surrounded by music - most people can't actually understand it. They are musically deaf, that applies to many dancers as well.

    One of the horrors of learning to dance for a muscian is having to dance 'Against' the music, that is ignore the rhythm of the music in order to hit the tempo with precision.

    A piece might cry out for syncopation at a certain point - but many dancers will often dance straight through it.

  8. very true. I spent years in piano and flute.But not until learning salsa did I realized a terrible fact: I could not move with the "music"!!
    Much better now after 6 months of practice :> Keep going..

  9. I have to say that this depends on your country. The vast majority of Cuban salsa musicians can also dance and you often see the horn section and the bassist dancing as well as the singers.

  10. I had a great dance teacher who once explained: it's perfectly fine to break the rules, so long as you know what they are first. That's what training is: it's exploring the emotionless method/technique and math that allows the instrument to function. How to break those rules and create art? That's something only you can decide (<--the rules sure as heck won't tell you!).

    I think you're right--musicians have a leg up: they're already familiar with identifying and breaking rules. Practice may be daunting, but you'll find several million Latinos (particularly in the Caribbean) who have no concept of technique and still feel the music from the bottom of their hearts. They'd look like a fish out of water in a North American salsa club, perhaps. But they're rarely accused of not feeling the music. Remember that for a lot of Latinos, technique is not the defining element of either the music or dance. For most, they are more than happy to leave technique to the kind of people who have the money to take classes. They don't go to a salsa school, or study with international super-stars like Frankie Martinez or Johnny Vasquez. They learn to dance with grandma in the kitchen, or with their cousins at a birthday party. They often learn to play music the same way.

    If you wanna dance like Johnny Vasquez, you're right: you've got long years of fine tuning your body to look forward to. But for all intents and purposes, he's a professional athlete. I certainly hope you don't feel you need to use dancers like him as a measure of your mastery of dance technique, or salsa flavor. On the upshot, as I think you've already figured out, all you have to do is practice and you will continue to grow.

    I also think there's something to TimberaMayor's statement: in Cuba, music IS dance. In countries like Cuba, Colombia, PR, DR, etc. The culture is one of spontaneous dance (to hell with technique). The 'international' salsa scenes makes use of this spontaneity to varying degrees, but ours is much more a culture of technique. Take a trip to Cuba... you might find yourself not caring as much about fine-tuning your instrument/body ;0)


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero