Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Irony of Teaching Music

A female instructor friend of mine says, "Yea, but the people who really need your music class won't attend! They think they 'feel it' but don't realize they have it so wrong."

She's restating the "they don't know what they don't know" syndrome, which is big among a large set of social dancers.

I had to agree. Many dancers have invested years building their movement skills, but never learned enough about the music to make it one of their partners in the dance. They get it right some of the time because they've heard the same tunes over and over, but they don't know how it really works.

When you hear the music well, it's obvious they aren't hearing it because so little is reflected in their dancing. They have great body control and patterns, but are missing one part of the excellence equation.

I respect these guys for their effort and movement accomplishments, but sometimes feel bad because much of their effort is wasted. When they dance off the time, blow through the obvious breaks, endings and major feel changes in the music, the stronger partners get frustrated at points but often just hang on and make the most of it.

If their patterns are interesting, their partners often make the most of that and step up to the challenge of dancing without following the music. Most will tell you that's not dancing, that's an aerobics class.

None of their partners are going to tell them, because some aspects of their dancing are way above average. (See my article titled, "Better Dancing, More Partner Lying" for details.)

My challenge to you: How do we reach those people? I don't have great answers except I'm obviously putting my effort into teaching the music. But that doesn't mean those who need it the most will attend. So how do we get the word to them?

I suspect the answer is we don't, but instead focus on the ones who seek out the music information. That said, I'm looking for more ways to reach those dancers, so let me know your thoughts on making that happen.

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  1. There are degrees of non-musicality. Dancing off-time is just a crime - it's the dancing equivalent of singing out of tune - although it is a horrifyingly common mistake. I have looked around a room of dancers and not a single couple is really on-time. Teaching has quite a lot to answer for here. Most teachers do not emphasize good timing enough nor do they use the music enough during lessons. People need to understand how crucial this is, that they have to drill themselves into keeping their feet stepping at the correct time and that it isn't easy and it does take practice and concentration. Teachers could do a lot more by providing exercises and not always just endless turn-patterns.

    Its very useful to have a trusted friend - who needs have a good sense of timing themselves - to correct you when it goes wrong. I can remember being astonished and disbelieving at being told by friends that my timing was off, when I was first learning - after all, I'm a musician, I understand music, I can't possibly be off time - but I'm sure I was. I had to be humble and believe them. Even if you have a good natural sense of rhythm, where there are lots of arms going on, a girl to steer and other couples to avoid, the feet so easily get neglected. It took me at least a year before my feet would just keep going automatically on time - and even now - I know I occasionally step wrongly, but I have learned to be aware of it, to spot it and correct it.

    For me, respecting the phrasing and mood of the music, the entries, exits, breaks etc - is what separates a competent dancer from a good dancer. I don't know how you teach this. I have been to music appreciation and music interpretation classes and generally those who dance to the music well already continue to do so and those who don't remain as clueless as ever. Folks who dance off time are simply "doing it wrong" - folks who don't respect the music are not so much "wrong" as not doing it as well as they could be.

    And what do we dance for anyway ? Very few of us are ever going to be as good as Eddie Torres and I have seen many hopeless dancers apparently having a lot of fun - I don't want to deny them that. I know what matters for me, what I'm aspiring to and what kind of partners I want to dance with - maybe that's enough.

  2. The cynic in me says that you reach those people by marketing the class "for advanced dancers ONLY".

    That said, you experiences here clearly differ from mine - I run into dancers who over estimate their lead, or their follow, or their movement, but almost never a dancer who over estimates their musicality.

    The closest I get on anything resembling a regular basis is a dancer who believes that their musicality is "good enough". Hard to argue with a completely subjective standard.

    Standard westie disclaimer applies.

  3. As someone who is actively trying to improve my musicality, I can say that it much more difficult to implement on the dance floor than I anticipated.

    In Darlin Garcia's class on Musicality at Estilo Dance in Philly, we practice simple footwork to the music. For example, on the fourth beat of a phrase - do a hook, eight beat, do a right hand turn. We've just started doing simple partner work to the music. And it's very hard. I don't know what it is (muscle memory? mind training?) but going from listening and doing shines to partnerwork makes either my leads/turn patterns go to snuff or the internal count in my head to go off.

    My new solution is to go to beginner-friendly nights, so I can focus on the music while partner dancing and not the patterns.

  4. Joe,

    Teachers are partly to blame, but remember most instructors didn't start with a grounding in the music. It's one thing to hear it yourself, and another to get others to hear it.

    Newer dancers see others doing turn patterns and want to do that too. Teaching patterns is much easier than teaching music, and many students think they are already hearing the music, so if an instructor spends too much time on it, the students get uncomfortable.

    People outside the music often say they feel the music without realizing how far off them are. They also don't realize that means their partner also has to ignore the music and stay with their feel. That can be a major challenge.

    They actually lose with better partners, who would have more fun and enjoy dancing with them even more if they were with the music.

    That said, in the social scene few want to be the messenger and tell a friend they are off the music. You have some good friends...

  5. Dancelf,

    Interesting idea on the "advance only" marketing. What is funny is one of LAs strongest hip-hop choreographers/dancers tells me he's attending.

    This guy knows his music as well as anybody I've ever seen. He can't even remember all the major artists he's worked with when you talk with him.

    He told me he's always looking to deepen his connection with the music. He's humble and amazing at the same time.

    One of my favorite jazz instructors is also attending and this guy has amazing ears and musicality.

    You may be exactly right, since I've had extremely positive response from other instructors and advanced dancers. Much more than the social dancers who think they already have the music mastered.

    Around here there is a wide group of people who think they hear the music and/or feel the music. They believe they have simple things like their timing exactly in sync with the music.

    Sometimes I think I'm listening to different music when I watch.

    I don't think they over estimate their musicality as much as they believe they are good enough AND they believe they mastered the timing issues long ago.

    It would be a MAJOR upgrade around here if half the dancers danced on time, but most of those people don't even know they are off the music.

    Forget all the more subtle things like matching your dancing intensity to the music intensity...

    I appreciate your comments!

  6. Thank you for this post, Don.

    I admit it's frustrating to run into an "I grew up with it, I don't care" POV - from some of one's instructors.

    It's especially frustrating to me because I grew up with it too -- but I'm also a trained musician. And it can be hard to explain to an instructor who's teaching you a pattern that they're doing the syncopation differently every single time, which is making the pattern harder to learn (harder than it needs to be...?), because they don't know what you're talking about, and they look at you like you're from Mars.


  7. All that said, reading that comment back it sounds a little negative, and I didn't mean to be a downer.

    I *do* like Dancelf's idea. I think we all know, besides the amazing folks you list, who would show up and *demand* to be let in.

    Then ... you got 'em!
    Hee. :-)

  8. How do you know if you're on time?

  9. Anonymous: Knowing you're on time usually requires someone else verifying you're on time. Musicians, and most dance instructors (not all) can help you validate your timing.

    For most people, if they "don't know" then they are not on time during some of the songs. (Some songs are much easier to hear the time.)


I love feedback. Your thoughts, feelings and comments are appreciated. Civil disagreements and other points of view are always welcomed!

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero