Musically off Time

27 July 2016

Good dancing takes the audible and transforms it into visual, it changes sound into sight, it makes music into movement. This is the process of being musical, or showing the rhythm in your body. In a previous post, it was mentioned that one way to make your dancing more musical was to phrase it properly, but today you will learn the counterintuitive skill how to make your dancing more musical by purposefully dancing off time.

Feel the Music

For those of you who are artistic and love to feel the music, showing that feeling to the audience is what musicality is all about. In Waltz, you should feel that you sweep upward and then hang in the air for as long as possible on beat 2. In Tango, you should feel sharp contrast between the Slows and the Quicks, making the Slows just a bit slower and the Quicks just a bit quicker. In Viennese Waltz, you should feel that you spend more time on the driving action on beats 1 and 4. In Foxtrot, you should feel you float in the air for just a split second longer than most humans without anti gravity shoes can on beat 3. In Quickstep, depending on the figure, you should feel the contrast between Slows and Quicks, like in Tango or the hanging feeling of Waltz and Foxtrot. This is not only true of Standard, but of Latin as well.

In all these cases, you stretch certain movements and shorten others. If you have a SQQ timing in Tango, whereas a Slow usually takes 1 second and a Quick takes 0.5 seconds, you should make the Slows take (let's say) 1.2 seconds and the quicks take 0.4 seconds each. The whole figure still takes two seconds, but there is a sharper contrast. Likewise in Foxtrot, you want to spend slightly longer on beat 3, so you steal that time from the beats around it.

Understand the Music

For those of you who are not artistic and have no idea what "feel the music" means, let's look at the science behind this. The WDSF has done studies where they examined slow motion footage of top level dancers. They looked at exactly how long dancers took to dance steps, and compared that to the standard timing prescribed to steps. What they found is that these top dancers did not dance to the strict timing we all learn when we start dancing, and when they took the average of all the dancers combined, they found interesting tendencies.

In the Waltz Chasse from Promenade Position, the basic beat value 1 - 1/2 -1/2 - 1 (12&3), but the timing that most top level dancers use is approximately 7/8 - 1/2 - 1 - 1, essentially stepping 1 2 & (3)&. Those of you who are mathematically proficient may notice that this adds up to 3 3/8 beats, which is rather strange since the entire figure is only supposed to take three beats of music. What is happening is that not only is this figure being danced with changes to the timing internally, it is also affecting the figures around it. That extra 3/8 of a beat is being taken from either the figure before or the figure after (probably a bit of both). This is exactly what is meant by being musically off time. In order to show certain parts of the music as slow, other parts of the music become fast, and this happens fluidly, creating a beautiful routine.

Think of it like speaking the sentence, "Do you want to dance with him?" When you say this sentence, you don't pronounce every sound. Instead, it comes out more like this, "Ju wanna dance with-im?" This isn't slang, it's just the way people speak fluidly, and just as it would sound clunky to pronounce every single letter of every word of every sentence when you speak out on the street every day, so too does it look clunky to enunciate every beat of the music exactly as you learnt it in the basic timing of the figure.

Be off Time the Right Way

There is a right way to be off time and there is a wrong way to be off time. If you go to a competition and you dance off time the right way, you'll get first place, but if you go to a competition and dance off time the wrong way, you'll get last. The key here is that your dancing has to represent the music, and the character of that music. If your dancing is off time because you can't count the music, it will look like you can't count the music. If your dancing is off time because you are slow, it will look slow. If your dancing is exactly what the basic technique says is on time, your dancing will look basic. But if your dancing is not what the basic timing says, but ebbs and flows with the music, your dancing will stand out. This is the core of real musicality, and it isn't easy to get. To master this art, you need to become familiar with the music you are dancing to, you need to become a skilled enough dancer to make your body do what you hear the music doing, and you need guidance from a skilled teacher who can keep you on track.