By: Alexis Robbins
What is musicality? The term itself is pretty broad, it refers to having an innate understanding of music or a sensitivity to or knowledge of music. When we refer to an individual dancer having great musicality, we are generally referring to their ability to keep time while moving, and/or their ability to quickly absorb or perform specific rhythms and display so through movement. Dancers who are great improvisers in any style often, if not always, have wonderful musicality which directly aids in their ability to improvise and captivate audiences. So how do we actually achieve musicality as a skill? Is it just something that people ‘have’ naturally or can we work on it? Answer: we can definitely work on it, but it takes lots of practice. I hope to offer some insight into how we can develop musicality, whether for yourself or your students, through tips and exercises that can be applied to all genres of dance.
First, in order to work on musicality we need to have a basic understanding of music theory and phrasing, and the way there involves math, metronomes, counting, and using our voices while dancing (yes - dancers CAN use their voices!). All of that can certainly sound a little intimidating, but just like anything, with practice comes comfort, understanding, and confidence.
Baseline knowledge of music theory involves knowing your rhythm tree - whole notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes. We want to be able to identify and transition between musical subdivisions at any given tempo*. Most of the music we listen to is in 4/4 time, meaning that a measure or bar has four quarter notes. Whenever we count to 4 or 8, or we are referring to the ‘down-beat’, that’s the quarter note. And here’s the math: your quarter note can be divided into 8 eighth notes (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and), which can then be divided into 16 sixteenth notes (1 ee and a, 2 ee and a, 3 ee and a, 4 ee and a). A triplet is three even beats over the span of one quarter note (1 and a, 2 and a, 3 and a). Does a triplet sound foreign? If you’ve ever done balances across the floor in ballet, danced or heard a waltz, or listened to a song in ¾ time such as “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys, then you’ve felt a triplet! Being able to identify musical subdivisions and count them out loud will be an incredibly helpful tool in gaining musicality. Are you a dance teacher or studio owner? I highly suggest having a visual aid of a rhythm tree present in your studio! You can draw your own or you can easily get one via Hillary-Marie’s iTapOnline (a fabulous resource!).
Do you teach or perform tap, jazz, lindy hop, or other forms of social or vernacular dances? If so, it’s also incredibly important to know the difference between notes or a phrase that is straight vs. swung. For example, straight eighth notes vs. swung eighth notes and being able to transition between the two. When music is swung the pulse is divided unequally and alternates between short and long durations, giving it a very specific feeling. Examples of tunes that swing are “All of Me” written by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons and popularized by Billie Holiday, “In a Mellow Tone” by Duke Ellington, and “Satin Doll” written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with lyrics by Johnny Mercer and popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. (That’s just three....there are thousands more!).
An incredibly important and simple, and in my opinion under appreciated, way for anyone to have a better understanding of music and phrasing (where is the 1?! What is the time signature?), is tojust listen to music. I don’t mean playing the current top 40 pop songs while you're in the car or hanging with friends, I mean taking the time to really listen to different types of music by a diverse range of artists. If your comfort zone is primarily filled with pop music in 4/4 time, I suggest starting to branch out and listen to a mix of jazz (Black American Music), swing, rock, and music from other countries and cultures such as West Africa and India. Expose yourself to new rhythms and music that switches between time signatures. Listening to music can be an active or passive exercise. When actively listening, in or out of the studio, you can listen for things like meter changes and phrasing. How many measures are in the verse, the bridge, the chorus? Or how many choruses did each instrument solo for? What aspects of the song repeat vs. what only happens once? Where are you hearing accents in the music (what sticks out) and do they move? What is the feeling or the vibe? Is it swung or is straight? Are there odd meters or half meters? You could easily spend an entire class just deeply listening to music. Of course you can’t always spend class time on that, so I highly suggest assigning it as homework. Listening to music passively is also a very helpful tool, believe it or not. The next time you’re washing dishes or doing laundry (or insert other activity where you can passively listen to music), pick an album from an artist you don’t know and listen to the whole thing. When was the last time you really did that? It’s probably been a while, or possibly never, so find an album you’ve never heard of and let the whole thing play, top to bottom (don’t hit shuffle!). Aside from the fact that you can learn a ton about an artist by doing so, it’s also just going to help better shape your understanding of music, and therefore your musicality.
*Tempo refers to speed or beats per minute (BPM), not to be confused with rhythm.
**I would like to credit and thank all of my teachers and inspirations whom have influenced who I am as a dancer, musician, and teacher: Sean Fielder, Hillary-Marie Michael, Lynn Schwab, Anita Feldman, Derick Grant, Dormeshia, and Michelle Dorrance
Alexis Robbins is a choreographer, teaching artist, and dancer originally from Wakefield, RI. She graduated magna cum laude from Hofstra University with a B.A. in Dance and a B.S. in Exercise Science. She has been an adjunct professor at Hofstra University teaching tap and has taught tap, contemporary, and jazz at several studios and guest workshops in NYC, New England, Montana, and Georgia. Since relocating to New Haven, CT, Robbins has been offering weekly, affordable drop in adult tap classes, as well as jams with live music, for beginner and intermediate dancers which has gained a wide range of attendance from the community. She has performed as a soloist at the Ely Center for Contemporary Art, the Friday Pop Up Series on the New Haven Green by the Proprietors of the Green, and events by the New Haven Jazz Underground. Robbins is also the Artistic Director of kamrDANCE, her project based tap and contemporary dance company. kamrDANCE has performed at venues across the Northeast, including the Arlington Center for the Arts (MA), Hudson Guild Theater, Triskelion Arts, Actors Fund Arts Center, Dixon Place, SMUSH Gallery (NJ), Center for Performance Research, Highline Ballroom, Symphony Space, AS220 (RI), the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn, and more. kamrDANCE has self produced two dance films which have been screened in New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Bergen, Norway. Most recently, Robbins created a new dance film for One Day Dance Season Two, was a commissioned choreographer through Artspace New Haven for City Wide Open Studios (2019) and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas (2020), and received the Artist Workforce Initiative Sponsorship through the New HAven Arts Council and the CT Office of the Arts for her community tap jams with live music. For more information go towww.kamrdance.com