If you’re like most West Coast Swing dancers, at some point you’ve asked yourself: “How do I improve my musicality?”
Maybe you’re one of those lucky people blessed with the ability to “feel” a song, but you struggle to express yourself while staying within the structure of West Coast Swing.
On the other hand, maybe you’re comfortable with West Coast Swing timing, but you don’t have the slightest clue how to change your movements to express the music, and you need ideas. Or you’ve realized musicality is a huge topic and you have no idea where to start.
No problem! You can improve your musicality simply by opening your mind—and ears. But first: what is musicality exactly?
Musicality: A Quick Refresher
Ask ten dancers for their definition of musicality, and you’ll get ten different answers.
But in simplest terms, someone who is dancing with musicality is using their body as an instrument to express what they hear in the music. If you watch a video of them dancing with the sound off, you can guess the style of music and see the changes in the song through their movement.
Musicality is critical for advancing in West Coast Swing because of the usage of popular music, which features influences from a variety of genres, and because it is an “unphrased” dance—that is, the patterns don’t naturally match the musical phrasing.
Don’t know what phrasing is? Read on!
A Brief Music Lesson
The number one step to improving your musicality is understanding music theory. If you’ve never studied music, don’t worry! Although you can dive deep, simply knowing basic song structure will give you a huge advantage when expressing the music.
Most songs are counted in 8-beat sections and phrased in 16-beat (two groups of 8) and 32-beat (four groups of 8) sections. What does that mean?
Think of it this way: if a song is an essay, the 8-beat sections are sentences, and the 16- and 32-beat sections are paragraphs. When a new paragraph begins, so does a new topic. Changes in the song generally happen when you transition to the next 16- or 32-beat section.
Blues music, which you’ll hear often on the West Coast Swing dance floor, is often phrased in 48-beat sections. The same idea applies, just with phrases of a different length.
Accenting the Music
When you dance six count patterns to eight count music, as in West Coast Swing, you’re not always aligned with the song’s phrasing. This means the first beat of a phrase in a song will not always occur with the first count of a pattern.
“Accenting,” or emphasizing, the first count of a phrase is an easy way to express the music. For example, when the first count appears in the third count of a sugar tuck, you can accent it by giving extra weight to the compression.
The options available to you for accenting the music will vary slightly depending on which role you dance, but two great choices for any West Coast Swing dancer are to sweep or point your free arm and/or your head (sharply or smoothly, depending on the music).
Hitting the Breaks
If you’ve ever seen dancers stop on a dime when a song pauses, you may have wondered, how did they do it? Do they just memorize every song?
Nope! They just understand basic song structure, which allows them to listen and predict when the breaks will arrive. That’s how they manage to “hit” them.
Hitting the break means accenting a moment when the song breaks, that is, when the music pauses or holds for two beats or more. This will happen on an odd beat in a musical phrase, often on the first or fifth beat.
Some songs have only a few breaks, but others will have many. Don’t hit every break—you want to maximize your impact.
Matching Your Dance Style to the Music
Beyond the structure, expressing the quality of the music with movement is an important part of musicality. Dancing with smooth, ballet-like movement to a hip hop song will let anyone watching know that you’re not in tune with the music.
Musical qualities to pay attention to include the volume, the rhythm, the mood, the instruments, and the vocals.
Does the song emphasize the rhythm? Try playing with footwork. Does it have staccato (separated) beats? Punctuate them with sharp head and upper body movements. Is the music flowing and lyrical? Try sweeping your legs and arms.
These qualities may—and often do—shift during a phrase change. For example, does the music sound “big” and dramatic and then suddenly sound “small” and quiet? Adjust your movements to match.
But don’t try to express every single thing you hear in the music—displaying a contrast between your basic movements and your expression will create a more musical dance.
How to Improve Your Musicality
So, how can you practice this?
1. Listen Up!
The first (and simplest) step to improving your musicality is to listen to music—a lot.
Pick specific songs to study and listen to them repeatedly. Count the phrases in 8s; find the 16- and 32-beat phrases (48-beats for blues music); and note the phrase changes, breaks, and opportunities to accent the music. Pay attention to as many aspects of the sound quality as you can and think about how you would express them when dancing.
Then listen to songs you’ve never heard before and try to predict when the breaks will appear and when you can best accent the music. If you’re new to listening to music this way, just listen for a while before you try solo or partnered dance practice.
Need help finding songs to study? Many West Coast Swing DJs are on Spotify: Ruby Lair’s playlists are a great place to start.
2. Cross Train for Creativity
Understanding musical phrasing is critical so you know when there are likely to be opportunities for expression, but that’s no good if you don’t have any creative ideas.
This is where cross training can be helpful.
Most professional West Coast Swing dancers have solo dance experience, such as ballet, jazz, or hip hop, and many have trained in other partner dances, such as blues, Brazilian zouk, tango, or salsa. This means they have the advantage of a large movement vocabulary.
There’s no need to dive deep into other dances (unless you want to), but even taking beginner classes and collecting different ideas for shaping your body movements can improve your creative expression.
If you lack time or money for cross training in other dances, try studying West Coast Swing videos for inspiration. Often, seeing someone else incorporate a move into a pattern is easier than trying to figure it out on your own. Find moves you like and practice with them until you feel good doing them.
3. Let’s Dance—Putting Musicality Into Practice
When you’re ready to move beyond listening, start with solo practice, and then work with a partner if you have one:
- Pick a song you’ve never heard before and just dance. Listen to the song as you move through basic patterns and try to accent the phrase changes.
- Pick a song you know and express one aspect of the song at a time. For example, try focusing on the drums, then the vocals, and so on.
- Dance to one song several times back to back, each time focusing on expressing the music with a different body part, e.g. arms, feet, head, shoulders, hips.
- Play songs from different genres back to back and test your ability to quickly switch the style of your dancing (from blues to Brazilian zouk to hip hop to lyrical and back again).
What Happens on the Social Dance Floor…
Although COVID-19 restrictions mean social dancing is (unfortunately) off-limits for most of us, here are a few tips for expressing the music once you get back on the social floor:
- Focus on maintaining fundamental West Coast Swing body mechanics and timing.
- Always prioritize connection to your partner over expressing what you hear in the music.
- Use eye contact both to communicate to your partner that you’re about to accent the music and to read your partner’s signals.
- Remember to have fun! You will make mistakes and look silly at times. Keep practicing, and before you know it, you’ll be expressing yourself with confidence.
Musicality is a complex and often daunting topic, and one you will never stop exploring during your dance journey. But don’t be afraid to get started! Even if you don’t have the money or time to take extra classes, listening to music is an accessible—and fun—way to improve your musicality.