Music and movement: why lessons don’t work for social dancing

The studio dance training concept cannot work for teaching social dancing because in its origin it was not designed for this. A dancing studio is typically a large space with a wooden floor, wall-to-wall mirrors, and often an audio device to play rhythmic music for the dancers to follow. The dancing studio concept was designed with the aim of training dancers whose job is to produce visual images of movement to music, that is, for performers of dances either for a live audience or for the camera. The goal is to train the dancers to perform a predetermined, scripted choreography. The concept works for the purposes for which it was designed. The purpose of mirrors is for the dancers to see what they look like to an audience, because their goal is to look a certain way to an audience.

This, however, was subsequently adapted for two further purposes: fitness and social partner dancing. Thus, you see a very similar set up at gyms where they “teach” various step and dancing classes to energetic music. Then, partner dances were also promoted as a sort of physical activity and taught in dancing studios with mirrors.

The logic of this adaptation, however, is making less and less sense. It might make sense as a partner dance intended for performance, much as ballroom dancing seems to be. But how many people attending those ballroom dancing classes want to perform as opposed to just dance socially? There does seem to be a distinction between partner dance for exhibition vs. as a purely social activity. While the various partner dances like swing, rock’n’roll, mambo/salsa, etc. have a certain look that is amplified in the choreography of the performing dancers, why does it matter what I look like if I only ever intend to dance socially?

Now, even if the partner dancing lessons don’t involve mirrors and a focus on looking a certain way, they’re still required to teach a complex sort of choreography in order to make money. If people can dance socially to their satisfaction with a handful of movements that can be taught in a handful of lessons then there’s no money in dance teaching. On the other hand, even if we aren’t particularly concerned with getting a particular sort of a look that is pleasing to the eye, long sequences of steps of any complexity can only really be executed effectively by dedicated dancers, and even then it is questionable whether this would be effective as dancing for pleasure rather than for the benefit of either cash or attention.

This focus on the image and complex sequences of movement is matched by lack of concern with quality of the music both in terms of choice and quality of sound. Beyond matching the dance genre, the only concern is that the music is loud and energetic. Low quality audio systems are used so long as they can output the required volume.

A partner dancing teacher is incentivised in very specific ways. He wants to maximise the number of students and classes. To attract the students he needs to produce images of good looking dancers on photos, videos and at live performances to attract students. He then wants to teach long and complex choreography that requires multiple lessons, but also to sell the idea that this works as a social dance, so he puts on events where people can perform the routines with a partner in a social context. So long as people spend most of the time in classes and then some of the time at these so-called social dances they will feel that they’re getting value for their money.

The main subjective value of these social dancing classes is novelty and activity. However, once the novelty aspect wears off and people are done taking the classes and just want to come for the social dancing the subjective (or psychic) value pretty much evaporates. They often find that these social events are noisy and tiring, it’s hard to get a partner who’s competent and friendly, and they’re stuck with an excess of unnecessary steps that are difficult to execute with unfamiliar partners outside of the class situation. No longer attending the classes means they’re no longer in the social circle of current students. They have the option of joining the next exciting workshop organised by the teacher for “advanced” students, a class in Rueda, or musicality, or decorations, just to keep in the loop. The other option is to drop out. Since they’re reluctant to cut their losses they commit the sunk cost fallacy and try to keep it going by attending these further educational offerings.

In none of this is the teacher or organiser incentivised to make sure that people enjoy the social event. People who are satisfied don’t spend money. Bar managers are often happy to have dancing parties only to find that people who dance don’t buy drinks. Even charging at the door might not pay enough for the staff behind the bar. If you’re not drinking and eating, or buying more dancing classes, workshops and privates, you’re not paying enough.

Point is, when you’re attending a dancing lesson with a studio dancing teacher you’re likely being set up for failure from the start if what you want is to actually dance socially. Any of these classes start out with some right things. If you attended a handful of these lessons you’d probably learn enough to dance socially. After that, however, you’re actually going backward as you’re piling on more useless material.

The whole dancing scene is really a ship of fools. Everyone involved, including the people teaching and organising, as well as their hapless followers, their students, are really in a symbiotic relationship. They start out with high hopes only to end up participating in low quality events, with low quality dancing, and endless classes and workshops in which the dancing is an excuse for other things like networking, tourism, vapid consumerism (dancing fashion, etc.) and pointless discussions about nothing on dancing forums and Facebook pages. Dancing was supposed to be satisfying and fulfilling, but instead we end up spending more and more money on substitute satisfactions to justify the whole thing.

The crux of the problem: music and movement

The problem is when we start out with the whole idea of a dancing lesson. The underlying assumption is that there is something that is dancing which is relatively independent from the music. We kind of have a vague idea of what dancing is: it’s the people on TV making exaggerated movements that are exciting to look at. They do it to some music and the whole thing looks cool, interesting, and also functions as a physical activity.

You may notice that music is kind of subsidiary to this idea. It is required in a supportive role to justify the movements. We have the idea that the music has rhythm and that when we move we’re moving to this rhythm. The difference between the different dances is a different sort of a rhythm and perhaps the overall style. While there are many lengthy discussions on various forums, blogs and in books about culture, manners, fashion, and all sorts of other things, I am yet to read anyone reflect in such discussions on the precise nature of the connection between the music and the movement. What is the causal relationship here?

The common assumption is that it is rhythm that is in the music that is relevant to dancing, and the rhythm is the time part of the music that can be clapped with the hands. So technically you could just have the drum or hand clapping out the rhythm and that would suffice. Indeed, it is typical for dancing teachers to clap out the rhythm as the students move through the step patterns being taught. The idea is that as long as you connect your steps to the rhythm you’re dancing to the music. Then some notice that actually the rhythm is complicated and changes through the song, or seems to disappear completely, and so they posit that it is not the rhythm but the pulse that connects the movement to the music, and arguably there’s always a pulse, typically the first beat on the every bar.

So the idea is that as long as you have a recognisable rhythm or pulse this moves the dancing along or gives it some justification. It’s not clear why the music is necessary at all since it’s never really assumed that the music really motivates the dancing. As I said, it seems that you could just have a rhythm track with no melodic component to give the dancers a backing for their dancing. Indeed, these days a lot of electronic music (Hip hop, House music) consists primarily of repetitive drum beats, bass and repetitive chords and melodies. The rhythm is generated through repetition of a simple “cell” of one or two bars of music. The remainder of the music comprising of more complex melodic lines floats on top of the repetitive beat.

But tango music is nothing like that. If you start out on the assumption that there is a repetitive rhythm, beat or pulse in the teaching of step patterns you will find that in actual dancing you can’t find it in the traditional tango music. You might project it onto the music sometimes but that might not help. It might be more credible to say that milonga and vals music have a clear rhythm. You step on the one of the one-two or one-two-three pattern. But this begs the question why all the other one-two and one-two-three rhythm patterns out there, and there are many, don’t feel like milonga or a vals?

Even if we agree that these dances have a clear rhythm and we step on the beat, that does not explain why we’re moved to do so. On the one hand, you could have a rhythm of that kind and not be moved by it to dance a milonga or vals with a partner. On the other hand, you could be dancing to the rhythm and yet not be expressing or connecting to the music. The point is that over and above the rhythm, there must be something in the music that moves us and motivates our dancing, and we’re only really dancing to the music if we’re moved by the music rather than merely fitting our dancing to the music. There needs to be more than a mere match between the movement and the music. The music needs to actually move us.

Now you could perhaps say that when there is a rhythm and I follow the rhythm I’m thereby moved by the music or the rhythm. To connect my movement to the rhythm I have to listen to the rhythm and execute the movement in sync with it, so there is surely a causal connection there. However, you can try an experiment to understand why that doesn’t work. Musicians often use something called a metronome to learn to keep a steady tempo. One way to use a metronome is to set a tempo and then to clap. You can get a free metronome app for your phone for this. If you do this you may find a couple of things. First, you may find that it’s difficult. After a few bars you will probably start finding it increasingly difficult to hit in the same spot as the metronome. Second, it’s boring. You listen to the metronome and you have to make conscious effort. You try to get into the groove and you lose it. Third, it doesn’t really seem to help with the music. If you try to play an instrument with the metronome it feels really mechanical.

I’m not saying that it’s not useful to learn to keep a steady tempo if you’re training as a musician. But I think that the metronome provides proof that rhythm is not what moves us in dancing, and that dancing to the rhythm is merely matching our movement to the music, or to the rhythm, beat or pulse in the music. Otherwise we should be able to enjoy dancing to the metronome, or any repetitive beat like that in electronic music, just as much. Indeed, this is the position of the proponents of dancing to electro tango. Yet when you look at a studio dancing lesson the assumption is that there is no difference between the music and the metronome. All that you need is some random music coming from the studio speaker that has the tempo and rhythm structure that you could technically speaking replicate on the metronome.

It may be useful to do that as a technical exercise in movement to a beat at a certain tempo. But that would not be dancing much as practicing scales is not playing music or singing. It’s a purely technical exercise. You can’t learn to play music simply by practicing scales. Oh, hang on, I nowadays see so-called jazz musicians who come out of music schools having spent a couple of years doing nothing but practicing scales which they “improvise” in jazz clubs. There’s no melody, just an abstract image of notes created when you play a given scale over a given chord. It’s the same thing. You’ve taken out some aspect of the musical whole, whether it’s the beat or the harmony, and turned it into a purely technical or academic exercise. Movement to a repetitive beat is a purely technical exercise much like improvising on scales over a bunch of chords. This is what the studio trained dancers do. They don’t really listen to the music and their focus is predominantly on the movement, and all they need to do is to connect their movements to the music by connecting it to the beat. It’s a purely technical kind of a skill.

But that’s not how dancing and dancing music emerged. We might ask what came first, the chicken or the egg, the music or the dance? People want to dance. From an evolutionary point of view it’s a peculiar kind of thing, as is artistic activity generally. Music has movement and music also moves us. It may seem that it is the rhythm that is the moving part but if you consider electronic dance music or the metronome actually there’s little to no movement in the rhythm. After a few bars of a repetitive beat we expect something to happen and if nothing else happens we lose interest.

Music that moves us (as opposed to music that we simply move in sync with) has movement within it created by the melody and harmony. A melody is a series of notes that we perceive as being connected and moving (forward, up and down, faster and slower, etc.) and harmony consists of groups of notes that we perceive as creating tension, movement and resolution. This movement will be perceived as having a rhythm or a pulse, and this can be said to give shape or structure to our movement in the sense that it gives us a place to make a movement, eg., to take a step. But this perceived rhythm or pulse is really the result of the underlying harmonic and melodic structure and is not itself what moves us, and it’s not necessary to move us or even to take a step. It may be there but we’re not moved and it might be absent but we are moved. That is, when we perceive the rhythm, beat or pulse in tango music we’re already moved. Unlike in drumming, electronic dance music, or the metronome, the rhythm is not being fired at us but emerges out of the harmonic structure. We don’t have to attend to a beat and try to step to the beat. Instead, the music invites us to move in a certain way and it feels natural to do so. The music is resolving and moving in this way feels resolving. We thereby also perceive a beat or a pulse as a product and not as a cause.

When we learn the complex sequences of steps in a studio dancing lesson it’s never clear why all of that is required to achieve this effect, that is, to respond to the way in which the music moves us in a way that is resolving. You do need some movements but why do you need so many? And how exactly are these movements a natural response to the music? What is undeniable is that the movements taught in a studio type dancing lesson are selected primarily because of how they look and not really because of how they feel. The teachers demonstrating their dance assure us with their joyful gestures that it feels great and we believe them. But in reality they only need to connect their sequence of steps to the rhythm in a fairly technical way in order to provide a nice image to an uninformed audience. While for the students or uninformed audience it will look great, a dancer who is moved by the music will find this type of a show mechanical and academic because he will be able to perceive that it’s not really moved by the music itself but is merely connected to it in an artificial manner. And this is the crux of the issue. The studio based dance training is a visual affair with music as a sort of a background. The music provides some sort of justification to the dancing and that’s good enough for a show. But when you try to translate that into social dancing it doesn’t work because it’s tiring and boring. It’s only marginally different from clapping, or for that matter dancing, to the metronome.

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