Painting jazz

Let's carry on with the definition of musicality from the last post:

Musicality is achieved when a dance looks and/or feels like the music sounds.

As discussed, humans may have evolved an in-built system for associating sounds, shapes and movements. This system is shared across the population so people usually agree on what is musical dancing and what isn't.

I think there's something else to add here: The correspondence between sounds and dance shapes/movements is not one-to-one.

I don't believe that for any given sound, there is one and only one dance movement, which corresponds to the sound better than all other possible movements. There is always some fuzziness, an array of options, all of which will fulfill the inbuilt human assesment criteria for musicality. At least, I have no idea how one could quantify one-to-one correspondences if they did exist. It may even be impossible, if, say, the neural mechanism for these associations makes them based only on coarse properties of the motion and is incapable of selecting between finer details. For example, maybe a quick blast on a trumpet corresponds to a quick movement in some part of a dancer's body, but exactly which part moves might not matter; so long as it's fast, any movement might look equally musical.

Consensus and individuality

I think this is good news because it leaves room for individuality in musical interpretation. Everybody - and every body - is different, each with it's own particular physical constants and predispositions. Similarly, each person's experience with music throughout their lives will have shaped how they hear and interpret music. I believe that the first step for each dancer in finding her own style is to focus on her own natural process for hearing music, extracting its various features and translating them into body movements, which feel natural and musical. In my classes I teach exercises to facilitate this. My experience in these workshops is that ten different dancers will come up with ten different ways to dance one sound but they will usually all look musical. My favourite part of teaching this material is looking around the room and seeing the joy that people get from appreciating the diversity in each other's musical interpretation while also feeling connected through broad agreement. I sometimes get the impression that people feel like they've just discovered that they can speak to each other in a language they never knew existed. For reasons outlined in the previous post, this may in a sense be literally true.

With this is mind, I would like to discuss something. I think there's a mismatch between how most dance teaching is done and the goal that most dancers are aiming for (consciously or unconsciously). I've taken hundreds of dance classes over the years, maybe more than a thousand. And from all those, I think I have enough fingers to count the classes that weren't based on routines of moves. Moves themselves are really just small routines of movements, and moves are linked together to make larger routines. So, from here on, by 'routine' or 'move' I will refer generally to pre-defined patterns - programs - of movement. Of course, good teachers also emphasise the importance of technique and musicality. So it is natural to ask, does learning routines help to develop a dancer's technique and musicality? Are we doing the best job we can do as teachers by focusing on moves?

Shapes and tools

I would like to make a visual analogy here. Every move is like a pre-made, cut-out image. It hangs together in and of itself but it has no background, no context. Imagine now, that like a happy little kid, you are sat down at a table with a long strip of blank paper, a few dozen pre-cut images and some glue. An inspiring piece of jazz music is played to you and you are asked to visually represent your experience of the music by gluing the shapes onto the paper strip in sequence. Your options are only as many as the various permutations of the shapes at your disposal. Rearranging moves in never going to fully represent the beautiful complexity of a person's musical experience.

The dancer would be more empowered if, instead of being given ever more precut images in each class, she were taught how to paint. That is, given a few simple tools - the most basic elements of movement - and then taught the mechanical rules for using those tools to create his/her own original images, extended, flowing and continuous, without breaks or joins, created from moment to moment, directly inspired by the music.

Of course, in the early stages of learning, precut images are useful and are perhaps the best that the learning artist can hope to achieve with the paintbrush while mastering its flow (this is analogous to dancing through a pre-defined move using genuine lead/follow connection and efficient movement). But the goal is to leave all this behind once painting is comfortable. Painting jazz well can only be done spontaneously, improvisationally, from moment to moment, without knowing exactly what the next moment will bring.

In coming posts, I will attempt a course in jazz painting. It will begin with an introduction to the physical principles of good dance moment and proceed to the principles of functional connection between dancer partners. That is, mechanical principles that allow for flowing co-creation of musical dancing. For anyone who's ever struggled with the essence of what the best dancers do when they move and connect, things are, I hope, about to get interesting.

karamartin  – (February 27, 2009 at 11:22 AM)  

Great post Drew! I taught a blues class last year that focused on "movement" and "lead/follow" and allowing my students to create their own dance from walking/moving together. I almost cried when someone suggested that in the next class I should teach them a routine =( . I am now however, trying to be more wiley about it all.
I look forward to reading more. =)

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