Why is Musicality Such a Big Deal in West Coast Swing?

– by Maria

dreamstime_xs_37618959The topic of musicality gets a lot of air-time in West Coast Swing dancing. To be fair, “musicality” is integral to all dancing. But in West Coast Swing it’s kind of a Holy Grail – or as I like to call it, an endless frontier – that dancers of all levels, from Beginner to Champion, chase after.

IMHO, there are three key reasons for this focus on musicality in WCS, which I’ll share below. But first …

Definition of Musicality in Dance

What exactly constitutes “musicality” when dancing? I like this explanation from Dance Advantage best:

“Musicality in dance has two main components. Receptivity and Creativity.

Musical receptivity is one’s ability to receive, comprehend, be sensitive to, and have a working knowledge of musical concepts like rhythm, tempo, phrasing, and even mood.

Musical creativity (or musical artistry) is the ability to connect with accompanying music, interpret it, or phrase and add movement dynamics that relate to music even in the absence of accompaniment, in a way that is unique or interesting.

“Musicality in dance then might be considered a measure or degree to which a dancer is receptive and creative in his translation or rendering of music through movement. It is a key ingredient in a dancer’s display of artistry.”

The Endless Frontier

I think there are three main reasons that musicality is such a focus of West Coast Swing dancing:

  1. Popular music. WCS is danced to popular music. Now, you might argue that pop music is some of the least complex music being made, but that’s not the point. The point is that WCS dancers are constantly chasing after the newest songs to dance to, which means that we’re often dancing to songs we don’t know very well. Unlike many other partnered dances that are danced to a classic “canon” of music, WCS is the most musically promiscuous. We don’t even dance to a single particular rhythm (like Zouk or Kizomba). So, knowledge of musical structure (musical receptivity) is key to success in quickly figuring out how to dance well to an unfamiliar song.
  2. An inherently un-phrased dance. WCS is not a “phrased” dance – which means that the basic patterns of the dance do not match the musical structure. Pop music is built in fours (the musicians count: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4), which dancers count in 8s (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). But our patterns are in 6 counts, 8 counts, and various extensions. WCS doesn’t naturally match the music (like, say, a Cha-Cha or a Waltz does) – so as dancers, we have to make that work in other ways. This is where both musical receptivity and musical creativity come into play.
  3. Partnering. It’s a challenge enough to dance alone, to understand music, and to be musically creative. In a partner dance, we have to do it WITH a partner. And of all partner dances, WCS is the most open to individual expression and interpretation. If the leader and follower are “on the same page” musically, this can be easy and even glorious. But if partners are not both in tune with the music, it can be anything from boring to tortuous to dance. Not only do we need an understanding of music and creativity, we also need sufficient skills to converse with our partner about that music – without using our words!

These are the challenges that keep us interested and engaged in the dance. They are the reasons that we can dance nothing but WCS for hours and hours straight. Every song presents a new challenge. It’s also fun to watch other dancers of all levels “work it out” on the dance floor.

How to Learn Musicality

If you’re truly interested in learning, you will never stop learning musicality in WCS. Even those who achieve mastery in it continue to play with it – to see how far they can push the edges of musicality and the dance.

My best advice is to take every musicality lesson or workshop offered, by anyone who offers it. Each one will give you a new bit of insight, a new way of thinking about it, and will connect another dot in the great landscape of West Coast Swing musicality.

Three of the WCS Musicality “greats” – all of whom I’ve had the pleasure to train with – are:

Don’t miss a chance to learn from any of them!

Also check back with this website or our Facebook page because we offer month-long musicality group lessons in Ottawa a few times per year, and we also offer musicality weekends.