ON THE CUSP - How much music is in dance - and how much dance is in music?

There are already many articles around that discuss the relationship between dance and music, and I have to say I really enjoyed reading up on this topic. In this month's article, I would first like to present some of the discoveries that have previously been made by others. Then I would like to share my own contemplations about it, giving examples and illustrations from the world of tap dance, in order to ultimately apply it to all art forms existing.


Scientific background

One of the most thorough studies on the relationship between music and movement has been published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in 2012, and I recommend reading the whole paper, it's really interesting.

The researchers postulated that music and dance share the ability to cause and express emotion. The word e-motion derives from the Latin emovere – to move something out. In this case, to move something out of us, transforming feelings into motion. So the connection between feelings and movement is nothing new. And we all know that music induces feelings. We can be literally “moved” by a performance. And who doesn't have at least this one tune that just makes them jump up and dance? Or even simply the act of swaying, tapping your feet or nodding your head when you hear music. The feelings created by music logically imply some kind of movement too.


So the experiment was conducted with two groups: US college students on the one hand, and Kreung people, a culturally isolated ethnic minority in Cambodia, on the other hand. Fairly different.

The participants had to express five basic emotions – anger, happiness, peacefulness, sadness, and fear – utilizing two special systems developed by the researchers which acted as either music or movement. The scientists noticed that “the Kreung and United States data were remarkably similar given the possibility space”. Interestingly though, there was a notable discrepancy between anger and fear – the Kreung “angry” music was closer to the US “scared” music. This suggests that anger and fear are very closely connected, up to the point that makes them feel like the same emotion. This is thought-provoking in the light of the global goings-on. But this is a different topic.


The conclusion of the study was that “first, the dynamic features of emotion expression are cross-culturally universal, at least for the five emotions tested here.” So the way humans express emotion is not tied to their specific culture. It is something that everybody was born with. Our cultures do not train us to perceive and express emotions in a certain way, it is an innate instinct. Emotions feel the same for everyone. “Second, these expressions have similar dynamic contours in both music and movement. That is, music and movement can be understood in terms of a single dynamic model that shares features common to both modalities.” This means that we are intuitively able to express our feelings through both music and movement in the same capacity. If we continue this thought, humans seem to naturally not care about the artistic genre of the expression they are making. For our natural being, it all fulfills the same purpose – expression. In this case both music and movement are just tools that catalyze a universal emotion.


There are several other studies that found out that we naturally gravitate towards musical and movement patterns that we associate with the human body, for example we are most comfortable walking in the tempo of a music at 120bpm, because this is the natural pace for the majority of people.

Similarly, music has “inductive effects” on the body. It can be relaxing, energizing, agitating, etc. Vice versa, our movement affects the music we are playing.



So what does this mean in the context of art?

The idea that movement generates sound, which is widely understood by tap dancers, probably applies to any instrument, may it be posture, breath, or any other way of preparing the sound. It is of course especially immanent and visible in tap dancing. But if you think about it, there are many musicians whose playing is very physical too – Keith Jarrett engaging his entire body and face while playing the piano.  Sonny Rollins moving his torso in all directions while playing the saxophone. Thelonious Monk who cannot keep his feet still under the piano.

I doubt that this is a “show effect”. It just happens naturally to these musicians. It's like unintentional choreography. Imagine watching a musician the way you watch a dancer...

I remember seeing a photo exhibition about musician's hands at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and finding it really interesting because usually the main focus would be listening, and not watching. But depending on the instrument you play, you have to use your body in a certain way, even if it's the most minimal motion one can imagine.


Especially when audiences are not that familiar with what they are consuming, they probably only notice the most immanent thing. They listen to music, they see dance, and they look at a painting with the same expectations of reality that they apply to their everyday visual perception.

Tap dancers know this struggle all too well, trying to get the audience to actively listen to what they are saying with their feet, and not only look at the flashy fast footwork.

One of the main factors that contribute to this challenge is that the difference between tap dancing and playing instruments such as drums, bass, or trumpet is that tap dancers always have to carry their entire body and lift all or part of their body weight when they want to produce a sound. It's a play with gravity. It is a bit like a singer's approach, in that the body itself is the main part of the instrument. When tap dancers are practicing and it doesn't sound the way they want to, they ask themselves “Which parts of my body do I have to adjust in order for the sound to come out right?”, with weight shifts being especially important in tap dancing (shout-out to all the times we danced a stamp instead of a stomp...).

While physical adjustments for a piano player may visibly affect only one body part like the arm or the lower back (although of course the entire body is involved too), for a tap dancer it will always be very visible in the whole body, just because they do not sit on, lean against, or hold something. The smallest weight shift changes the whole silhouette of the dancer, even if he or she has absolutely no intention to “dance” in a sense of specifically choosing a certain form of movement.

There is a direct connection in a sense that tap dancers are the player and the medium at the same time, as opposed to the player playing a third element

(= instrument) that acts as the medium. Maybe that's one aspect of why tap dance always seems to draw people's attention – it's something very raw and archaic still, because watching a tap dancer makes the link between music and the physical movement behind it very obvious and relatable, even if you don't know anything about it.


This discussion touches what I find hard to explain when I have to describe what tap dancing means to me. For the sake of keeping myself brief, I usually just say that I see myself as a musician. But that's not the entire truth actually. I do approach my art like a musician. But I do not ignore my body. I focus on my body not in the sense of creating a look, but in trying to find the most natural and efficient movement in order to create the cleanest and most beautiful sound possible. Form follows function. And for me, movement is usually not the form, but the function. It's similar to musicians applying body systems like Alexander technique to their play. They become more aware of what their body is doing and how it influences their sound – and their expression. This is also where body language comes at play. If I sit or stand poorly, there will probably be some kind of emotional (and of course physical) block somewhere. But if I adjust my body in a healthy way, I'm able to reinforce the free flow of positive energy, which ultimately results in a freer artistic expression.


I think as tap dancers, we shouldn't have to consciously choose to be a dancer or a musician. I don't decide what I want to be first and then do, but I feel first, then do, and in the end see what it is, ideally without judging it. And of course our artistic expression can (and should probably) change over the years.

No matter though if we deem sound or movement to be the form of our art - nothing should feel like an obligation. I find real, genuine movement to be the most pleasing kind of movement. Personally when I choreograph I attempt to not make it seem artificial or “made-up” at all. There should be a reason behind all the movements that are being executed, not just put on top of the sound. The movement I make should be generated by my feelings, not by my rational intellect (would that even be art..?).


However, according to the study above it doesn't really matter which tools we choose to express ourselves. Whatever tool we choose just serves as a catalyst for the expression of our inner world. And something in us seems to intuitively know the deeply rooted connection between music and dance. It's only when we start using our brains that things get complicated. As usual.


Every art form holds different aspects by its nature. And the closer we get to what is considered the “borders” of an art form, the more we notice how much everything is connected and that transitions are fluid. Music, dance, fine art, drama – they all overlap each other. Many of us have probably realized at one point or another that we almost get more inspiration out of a “foreign” genre of art than stewing in the juice of our own “art form of choice”. And if you study any kind of art in college, there will be a variety of classes that cover way more than what you study in the first place. Acting classes for dancers. Dance classes for musicians. Singing lessons for actors.



Waves, sound, and rhythm

Coming back to the relation between music and dance, it is important to keep in mind that a sound is actually movement. Every sound produces a measurable wave, a vibration. The sound wave traveling through space is – movement. Vice versa, the measure of motion is speed. If an object travels through space fast enough, precisely faster than the speed of sound, you can hear this movement as a sonic boom. So even plain science shows that sound is a part of movement and movement is a part of sound. Applied to this article's context: music (which is sound arranged in a certain rhythm) is a part of dance (which is movement arranged in a certain rhythm), and dance is a part of music. Rhythm is an important word.

It's not exclusive to percussion. Rhythm is everywhere. It is almost like a metaphor. We start our life on earth with the rhythm of our heart beat. Rhythm develops into patterns, therefore rhythm is the principle behind any kind of composing, be it a song, a choreography, a painting, or a poem. Elements that are born out of rhythm are beats. Grooves. Melodies. Chords. Dance figures. Choreography. Shapes. Movement. Color. Speech. Storytelling. Dynamic. Timing. The list is endless, as well as the number of definitions for the word rhythm. And many of these keywords can be applied to different art forms. Rhythm is the root of everything. It unites all that exists. Neither music nor dance could exist without rhythm.


After all these considerations I would like to ask: What the heck is “danceable” music supposed to be? Since every form of music implies movement, as proven by science and personal experience, I would be curious to hear what music sounds like that you cannot dance to.

This by the way touches another prejudice tap dancers often face: for some reason many people believe that the faster the tune, the better it is suited for tap dancing. When you tell them you like to dance to ballads, you usually get a very surprised look.

I mean, it's just what you make out of it. Throughout history people have danced to various kinds of music, just because it was the spirit of the time. Ancient folklore, renaissance and baroque court dances, classical minuets, folk dances all over the world, lindy hop, rave, hip hop, and so on and so forth. The point is that you can't dance to all music in the same way. You have to listen and feel what the music makes your body do, and as many different musical expressions there are, as many distinctions a moving body is able to make.

And that is what it's all about. Emotion and rhythm. Neither music nor dance work without these two features. And if we express our emotions freely, some kind of rhythm will come out, may it be visual or audible – or most likely both.



The complete study of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America can be found at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3538264/


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