The Subtle Dance of Musicality

December 5, 2011 Caroleeena DancehoopdancePoiUncategorized

Musicality is a major aspect of all kinds of dance, including hoopdance, but absorption in tricks, technique, choreography, even costuming can get in the way of dancing musically.

Even people who have taken dance classes often struggle with the concept of musicality. It can be hard to define and even harder to teach. I’m going to try anyway. For this blog post, I am going to start by discussing timings and how they relate to hooping and hoopdance and then I will move on to phrasings and musicality within phrasings. Here we go…

To me, musicality is the difference between dancing “to” the music and dancing “in” the music. Many people mistakenly believe that being musical simply means dancing on time. I disagree. I believe musicality sometimes involves going off time in the strictest sense of the word, following an underlying melody, or a single instrument, or a soaring vocal, or a piece of the lyrics, instead of just staying on the main beat of the song. Music has form. There is the vertical unfolding of the melody, the horizontal beat punctuations of the rhythm, the ebb and flow of the harmony that runs between them, but each musical phrase has its own shape, its own emphasis. The dancer gets to sample from all those.

A dancer interprets music. She doesn’t just dance the steps as choreographed but adds her own creative nuance. The naturally musical dancer is less concerned with the steps than with her ability to feel the rhythm, inhabit the feel of the story and move to the music expressively. She anticipates phrasing, pauses and emphasis.

Musicality is not taught very often, or very well, especially to hoopers. The reason for this is because it’s so challenging to define and explain. One needs to hear it in the music, to listen for cues in the melody, harmony, percussion, lyrics and the emotion in the vocals. One needs to live and breathe the story of the song in all its aspects. Unfortunately, beginner hoopdancers are rarely even taught about rhythm or dancing to a timing let alone that they can venture outside these timings to dance on other rhythms or even dance the role of a single instrument within the song. Because of that, I will start this essay by discussing timings.

metronomeTimings are somewhat simple to get your mind around. In western culture, most music is either on a 4-count or a 3-count. Four count rhythms are the most common. One-Two-Three-Four, One-Two-Three-Four. Three counts, such as waltzes are also fairly common. It’s helpful to know this because if you’re trying to learn a move that has a count of three, like the three-beat weave, using 3-count music helps enormously! Otherwise you are fighting the timing … trying to do a 3-beat movement to a 4-beat rhythm.

No matter the timing, you choose where to put emphasis within the phrase. You may choose “ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, …”, or you may choose “one, two, THREE, one, two, THREE, …”. You choose. And how you choose often depends on the other things happening in the song — lyrically, vocally, instrumentally, melodically, harmonically or rhythmically.

You are happening to the hoop, the hoop is not happening to you!

Another thing to realize, though, is that, even though the song has its own rhythm and tempo, you get to set your own rhythm and tempo. You are happening to the hoop, the hoop is not happening to you! You are pushing it and if you weren’t it wouldn’t be moving so the count is not about when your hoop comes around. It’s not about when the hoop hits your belly. It’s about when you push! With each push, you get your first handle on setting the tempo. By adding counts, you begin to control that tempo. Control your breathing and you can better control your timings. This is never more important than when the song’s tempo speeds up or is very fast and you don’t want to speed up or go very fast. There is a simple solution to this — the “and”. If you are dancing to a 4-beat tempo and the speed of the song suddenly increases but you do not want to increase your speed (which wears you out and can rob your dance of both flow and nuance), tune into your breath and add an “and” between beats. “One-two-three-four” becomes “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and”. You have effectively taken a 4-beat phrasing and stretched it to a more manageable 8-beat, which also allows you to decide where you want to place emphasis within that phrasing.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be a professional to be able to play with musicality. Simply understanding the basic slow and quick structures is a good place to start. Once you’ve understood and can clearly hear the slows and quicks in the music, try adding “and” to effectively regulate your own tempo. Understand that an “and” count can be an arm movement, a head flick, a hip rotation… Anything.

Once you’ve gotten that down, try breaking the beats down even further, counting “a-1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4″. See how that allows you to adjust your tempo to allow for more play within a phrasing? Once you control the tempo, you can emphasize any aspect within it. You control your dance. The song doesn’t control you.


Put on the fastest song you have. Dance to it as slow as you can. Make sure you are dancing rhythmically, just slower than you feel inclined to. Then play the song again and experiment with changing your tempo from slow to fast to slow to fast within the song, all while staying on the beat. This exercise will teach you so much about the power you have within you to set and control tempo.

I love youNow I want to talk a bit about the emphasis within phrasing. This is challenging to describe since I can’t show you in movement so, instead, I am going to try to demonstrate it another way. Consider the words, “I love you”. Now, say them out loud emphasizing the “I”. “I” love you. Next emphasize the word “love” in your phrasing. I LOVE you. Next emphasize the “you”. I love YOU. See how the emphasis changes the meaning of the sentence, even though the exact same words are spoken every time? Now consider saying these words with different motivations — exact same words except thinking, a. I’m so frustrated with you that I want to slap you, b. I can’t believe I’m never going to see you again, c. This is so wonderful! I never thought I’d find this, d. I can’t believe you’re in love with someone else, e. You are the best chocolate pie EVER! The possibilities go on and on. How you say the words conveys the meaning. It is the same with dance. It is the song sung by the body. Where you place emphasis within a phrasing conveys meaning.

These concepts are more challenging to explain in words than they are to just feel in your body and in the music. Realize that all these meanings, tempos, various emphases, they are all already in there, in the music. The infinite possibilities of musical expression are all in there waiting to be discovered and expressed through your body. Have fun with it! Try the same thing many different ways to find the aspects that resonate most with you! Your body is your instrument. Play high notes and low, fast and slow, hard and soft. Use your body to expand and contract. Don’t worry if you are doing it right or if it looks good. Just have a good time dancing. Free yourself to experiment. I guarantee that once you set yourself free to experience the story, the emotion, the rest will fall into place and you will finally feel like you are dancing, not just doing steps, not just hooping.

beatdancehoopdancehoopdance. musicalitymelodymusicalityrhythm

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