Dancing is literally defined as moving rhythmically to music. Many of our lessons and practice time in ballroom, however, happen without music. Even when we do get to dance to music in our training, it’s not going to be the same music that we’ll dance to at competition. It seems to be a challenge unique to ballroom. I remember explaining this to people who had experience with the more mainstream dance competitions, where dancers compete with routines choreographed to specific songs, and being looked at like I was crazy.
You don’t know what music you’ll be dancing to??
Nope. And if you enter a Jack and Jill event, you won’t even know who your partner is going to be!
How do you prepare for that??
For starters, we at least know the timing and approximate tempo of the music. A waltz is danced in 3/4 time and at 28-30 measures per minute (mpm). A cha cha is 4/4 time and about 30 mpm. So no matter what song is chosen, a waltz is a waltz and a cha cha is a cha cha.
The second thing that helps is that the character of each dance remains about the same. Cha cha is upbeat and playful. Rumba is sexy. Tango is passionate. There are variations of course, and each song brings its own personal flavor. But the general character stays consistent. You won’t ever have a sorrowful cha cha.
Like I said at the beginning though, frequently we don’t even have our consistently timed and characterized music to dance to. We’re dancing to nothing or maybe to the sound of our teacher counting out loud. The silence can amplify our awkwardness and when we’re still learning the steps, the dancing may not feel like dancing at all.
If you have previous dance experience that made you accustomed to learning a routine to a specific song, not having music or knowing what song you’ll be dancing to come performance time can feel ridiculous and hindering. Even after dancing ballroom for six years, I still ask Teacher if we can dance a part to music while I’m still learning it because I’m having trouble connecting the steps to the prescribed rhythm.
Why the holdout on dancing to music? Wouldn’t music help us feel the rhythm and the steps more?
Yes and no.
Ever been in a group class where the teacher is moving a bit fast for you or it’s a bit more advanced than you usually take? You feel like you’re doing ok with getting through the routine without music, but when the music comes on and you have to dance the routine at full tempo, your brain goes, “holy shit, that’s fast” and you forget everything you’ve been doing for the last 20 minutes.
We have a LOT to think about in ballroom. As we improve, all or most of that stuff gets transferred from our brain memory to our muscle memory, so we don’t have to actively think about it as much. But if we’re still all in our brains and then we add the music factor on top of that, things can quickly fall apart. I’ve danced at competitions where I came off the floor and I couldn’t tell you what music was playing, or if there was music playing at all, because I was still so much in my head. There was too much to process and think about, so my brain basically blocked out the music. I could hear it in the background, but I wasn’t listening to it. I think Embassy Ball 2018 was the first competition where I was able to really listen to and connect with the music in every dance, because I felt so confident and strong in what I could do without music.
Practicing without music allowed me to hear and connect with my own body’s rhythm. How does my body like to rise in waltz? How does it feel when I stick the exit of a double turn and how does it feel when I stumble?
If I was doing a round in my solo practice, I would still aim to keep the correct timing, but not having the music allowed me to focus on where my body really embraced the timing and where it fought it, without the external influence of a particular song. It’s kind of like my dancing (the steps, the technique, etc.) is the cake and the music is the frosting. The base or the core of the dessert doesn’t change. I’ll dance the same general routine no matter what waltz is played. The specific waltz that is chosen becomes the frosting, the final touch that can turn a muffin into a cupcake.
Just like you have to bake the cake before you can apply the frosting, it’s helpful to develop your dancing before you add music to it.
Granted, the metaphor isn’t foolproof. Some of my best lead-follow training came from social dancing where you’re always practicing to music. The music provides the clearest understanding of the timing, for obvious reasons. So sometimes the frosting should be added to the uncooked batter.
Don’t discount the benefits of practicing without the frosting though. You need the quiet to be able to listen to your own body and better sense where things feel right or wrong.
I’ve thought of another analogy. Do you like to sing along to the radio? Ever turn off the radio in the middle of a song and keep singing? Unless you’re getting ready to audition for American Idol, you probably sounded a lot better with the radio on. You’re mimicking the singer you hear, but when you don’t have that reference, you’re left with just untrained you. I definitely sound a LOT better with the radio on to cover up my flat notes.
Trained singers learn how to sing the correct notes without needing an external source to mimic, just like trained ballroom dancers learn to dance a properly timed foxtrot without needing a song playing. The rhythm of the music becomes internalized, like it’s a part of them. So when it’s time to perform, the internal music just has to sync up with the external song. And away we go!
Music helps us begin developing our rhythm, but it’s important to turn off the radio occasionally and listen solely to that internal song.