There are multiple reasons why you should do swing dancing next week. 1. It’s very good exercise, and far more enjoyable than doing time on a treadmill. 2. They say that learning new skills is good for the brain and that it might keep away Alzheimer’s Disease. 3. Going swing dancing always has the potential to be a good move socially – you will probably have a lot of fun and maybe make some new friends. 4. And (the actual purpose of this article), it could be a good move musically. A good musician should also be a dancer. (I realize that ‘being a dancer’ is not something easily achieved, so I will confine myself to the assertion that, at the very least, a musician ought to ‘go dancing’ every once in awhile.)
I have always appreciated being able to approach subjects holistically. In college, my grade in “Nutrition 101” improved because I was taking “Intro to Anatomy and Physiology” at the same time. In high school my chemistry class and my physics class studied batteries simultaneously and it was amazing how much more interesting batteries suddenly seemed to me. (That impression seems to have faded.) My music history professor lectured about Renaissance painting while we were studying Renaissance composers like William Byrd and Palestrina. In each case, this inter-connectivity gave my brain more points of reference by which to remember the information, increased my interest in the subject, and helped me understand both subjects better.
A musician might understand the conventions of a particular dance style (like the fact that a waltz should be played with an emphasis on the first beat, or that a Scottish reel ought to be kept strictly in time), but a visceral, physical understanding of the music is even better. The waltzes that I played on the harp never quite took flight until I learned the dance: until I had experienced floating across the dance floor like Cinderella.
The last time I attended a Grand Forks Symphony Orchestra concert, they performed Strauss’ Roses from the South. The director was Alexander Platt, and while he did not actually perform the box step on his dais, I could see him imagining it in his mind as he stepped first to the violins, then to the cellos, tilting his head to the side all the while like a Viennese Waltz pro. It was a joy to watch him.
At a college symphony rehearsal where I was subbing this last winter, the conductor ended her rehearsal with announcements. “I know you all have finals, but remember that if you miss the dress rehearsal, you will fail this class. Next week we do have one final session. And since next semester we will be playing folk dances, I have asked a friend of mine to come in and teach us all how to dance some of them, so that we can really understand the music we will be playing.” I thought it a brilliant idea. I almost wished I was still in college so I could participate.
Not only can knowing how to dance help a musician perform dance music better, in my own experience knowing how to dance helps me like that music. I was never much of a jazz fan until I learned how to swing dance. The Scottish schottische took on a whole new allure once I had learned the basic steps of Scottish Country Dancing.
For me, and I suspect most people, the enjoyment of music is about associations. I love a song if it taps into something within me: memories, associations, colors, ideas, moods, stories, or sentiments. And it is these same aspects that I pour into my own music.
If a musician has danced the steps that go with a piece of dance music, they have also felt what it feels like to move to that rhythm. They’ve created memories to attach to that music style. They’ve listened to that kind of tango music, or salsa music, or folk music. They’ve gotten to observe the culture that accompanies that dance, whether it is hip, elegant, folksy, formal, etc. I know for a fact that music performed with this kind of depth is just better. By learning to dance, a musician is creating a set of memories, learning a set of sensations and motions, maybe even skills, that will contribute to the musicality of his or her performances for the rest of his or her life. And I expect that that musician will soon come to love dancing for its own sake.
Anyone have any fun music/dance stories? Or a favorite place to go dancing in the Twin Cities?
Photos by Stephanie Claussen, Brittany Piatz, and Walt Disney.
Stephanie Claussen is a professional harpist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performs on her harp throughout Minnesota in various concerts, recitals, and collaborations with other musicians. Consider signing up for her e-mail newsletter to be notified directly of upcoming performances and important announcements.