Of all the Lindy Hop videos on all of YouTube, one stands out as my clear favourite. Shot at Lindy Focus XI in 2013—at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville, NC—it features modern masters Sharon Davis and Juan Villafane. They’re dancing to Buddy Johnson’s “Shufflin’ and Rollin,’’ my all-time favorite dancing tune (a position this video helped to cement).
Why am I so fond of both song and video? I can sum it up in a single word: musicality, the bedrock of both a great tune and a spectacular dance. Both of these performances are awash with it. So, what is it?
Seek a simple definition you’ll get something about the melodiousness of a tune, its rhythmic qualities or the talent of the performers. Otherwise you’ll find essays on jazz, its typical 32-bar AABA structure, and the like. Well that’s just dandy for musicians, but how about dancers?
Like the music, good jazz dance is an intoxicating mix of variety and repetition, predictability and surprises. A dance has musicality when its dynamics expresses those of the song (or one of the instruments); its volume, its flow. If you might as well be dancing to a metronome, your dance has no musicality. So, how do Sharon and Juan use musicality so well? The rhythm of the piano in this song’s six top bars could be written like so:
Deedly-doo, bada-DA-DA-dooby-ba. (x5)
Deedly-doo, deedly-doo, deedly-doo…
The same pidgin could describe the rhythm that the pair are dancing; the deedly-doo of their rock-step-spin-step, the DA-DA of their perfectly syncopated stomps (first Sharon, then Juan) and so on, right up to the sixth bar in which Juan hits a break while Sharon deedly-does three head-whipping spins.
The next six bars follow the same format. For five, Sharon and Juan do five swing-outs (with Sharon showing off some neat variations). On the sixth, when the music changes, they switch to some spins ending in a freeze on the big brass hit. Now they’re dancing to the brass section; they go into version of classic step The Chase, its little breaks perfectly synchronised with the tune. (I could go on like this for the full three minutes, but I won’t.)
Taking the dance as a whole, we see that where the walking bassline plods, the dancers move constantly and fluidly. Where it pauses, the pair tend to freeze momentarily or do something different, like a spin or slide. That’s musicality in dance; a correlation between what we see and hear, making us go: “Wow! How do they do that?”
The thing is, musicality in swing dance isn’t something just for the top flight. It’s accessible to all, with just a little practice, and need not be choreographed for hours in advance. Yet I recently watched attendees at a musicality workshop hit the social dance floor and immediately go back to their old ways, stringing together quasi-random steps in time with the beat.
In fairness to all, musicality is a difficult thing to teach. (I know, because I’ve tried.) What I now tell my students is this: the dancers with the best musicality are LIARs; they listen, internalize, anticipate and respond (because I love a good acronym).
LIAR: Listen, Internalize, Anticipate, Respond
Anticipation is key, letting the dancer respond to musical phrases as they happen rather than lagging behind; like a singer who voices lyrics on exactly the right beats, not after them. When dancing, as when singing, it helps to know a song inside out. Listen to your favourite records enough times and you’ll come to know every note; you’ve internalized it. Moving to the music becomes as simple as counting the bars and waiting for that break.
But it’s possible to muddle through a number, faking familiarity by picking up patterns. This is where the ear and knowledge of the genre come into play. The thing to remember is that jazz tends to repeat; we can talk about AABA and the like, but fans will have a feel for how it works (you’ve internalized its conventions). If the first six bars are uniform for five and different on the sixth, you can bet that bars seven to twelve will be similar. So keep the steps samey from seven to eleven and be ready to switch it up on twelve. There! You’re dancing with musicality.
Returning to the singing analogy, this might be compared with humming an unfamiliar song by the second or third the chorus. At folk concerts, singers often ask the audience to join in with the choruses. Few join in with the first, but everyone has by the fourth. In the same way, a dancer might half-heartedly mimic a musical break on first hearing it, but smash it on the second time around.
Another key thing to bear in mind: swing dancing is not a test. Outside of big contests, it’s just a bit of fun; no-one is grading you and you cannot fail at it. But if you do take it semi-seriously and having fun means doing it well (a category into which I’d put myself) then you’ll want to know how to improve your musicality. The answer is: listen more. Relax into a tune on your coffee breaks. Make swing your go-to driving music; just as with driving the better you know it, the less you need to think about it.
Lastly, if all of this seems like too much to think about, then take your dancing back to basics. I’m such a fan of musicality that I would rank it above fancy footwork or flash moves; the basic step, the odd turn and well-timed breaks beat trickery every time.
Frame, connection and musicality are key to good dancing at any level. (And by good, I do mean fun.) The first describes the position of one’s own body parts, the second how one joins to one’s partner and the third one’s relationship to the music. Mastering the first two allows complex steps to be led and followed, with time, but picking up musicality is a quick way to make swing dance (and by extension the music) much more enjoyable. If you really love jazz, then show me with your feet.