If you’ve ever asked a teacher or advanced dancer how to improve your musicality, the most likely (and in many ways correct) response, would have been to tell you to go and listen to more Salsa music.
This is indeed the missing link and the primary reason most social dancers (and even some professionals) fail to fully connect their physical dance movement to the music in a way that truly reflects the rhythms, flavours and feelings inherent within it.
However, for those who are not so well developed in their listening and interpretation skills, I believe it’s essential to understand what listening to a wide range of Salsa music actually “buys” you in dance terms.
The first thing to understand is that music is experienced in your brain and not your ears. Your outer and inner ear simply funnel the differences in air pressure – sound waves – to the receptors which in turn send electrical signals to the brain.
Your brain recognises this as music because the air disturbances occur in organised, regular patterns.
The real magic lies in your brain’s ability to recognise these musical patterns and threads, and attach emotion, stories and therefore meaning to it.
This occurs at a conscious and unconscious level:
On the one hand we decide what music we choose to listen to and what we reject based on personal preferences, popular culture, and our peers.
On the other hand, who hasn’t heard that awful annoying song on the radio first thing in the morning and ended up with it repeating on a loop inside their head for the rest of the day?
But before your emotional brain decides whether or not you like the song, in order to make sense of music, your brain first has to make sense of it by seeking out the patterns within it.
If you think this is the “beat” you’d be mistaken. You see, the beat doesn’t actually exist as a real “thing” that you can pick out in a song.
It’s basically an imaginary “clock” that the musicians agree to use to regulate the tempo they play at, so they can collaborate together in the song.
Percussion instruments play on some beats but not others. Some play in between the main beats. Some may play on all the beats, others on just a couple. Some may only play in certain parts of the song.
When you listen to music, your brain works out where the beat is based on all these other repeating patterns.
If the patterns aren’t consistent, or are buried under layers of other sounds, it may not be obvious.
This is why you can find the beat more easily in some tracks than others.
Some tracks take you on a journey. They may build slowly to a frenzied crescendo.
Some may go off at exciting tangents throughout, and then come around full circle finishing the same way they started.
Others plod steadily and predictably to their conclusion.
Some are a complex wash of layered sound, others have clear and distinct components.
So when you dance, your brain is trying to figure out what the patterns are so it can predict what’s coming next in order to plot and execute your dance movements on time.
It can only do this when it has heard enough similar patterns before.
This is relatively easy if you are just confining your dancing to stepping on the generic beats. However if you want to start picking out different rhythms with your footwork or other body parts, or hitting breaks, this is only possible when your brain has built up enough experience of those rhythms to be able to work out what’s likely to happen next.
This can take years and years of repeated exposure to the genre, as well as practice both in pre-determined moves (choreography) and improvisation.
But the good news is, the more often you expose yourself to Salsa music, the quicker the process becomes.
However it’s not enough just to play it as background music.
You need at the very least to have an understanding of the structure of the music, the instruments, the vocal phrasing, and all their interactions with each other. This gives your brain a “gateway” into matching movements to specific elements within the song.
Although your brain does a lot of this processing without you realising, when you want to add specific movements into the mix, this takes place in the pre-frontal cortex which is the brain centre responsible for future planning. It’s also the most consciously controlled part of your brain, and the part that goes into freeze whenever you get stressed or overloaded with input.
This is why consciously listening to Salsa music off the social dance floor when you’re not distracted by other tasks is important for developing your brain’s ability to pick out the “landmarks” in the music it needs for building a “map” of what to move and when in your dance.
So the next question is what music to listen to?
When the bulk of it is in Spanish, and when it all sounds the same when you first hear it, where do you actually start?
I’ll answer that question next time! 🙂