JEFF ZAHOS

Dance Musician | Audio Engineer | Sound Designer

The Unique Demands of Making Music with Dance

Musical collaboration with dance is different than other types of music making.  For both the musician and the dancers, the dance studio is simultaneously a performance space and a laboratory.  Music for dance exists with a purpose outside of itself -- It is NOT absolute music.  Collaborating with dance is wonderful because dancers are necessarily present and engaged. Dance class or rehearsal are the daily rituals dancers grow the “knowing body”, which prepares them for other modes of knowing.  For the serious dance musician, its is no different.  They use these shared daily rituals to build their skills, knowledge, experience, and relationships - Their Practice.  Making music in dance class requires you to be creative and above all, courageous!

Firstly, playing music with dance requires the development and understanding of an entirely different set of criteria for evaluating success or failure.  The dance musician must let go of the ideal of perfection - To be a successful dance musician, you have to unlearn the criteria for evaluating success or failure in music performance that you've learned in traditional music training. There are completely different criteria in the dance studio.  You must begin to understand failure not as an end but as an opportunity to make decisions and continue without hesitation.  It is the perfect arena for experimentation, risk and failure- Certainly the dancers are taking risks and failing daily.  You must do the same in order to give them what they need.  You can no longer be afraid of failure or trying to avoid it.  In order to be a successful dance musician, you have to be able to throw out all the ways of evaluating success or failure you’ve learned your whole life in other musical situations.  I have found that sometimes the music that seemed "wrong" to me (using my old ways of evaluating) was enthusiastically appreciated by the dancers, because it was "right" for the energy in that space, at that moment.

A dance musician must treat their playing with gravity, however simple or uninteresting it may seem to them.  This means a change of focus from executing the skill of playing music to making music for a moment.  

A dance musician develops the ability to make musical decisions very quickly, stick with them and see them through. All of your prior musical training and experience will be employed, with only 4 counts notice.  You basically get 5-6-7-8 and your are making music NOW.  Often, there is little or no time to ask questions and the score is the movement you’re seeing. 

A dance musician must be musically courageous!  If you don’t already have musical COURAGE, you’ll develop it playing for dance class.  Have you ever HAD to play an “adagio” on djembe? Have you ever HAD to improvise as a soloist faster than you can play on an instrument? Have you ever HAD to make music on an instrument you don’t know how to play?  As a dance musician, you'll likely end up having to face challenges like these, and you’ll do so without fear.

Lastly, a dance musician must work as hard to dance the music as the dancers have to to dance the dance.  

MUSICAL TECHNIQUES FOR ACCOMPANYING MODERN DANCE: 1. DESTABILIZING

 

In order for a body to move, it cannot be completely stable.  To me, stability implies perfect balance, and when something is perfectly balanced, it is not moving, or at least not changing. Only when something is destabilized, imbalanced, does it start moving, or falling.  Destabilization leads to moving, moving breaks down rigidity in the body, and this leads to controlled falling, which is one fundamental approach to understanding dance.  Music which alternately emphasizes the pulse and has syncopation (notes or emphases which fall between pulses or beats), destabilizes the pulse and propels the moving body. Here's an example:

Consider the 3-3-2 rhythmic pattern.  It is common or at least present, in one form or another, in pretty much every musical tradition that I know of, especially in music that people dance to.  In fact, it is /central/ to many types of dance music.  Listen to some Calypso music from Trinidad and Tobago, or the music of Cesaria Evora or Lura from Cape Verde. You'll recognize the "long, long, short" pattern.  Try clapping it. The Xs are claps and the -s are rests*:

 ||: X - - X - - X - |  X - - X - - X - :||

... try counting out loud while clapping:

 ||: "1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2" | "1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2":||

 

Why is this rhythm so common in dance music?  I think it's because it has a perfect balance of stability, destabilization, and propulsion.  Let's take a tour through one cycle of this rhythm, with a little analysis:

STABILITY: The first note is fully stable and grounded. It is the "big" beat and has the least potential energy.

DESTABILIZATION: The second note is an upbeat, it's syncopated, unstable, and has the most potential energy, which is released and drops us from the furthest height on our way back to landing on the stable downbeat of the next cycle.  The syncopated second note causes an undulation in the body, around the beat.  I feel like it has an "up-ness" and movement "bounces off" this note.

PROPULSION:  Headed back toward stability, the third note, a somewhat stable note, propels us towards "home" at the downbeat of the next cycle.

...and there you have it.  The cycle begins again, and people dance!

Of course, there are other rhythmic structures that destabilize.  Various types of claves (Rumba, son, African 6/8 clave), West African, Indian, and Middle Eastern rhythms contain cycling patterns of upbeat and downbeat emphases, and are delightfully destabilizing.

What rhythms DO NOT destabilize?  Though 3-3-2 patterns are often present in rock music (i.e. the bass and guitar strumming rhythm on R.E.M.'s Man On The Moon), the music is usually firmly grounded by the kick drum on the downbeat, and especially by the backbeat on the snare drum.  For this reason, even though it's some of my favorite music, I tend to find rock music and rock drum beats to be very stabilizing, and not very inspiring, propulsive in the dance studio, but maybe I just haven't worked out how to make it work yet, and it's actually a treasure trove of dance-inspiring sounds!

*You'll notice I don't use European music notation.  There are a few reasons for this.  European music notation is a very effective shorthand, useful for getting a musician to play a very specific thing. The 3-3-2 or "long, long, short" pattern can come in all kinds of rhythmic flavors, (swung, straight, something in between, uneven, etc.), many of which would not be represented accurately by two dotted eighth notes and an eighth note.  Additionally, not everybody reading this knows how to read European musical notation, and the improvised music that I play in the dance studio has more in common with musical styles that have the body or voice as the point of origin, rather than an idea or the written symbol (a shorthand) used to represent it.

FEELING AND COUNTING TIME IN THE DANCE STUDIO

WHAT IS FELT

Sometimes in the dance studio, musical confusion arises between dancers and musicians.  To help, I believe it’s helpful to begin with one thing we all share, the pulse. Pulse has to do with what is felt. To me, the pulse is an emphasis of the body, usually a point of weight or momentum, an impact, a maximum (or minimum), the onset of a sound or of light. In music and dance, the pulse often occurs periodically (an even amount of time or space between each occurrence) and each sound and movement exists in relationship to it – with it, against it, weaving in and out of it. On the most fundamental level, I imagine music and dance sharing the pulse, coded deeply within us from our ancestral past. As bipeds, when we locomote, there is a pulse, from step to step, which is both felt in the body and audible.

WHAT IS COUNTED

Often, musicians and dancers bring the pulse into the conscious, numerical/analytical mind by counting it. Musicians call the pulses "beats", and generally, dancers often use the term "counts".  Beats and counts are synonyms - That is, they mean the same thing. Musicians have usually learned a very specific way of counting beats, subdivisions (smaller rhythms which fit inside the beat), and other rhythm units (such as measures and phrases), and it is very helpful for dancers/dance teachers to have some language in place to help when communicating with musicians. Both musicians and dancers count rhythm using numbers (for the counts/beats), and some combination of other syllables for subdivisions (“and”, “ah” are common for subdivisions).

CONNECTING FEELING AND COUNTING

Sometimes difficulty arises in communication about the feeling of movement and the specific counts in a dance combination. From the start of their training, most musicians count verbally and work in relationship to a constant beat (often using a metronome to train in a sense of steady pulse). Dancers are often more adept at sensing how movement feels, sometimes in relationship to the beat, and don’t spend as much time verbalizing.

Meter can be understood as the link between what is felt and what is counted.  It is a way of describing the feel and counting the number of notes between counts.

There are three types of meter - Simple, compound and complex, in music theory parlance.  I prefer to use the terms Duple, Triple, and Complex, because they are a little more intuitive. Duple meter groups notes by two and multiples of two and has a “straight” feel. Triple meter groups notes by threes and has a “round” or “swinging” feel. Complex meters are counted in odd numbers other than 3, such as 5, 7, 10, 11, 13 and up, and often feel “uneven”, “lopsided” or “like one leg is longer than the other”, although if you encounter/use them enough, they can begin to feel totally familiar and natural like duple and triple meters.

  • Duple meters are usually counted: “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and-Five-and-Six-and...”
  • Triple meters are usually counted: “One-and-ah-Two-and-ah-Three-and-ah-Four-and-ah…”

From a musical counting standpoint, a phrase can be understood as the way that counts are grouped, to correspond with a segment of movement.  The most common type of musical phrase of any meter, in a dance context, has 8 beats or counts. However, a phrase can have any number of counts.

…and here’s where things can get a little tricky. Often dancers will say “this is an 8” to mean a phrase with groupings of 8 counts, in duple meter: “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and…”. And similar terminology could be used for a phrase with groupings of a different number of counts, in duple meter: “a nine”, “a twelve”, “a six”, etc., all counted “One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four-and-Five-and…”.

However, the terms “a nine”, “a twelve”, “a six” could also be used to indicate a phrase with a triple meter feel with one third as many counts (pulses) as its name. For example:

  • Three counts subdivided by threes (triple meter), resulting in nine total subdivisions could be called/counted as “a nine” (3X3=9)(pulses or counts in ALL CAPS): “ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six-SEVEN-eight-nine”
  • Four counts subdivided by threes (triple meter), resulting in twelve total subdivisions could also be called/counted as “a twelve” (4X3=12): ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six-SEVEN-eight-nine-TEN-eleven-twelve”
  •  Two counts (triple meter) - “a six”, etc.  

In these cases, the numbers 9, 12, and 6 refer to the total number of subdivisions in each phrase, not the number of counts.

AUDIO MAXIMS

I have a few specific ways that I like things done in my “shop”.  These things save time during setup and strike, increase efficiency, make sound check easier, keep people safe, keep gear functioning well, reduce stress and frustration with misplaced things, project an image of professional operation, and extend professional courtesy to co-workers and the people who use the space and equipment next.

Onstage

  • Excess cable is coiled under the mic stand to which it belongs, or by the monitor to which it belongs - this saves time if something needs to move (and things WILL need to move)

  • Mic cables should NOT be wrapped around mic stands, they should fall loosely from the mic, and coil or pass beneath the stand.  If you’d like, you can loosely loop the cable over a knob on the stand.

  • Use subsnakes onstage to reduce mic cable run length and keep the stage tidy

Load-in, load-out and storage

  • Microphone stands are stored with the counterweight up, near the pivot joint, with the stand feet flush with the bottom of the main shaft. 

  • Use wheels if you can to move equipment, especially heavy equipment.  Avoid lifting and carrying as much as possible.
  • Microphone clips stay with their microphone!  This keeps clips from getting damaged in storage, and eliminates situations where you can't find the right clip for a mic.

  • ONLY use console tape (or "artist's" tape) on the console, rack cases, cables or any piece of audio gear. DO NOT use gaff, masking (blue or any other color), duct, or ANY other type of tape!

  • If a piece of gear is moving, it should be in its case, a rack, a bag or a tub.  If it is moving, it should have SOME kind of protection.

  • Lift cables over rolling cases, not the other way around!

Pro Audio Acumen

  • Clear/zero the mixer/console and any outboard gear.  Return the knobs, faders, switches and input and output patch to the neutral state when the show is completed.

  • Patch one-to-one whenever possible.  If needed, cross-patch at only one point, onstage or at console.

  • Return the patch room patch to it’s neutral or normalled state when show is completed.