Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Music and Lyrics - Dancing with the Fourth Partner

Often in a workshop you will hear the instructors talking about the 3rd partner - the music. It's all about learning to take the nuances of the music and learning how to express what you hear in your dance. Perhaps the music goes up a few notes - so you may show that as a slight rise in your step. Or there is a series of staccato (rapid) beats - so you may take a few quick steps to match that beat. If the general tone of the music is flowy, you make your dance float and keep everything smooth.

Many people "hear" the vocals as just another part of the music. It can be interesting to watch 2 people dance to the same piece - one is hitting all the musical points while the other is following the patterns set out by the vocals. Both are completely legitimate, and can be fun to watch. Yet when you watch the Pros in competition, there is something more (beyond their great technique, shaping, personal style, etc) that draws the crowds to their feet - and that is when they dance to the the lyrics.

When I talk to other dancers about this, I often get the reply "I don't hear the lyrics - I just dance to the music". WOW!!!!!! To me, that is like having Hot Apple Pie without the Ice Cream, a Baked Potato without Butter and Sour Cream, or London Battered Fish without the Tartar Sauce! Yes - you can eat all the above without their companion foods, but together you get a much yummier meal!

I am one of those dancers that hears EVERYTHING - at least as long as it is clear and not overshadowed by the music (which sadly often happens nowadays). Anyone who dances with me knows I lip synch like crazy and I often do things that make my leader look at me as if I have two heads....I know then that I am dancing with someone who doesn't hear the lyrics! I am fortunate - hearing what is being said comes easily to me and I memorize songs pretty quickly after first hearing them.

So - how DOES one start to hear the lyrics if it does not come naturally to you? There are several things you can do to train your ear, or at least to give you more to work with.

  1. Download and listen to 5-10 of the most popular songs that you are currently dancing to and play them at every opportunity that you can. Your car is a perfect place for this. Start to try to sing along with it....you will probably notice the chorus first. That is the part that repeats several times during the song. Get to know that part first....it's a safe place to start to play. Start with music that is slow and has a gentler groove like California Dreamin and Layla (Links to my top 10 favorites for learning are found in this blog). These two are part of the staple diet of most DJ's and are a safe bet for the beginner.
  2. Still can't understand what they are saying??? Download the lyrics from the internet. www.lyricsbox.comwww.metrolyrics.com, and www.lyrics.com are just a few of the many sites where you can find all the words to any reasonably popular song.Then, read the lyrics as you play the song a few times. Even though I hear the lyrics, there are many songs where parts are less clear to me - and I will search the lyrics to fill the gaps in the song for me. And beware - you may be surprised and/or shocked at some of the lyrics! Try singing the lyrics with the words in front of you so you really get a feel for where it all fits in.
  3. This is where it gets fun. Anytime you are listening to the music, start to imagine what you can do to hit different parts of the lyrics. I do this all the time in my car. And yes, I DO get some odd looks sometimes! If you are at home, try "hitting" a certain phrase or pick out some part of the theme of the song and play with that. At first you may feel odd and awkward, but that is the only way to get to become comfortable with anything new. If you are there, then GREAT! You are well on your way to learning something new...'cause you certainly won't learn it by wishful thinking!!!
  4. If you have a practice partner, get them to do all this too, then meet up and just play with what you each hear. Even with both of you knowing the lyrics, you will likely be drawn to express different parts of the song, or you will interpret the song differently. This is another great tool to your creativity - mimicking what your partner....I don't know how many new moves I have got this way!
  5. Go to Youtube and watch the Pros dance to a piece of music. If you really like their interpretation, download that song AND the lyrics, then go back and watch it again with the lyrics in front of you. Practice picking out when they are interpreting the lyrics, and when they are following the music.
Watch this version with Kyle Redd and Patty Vo to Secret. Yes - it's taken to quite the extreme, and you may not feel comfortable with going quite this far, but I think it is a great example of just how many places that this couple brought the LYRICS  in to their dance. (link to lyrics here)

So many places where they took a piece of the lyrics and had FUN with them! "Watch the Sunrise" ..."Jump outta my seat" , "I'm driving fast now" , and "but I want you so bad". This is one of the main reasons that so many of us are drawn to WCS - because we see the better dancers taking the musical interpretations to places we could never do in any other partnered dance. 

When you DO start to hear the lyrics -  invite them in to your dance. Play with them. Take risks with them. Have fun with them! After all, isn't that what dancing is all about????

Edit: A few weeks after I wrote this Robert Royston and Jill Demarco showed exactly how it is done at Swing Diego to the song "Stroken by Clarence Carter. Take a look at this, google the lyrics if you need to so that you really get just how well they are playing to the fourth partner, and enjoy!

Thanks to CJ Henry and everyone else who contributed to the content of this blog! And apologies for the randomness of the placement of the song links - I can't seem to get them to just line up :^(


    1. Ummmm... Little boo boo here: "Watch this version with Kyle Redd and Patty Vo to California Dreamin."
      They're actually dancing to "Secret" by Maroon 5. :-)

    2. Oh and in my opinion, it can be just as much fun to dance to the many nuances and accents of the different instruments as it is to dance to the lyrics. Just take a look at Robert Royston & Brandi Tobias at GPSDC 2009 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GHTlXrwXKk) or Robert Royston & Melissa Rutz at GNDC 2009 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qdv4zOYGB0w).

    3. I've always thought the music as a whole (both the melody and lyrics) as the 3rd partner. But I can see we sometimes need to separate out the music and the lyrics to help sort things out.

      Though getting the lyrics right is important.. I can still remember someone's translation of "Groupies" ;-)..

    4. @ CJ - AAACK - you are right...will go fix that :)

      I was rushing to get that out and forgot to do my last edit!

    5. CJ - re: dancing to the instruments - in my first paragraph I talked about the 3rd partner - the music - which is made up of the various instruments. That is what we are normally taught in "musicality" classes....and it is what most people hear. Those that don't hear the words just hear the voice like as tho it is another "instrument" and they may dance to the rhythms of the voice but they don't hear what is actually being said, which was the point of this blog. :)

    6. Pam - I get it. Just making a stronger point for something I feel naturally. And I've always heard it like Jun: "...the music as a whole (both the melody and lyrics) as the 3rd partner." But considered the actual words sung to be included, and not just the music the voice can bring to the piece. However, I think it's a good thought to separate it out and call the lyrics the 4th partner. :-)

    7. Pam - Don't know if you can add an addendum to your article, but if you can, I would highly suggest you add the recent strictly with Ro-Ro & Jill at SwingDiego 2011 that pretty much went viral. It's another Phenomenal example of what you're calling the 4th partner.