The Four States of Music In Contemporary Dance

Let’s start with disclosures and disclaimers! LOL!

[This is the first time that I have gone in and edited/updated an article that has already been published. But after some on line discussions and a lot more thought, I have made a few changes to state three. I am surprised that I changed my mind because this whole article has been floating in my brain for a couple of years at least. But I think I am adding some precision to my ideas with these changes. They are minor but…]

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree…many many moons ago…in art education of the visual arts. And part of our base requirements was to take one class in each of the other art disciplines. Now being a bit reserved at the time, I wasn’t sure how to satisfy my dance requirement. I didn’t take dance theory or dance history…and was afraid to take dance in performance despite feeling that I should…I compromised and took a course in eurythmics which was a bit daring for me but very rewarding. I don’t remember much about it other that trying physical movement around a dance studio to the prof playing piano or listening to odd snippets of music or even Gregorian chant. Whether that decades old experience contributes to my thoughts here is beyond knowing.

Also, most of my actual live/life experience with dance in performance was the occasional Nutcracker. And then a major life change event opened the opportunity to attend dance concerts and I took advantage of that. Fortunately Milwaukee has a number of very talented companies performing their own contemporary works, a very decent professional ballet company, and an exciting dance program at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. I was enthralled.

Now, as I said, I have never studied dance theory or dance history. So am calling my dance experience with contemporary companies as contemporary dance. I don’t know if dance has had the movements that visual art has experienced…whether there is a period of modern or post-modern dance or dozens of ‘isms’ in the meantime. So it’s just going to be contemporary dance today!

And with no theory training…this is just an intuitive perspective article…I am just making this up! To paraphrase a paraphrase by John Cale of a quote attributed to Mark Twain and others: “I don’t know much about dance, but I like what I know”!

Now on with my meanderings: The Four States of Music in Contemporary Dance:

Our first state: we have the relationship of dance and music, just as we expect it to be. Whether classical ballet, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, The Twist, or the flailing around we did as youths to impress our partners…dance movements working in time to the music. Foot steps, spins, twists, lifts, marches across the stage all occur in sync with the music. Not only do we find this pleasing visually but since we too can feel that rhythm, it enhances our experience with the dance. It is an enthralling thing of beauty, visually, aurally, and emotionally.

And our second state: we have dance against the music. This is just as exciting and rewarding as our first state of music and dance once you get used to it. The music is just as important here but the movement, the footfalls, the spins, all seem to be filling in the spaces between the beats of the music. This is certainly disconcerting at first but once your heart and head pick up the nuance, it too is a thing of beauty. But I imagine that this is difficult to choreograph and even more difficult to perform.

The third state: this may seem obvious once you accept my premise of there being that state one and two above…and that is dance in defiance of the music. And what exactly do I mean? The dance is being performed, there is music playing, but the dance bears no apparent relationship to the music. It’s as if the music is a necessity to fill our ears and fill our expectation that dance be accompanied by music. And so it is, although the dance itself is ignoring the presence of the music entirely…or as entirely as possible. And no this isn’t just bad performance…when you focus on the performers you see their determined dance movements and sense that they aren’t at all relevant to the music…but this requires as much effort from the audience as from the dancers (well not quite). I know I have experienced this at least once…but my mind wants to say twice. It isn’t very frequent. But the fear here is you may lose the audience with this state.

(“…and that is dance in spite of the music”…is what I originally wrote. and in the comment below a friend of mine who has been involved with dance suggested ‘indifference’. I toyed with that for a while because of its elegance but threw it out and intended to keep ‘in spite’. From the comment: “…in the case of a contemporary dance concert, the choreographer selected the music specifically…for a reason…and is programming against it or around it…or in spite of it.” But after three weeks of wrestling with this, ‘indifference’ seems particularly passive…and ‘in spite’, not precise enough. So tossing around words at 2 AM while intending to sleep, the word ‘defiance’ became the defining word for me! And then I made every effort to memorize that before I succumbed to sleep so that I could recall it in the morning. YES! Defiance is the more appropriate word to describe what I sense in the third state.)

And the fourth state: An obvious remainder, dance without music. That doesn’t mean that there is no sound or no rhythm. It means the dance movements are emphasized by the sounds of footfalls, the sway of arms, the swoosh of costumes, and timely claps or slaps. Well done, this too can draw the audience into the performance because there is no actual music to feel…you lean forward to actually see the footfalls and claps and twirls in order to anticipate and appreciate the sounds. Now I have seen dance without musical accompaniment where the dancers enhance their efforts using canes or staves or other percussive devices. To me that’s a gray area and moves the dance back into the first state above…just that the music is self accompanied and not really dance without music.

So those are my four states of music in contemporary dance…is that a wrap? Well, no, not quite, there’s this little corollary:

Dancing with/to noise. Yes, music is noise but with rules and accepted sounds and expected rhythms. So maybe this noise is non-traditional music for our purposes! LOL!

So when dance is presented with noise…if the noise has a beat, wave, thrum, throb, or rhythm that is consistent or identifiable, then I suggest that we are actually in state one or two above depending on the dancers’ reaction to the noise. If we simply have an ambient noise or white noise for accompaniment, then I suggest we have state three above, dance in spite of the music.

Well, there you have it, my crazy little ruminations on music and it’s use with dance!

[original publication April 24, 2021. additional content and edits May 18, 2021]

One Reply to “The Four States of Music In Contemporary Dance”

  1. A friend of mine who has been involved with dance companies suggested that state three should be ‘indifference’ to the music instead of ‘in spite’ of the music. I thought that this sounded more elegant and considered an edit. But the longer that I considered it, indifference to the music to me at least, implies that the music is random or provided by someone not related to the dancers at all…it just happens to be there. But in the case of a contemporary dance concert, the choreographer selected the music specifically…for a reason…and is programming against it or around it…or in spite of it. So I am going to stick with ‘in spite of’!

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