Monday, November 14, 2011

Dance, Music and Rhythm

I usually try to post about something I know something about, but this one is a bit of a mystery to me. On several occasions I have taught adult beginners who have had considerable background in dance--one was a professional dancer. Now one might expect that they would have a special sensitivity to or head start on rhythm. But it turned out not to be the case. In most cases, the students with dance background turned out to have more problems with rhythm than the average student. Their background in dance turned out to be of no advantage and possibly a disadvantage.

Now why is this? It seems counter-intuitive, after all, rhythm is rhythm whether you are following it with your legs or with your fingers, right? But it seems not. If anyone has any thoughts on this, I would be interested to hear them. I would speculate that the way dancers feel and execute rhythms in their bodies is quite different from the way musicians do. I can't quite put my finger on it... Is it that they are moving weight in space while we are placing moments in time? I really have no idea. But it is an interesting mystery.

And musicians seem to be notoriously bad dancers!


Jon Silpayamanant said...

part 1

Fortunately, I've spent the last 15 years or so working directly with dancers--the majority of the dancers I've worked with being within the past 7 years or so.

I've spent tons of time talking to dancers about their sense of rhythm and the few who have been musicians usually say that background very much influences their sense of rhythm and actually helps them in their dance. Also, I've had some formal an informal training in various dance styles.

I'll probably post more about this later as I have to go teach in a bit, but will say a few things about rhythm from the standpoint of someone who's work in a variety of music as well as dance genres and who spends more than half of his performance time working directly with dancers.

The first thing is, there really is no unified sense of rhythm when we start looking cross-culturally. In my comment about Balkan rhythms on your blog post about non-Western Harmony, I touched upon some of that issue. What I didn't mention in that post are some of the studies done on perception of Balkan rhythms comparing Westerners to folks from the Balkans (primarily Bulgarians and Macedonians).

Here's a quote from one of those studies:

Erin E. Hannon, Cornell University, and Sandra Trehub, University of Toronto, found that Bulgarian and Macedonian adults process complex musical rhythms better than North American adults, who often struggle with anything other than simple western meter. To gauge the significance of culture influences our ability to process musical patterns, the researchers also conducted experiments with North American infants and found that they too were better than North American adults.

It suggests that infants are capable of understanding complex rhythms but might lose that ability in a culture - like ours - that embraces a simple musical structure. The researchers also concluded that infants are more flexible than adults when it comes to categorizing different types of rhythms, but can lose this ability if they are exposed to only one type of rhythm when they are growing up.

The study:

Classically trained musicians are not better at this too so it's not just an issue of lay understanding of rhythm:

Like Hannon, Bruno Repp, a senior scientist at Yale's Haskins Laboratories, is interested in the intersection of music and language. He has specialized in both. His early career was spent studying speech perception, but in the mid- 1980s he switched to music perception and performance. Also like Hannon, Repp is interested in how people process rhythmic material. But his research subjects are accomplished musicians.

Interestingly, Repp's research shows that these musically-accomplished subjects too are stumped by rare rhythms. When professionally-trained participants or whom conventional Western rhythmic patterns is the usual musical language, are asked to tap out uneven (or "compound") rhythms, Repp says, "they cannot not tap these intervals precisely; they really can't." He thought it might help if he provided more visual information, but when the musicians attempted to synchronize with a visual rhythmic map, "they were exactly as inaccurate at producing these intervals as they were on their own, without synchronizing. So having that written template to synchronize with didn't help at all," Repp says.

link to quote:

Jon Silpayamanant said...

part 2

Some of this simply has to do with how we normally group or sub-divide rhythms which is heavily influenced by our notation system (hence why I mentioned Time Unit Box System that many ethnomusicologists use to notate polyrhthmic African rhythms).

I spent some time going regularly to a folk dance group every Thursday night where we would learn the dances from the Balkans (as well as many other regions throughout the world, though mostly European) and though I'd already a healthy understanding of odd-metered rhythms, actually dancing to them forced me to understand them so much better--to see how the emphasis in weight or the types of steps fit into the music created one of those "Eureka" moments.

I use some of that insight when I play with my Balkan band, especially as I rarely get to make it to rehearsals but since I understand many of the rhythms and some of the nuances of applying them, I often can just fill in at the drop of a hat when playing percussion with the group (it's a little bit more difficult when I have to fill in with the cello as I also need to get accustomed to the melody/chordal changes as well as the rhythms). But I can still remember a time when non of these rhythms made much sense to me from my classical music standpoint. I just had to give up the idea of counting as being a useful heuristic for learning the rhythms.

Same holds for nearly all the other world music styles I encounter and perform in--very rarely do the techniques from other regions help much for more than a basic understanding of the rhythms at a cognitive level. Fortunately, with the Central Asian music and dance group I co-founded, I'm starting to piece together what sections she means in a particular piece by the way she 'says' the rhythms (which is how her teacher from the region taught her to understand them) but so often it doesn't even come close to the rhythms as I hear (and try to understand it).

Ok, more later--teaching time!

Anonymous said...

My guess, as a manager of people, would be that dancers are trained to move to rhythms provided. Not to provide rhythms... as is required when playing an instrument.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Except with tap dancers, cloggers, flamenco dancers and bharat natyam and other classical Indian dancers (with their feet) and with middle eastern dancers, central asian dancers, and several other cultures that use instruments while dancing (finger cymbals, spoons, tea cups, castanets).

I often tell people, some of the best percussionists I've ever worked with were dancers!

Not that what you say isn't a good insight--I think, outside of dance genres that require the dancer to actually be an integral part of the music making process, what you say is on the whole pretty spot on.

But as with music, there is a whole world of dance out there with very different ways of conceiving of music, melody and rhythm than we're used to in the Western world (or even just in the Western Classical world, for that matter).

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