Understanding Music to Improve Your Musicality

Good musicality in west coast swing brings out unique elements of songs. At a very high level, the dancers can actually cause you to hear things in the song that you weren’t aware of before.

This ability rests on two primary skills: knowledge of music, and especially unique features about the particular song, on the one hand, and the ability to bring out different layers of the song in your dancing.

In this series, we’re going to look at a practical example of how to identify layers in a song that you can dance to.

We are not going to think about breaks, and we’re not going to talk about pattern selection. Those are important elements of musicality, but sometimes you won’t be able to manipulate those elements.

Musicality for west coast swing has many layers so start with these articles if you’re struggling with the basics… counting the music, finding the beat, or staying on time when you dance.

Understanding layers of music in west coast swing

Followers, if your leader is ignoring the musical phrasing, you still need to be able to show your musical interpretation. Leaders, you might dance with a less experienced follower and be limited to basic moves; you still should be able to demonstrate musicality in your dance.

Likewise, we’re going to set aside playing for this series. Play is a huge skill within WCS, but there will be situations in which you can’t play because of what you are getting from your partner’s connection, or because you are in a competition and need to show fundamentally sound WCS, or for any number of other reasons. That limitation doesn’t mean you can’t be musical—and this series will prove it.

Do you understand music and want to jump ahead? Learn how to find phrases in the middle of a song

Step by step guide to understanding a song

For this series, we’re going to work with Maps by Maroon 5. Start by listening through the song a couple of times. During these initial listens, try to build a mental sense of the overall arc of the song. Note the verse-chorus structure, the energy of the song at various points, and the instruments that stand out in the song.

Listen to the song

We’ll dig into how to start dancing to the layers of the song in the next part of this series. For now, keep listening, and see how many more elements you can identify each time through the song. Great dancers spend a lot of time listening to music because they want to find aspects that no one else has heard so they can bring those out in their dancing and literally show the audience something they hadn’t heard before.

Part 1. The Quiet Intro

In the first part of this series, we listened to Maps by Maroon 5 in order to build a mental picture of the song. Now, it’s time to start breaking down the song so that we can dance to the layers. In this installment, we’ll focus on the introduction to the whole song.

Again, listen through the song, but focus on the first 32 beats. What is happening at the beginning of the song?

Listen to the song

This song is a very typical social WCS song. There are a couple of major highlights, but lots of the details of the song are hidden unless you know what to listen for. So, right from the start, we know that we’re going to need to highlight contrasts in the song so that our dancing doesn’t look flat.

In the first 32 beats, there are only a couple of instruments. There is the lead vocal, which also carries the melody. There is a high hat quietly hitting on each beat. There is a very subtle guitar accompanying the vocals, and at the end of the minor phrases the guitar has a prominent “da-da-dah-dah.”

How do we dance to this?

First, ask yourself is this is a low- or high-energy part of the song? You should be able to recognize that this a low-energy part: a drum is added in the next major phrase, and then the song builds in both volume and complexity of instrumentation. So, our dancing needs to be low-energy as well.

Let’s make the overall feel of our dancing for this section pick out a low-energy instrument. In this case, the high hat is great because it’s quiet, it’s consistent, and it establishes the beat for the rest of the song (so our partner can feel our timing). Try dancing a couple of basic patterns while listening to the high hat, and make the energy of your dancing match the instrument. Your feet should be quiet and clean. There’s no need for footwork variations because the high hat is constant. The high hat is more staccato than legato, but it’s not accented, so your footwork should do the same. Make your weight transfers cleanly and distinctly, but don’t put extra energy into the steps.

Another way to make our dancing even quieter is to keep our basics small. So, practice dancing with small steps and a very light degree of stretch. By making our stretch and slot length quiet, we give ourselves even more room to increase the volume as the song picks up.

What about the guitar at the end of the phrase? It would be nice to acknowledge that part of the music as well. There are several ways you could add that in. The first is to represent the rise-and-fall of the pitch in your body. As you are dancing your basics, go into a slight relevé as the guitar starts and quickly lower into the knees. This level change should still be quiet because the song itself is still quiet—an inch or two in either direction is more than enough to create the effect.

Alternatively, you could acknowledge the guitar with a body isolation. I hear the guitar as an upper-body movement because it’s higher pitched and a short, quick note, so I would suggest playing with the shoulders or ribcage. Two or three actions is all you need (& 8, with a possible third action on the & after 8). So, if I wanted to show the accent with shoulders, I would think down with one shoulder on the & and then down with the other shoulder on 8. For the ribcage: hit to one side on &, the other side on 8, and possible do a mini-circle with the ribcage through the 8& in order to show the end of the guitar noise.

Now that we’ve added in the guitar, try dancing to the first 32 beats of the song again. Each time you hear the guitar, try to use a different way of acknowledging the sound. As you practice, keep your guitar sounds small. Although the sound is distinct during the song, it’s also quiet—and the song itself is very quiet at this point. So, don’t overplay your movement, because you need to save plenty of room for your dancing to grow throughout the song. And remember to go back to a quiet neutral every time the guitar finishes!

Part 2: The Tag and the Buildup

We’re continuing to identify layers in the Maroon 5 song Maps. We’ve made it through the intro, and now we get the first really obvious contrast in the song. Let’s figure out how to dance to this new level of energy.

As you listen to the song, focus on the tag that occurs right before the first chorus. As the lead singer goes, “I was there for you…,” what do you notice about the music?

Listen to the song

The bass line is driving the song by indicating a build of energy into the chorus. So, our dancing needs to follow this transition.

The tag and buildup is a short section (16 beats), so this is a great place to deviate from the standard WCS rhythm. You can show a different rhythm deliberately for musical reasons, but the song will shift soon enough that you won’t look like you are ignoring the WCS rhythm structure.

In this case, we’re going to take out the triple rhythms. The bass and snare are pounding away on a double rhythm, so our dancing will match that.

Practice dancing this section of the song with only double rhythms. You will be on the wrong foot during the middle of most patterns, so play with what you need to adjust within your body in order to make the movement still work. For instance: leaders normally step across the slot on 4 of a whip with their left foot. Now, that will be your right foot moving on 4. Experiment to discover how you can step across on 4 without stepping into the follower or pulling her forward too soon. It’s tricky—but possible!

Followers: you can do this on your own, but there is a caveat. WCS is built to prep your body in specific ways based on what foot you are on, and the turns occur in specific places because of what foot you normally would be over at that point. When you start replacing triple rhythms with double rhythms, those assumptions behind the dance are no longer working in your favor. You have two ways to respond:

  • Own your own prep and rotation. You are now responsible for prepping and spinning yourself, even when you are spinning the wrong way over the wrong foot. This is a great skill to build, and for common spins such as a left side inside roll, being able to execute the spin on the wrong feet will open a ton of options for you in styling and play.
  • Be ready to abort. Sometimes, the movement being led just plain requires a triple. When that occurs, don’t fight it. Your responsibility is to embellish within the dance being led, so if the leader is taking away this option, give up on the footwork and find a different method to accent the dance. In this case, you could bring back the staccato weight transfers from the previous phrase, or add more body isolations (like a ribcage pop) to the bass line.

 

Part 3: The Tag and the Buildup

We’re continuing to identify layers in the Maroon 5 song Maps. We’ve made it through the intro, and now we get the first really obvious contrast in the song. Let’s figure out how to dance to this new level of energy.

As you listen to the song, focus on the tag that occurs right before the first chorus. As the lead singer goes, “I was there for you…,” what do you notice about the music?

Listen to the song

The bass line is driving the song by indicating a build of energy into the chorus. So, our dancing needs to follow this transition.

The tag and buildup is a short section (16 beats), so this is a great place to deviate from the standard WCS rhythm. You can show a different rhythm deliberately for musical reasons, but the song will shift soon enough that you won’t look like you are ignoring the WCS rhythm structure.

In this case, we’re going to take out the triple rhythms. The bass and snare are pounding away on a double rhythm, so our dancing will match that.

Practice dancing this section of the song with only double rhythms. You will be on the wrong foot during the middle of most patterns, so play with what you need to adjust within your body in order to make the movement still work. For instance: leaders normally step across the slot on 4 of a whip with their left foot. Now, that will be your right foot moving on 4. Experiment to discover how you can step across on 4 without stepping into the follower or pulling her forward too soon. It’s tricky—but possible!

Followers: you can do this on your own, but there is a caveat. WCS is built to prep your body in specific ways based on what foot you are on, and the turns occur in specific places because of what foot you normally would be over at that point. When you start replacing triple rhythms with double rhythms, those assumptions behind the dance are no longer working in your favor. You have two ways to respond:

  • Own your own prep and rotation. You are now responsible for prepping and spinning yourself, even when you are spinning the wrong way over the wrong foot. This is a great skill to build, and for common spins such as a left side inside roll, being able to execute the spin on the wrong feet will open a ton of options for you in styling and play.
  • Be ready to abort. Sometimes, the movement being led just plain requires a triple. When that occurs, don’t fight it. Your responsibility is to embellish within the dance being led, so if the leader is taking away this option, give up on the footwork and find a different method to accent the dance. In this case, you could bring back the staccato weight transfers from the previous phrase, or add more body isolations (like a ribcage pop) to the bass line.

Part 4: Repeating the Intro

In Maroon 5’s song Maps, we started the dance extremely quiet, with a few subtle body movements to acknowledge the guitar.

As you listen to the song, notice the shift that happens when the introduction repeats during beats 33-64. What stands out during this section?

Listen to the song

What happens in this second musical paragraph is very common in pop music structure. Many verse-chorus songs are structured so that the verses take 2 major phrases while the chorus takes a phrase. The second paragraph of the verse often has more energy than the first paragraph because the song is building into the chorus, and so we want to show this energy in our dancing.

In this specific song, the drums come in on beat 33 to create a more driving rhythm to the song. But, the song still has a long way to build, so we need a way to dance the driving rhythm without being overwhelming.

For this section, let’s show the drive by changing our rate of weight transfer. When you dance WCS, you have a great deal of freedom for how much of your weight is on the receiving foot at the strike of the beat. A slow rate of weight transfer—like having 60% of your weight on the receiving foot when the beat hits—creates a slow, delayed feeling. By contrast, moving as much as 90% of your weight onto the receiving foot creates an energetic, staccatto look.

During this section, begin dancing with a faster rate of weight transfer. At the start of the beat, aim to have 80-90% of your weight on the receiving foot. This will require you to move faster as the sending foot is pushing to the receiving foot, and then moving slower as your roll through the receiving foot and prepare to send the next foot. The slow roll through the receiving foot is the harder element: if you don’t control that foot, you’ll end up flat-footed and the quality of your body flight will decrease.

Put on the song and try dancing to this section with a faster rate of weight transfer. Your goal is to express the driving energy of the drums while keeping the swing rhythm of your patterns.

One trick to dancing to the layers of music is that you don’t always have to dance an entire section in a specific way. If you dance the first four or eight beats of a new section of a song in a clearly distinct way, that style of dancing will shape how the audience hears the rest of that section. So, by clearing changing your rate of weight transfer for the first eight beats, you can return to a more neutral dance style for the rest of the paragraph. This is useful when you have lots of elements that you want to show (because otherwise your dancing would look frantic), but it also is useful when the song has lots of energy changes. It’s much easier to build the energy of your dancing if you can express high energy, pull back slightly, and then increase the energy again in a different way. We’ll play with that idea as we continue through the song…

Part 5: The Chorus

In this post, we are going to continue dancing to layers of music in Maroon 5’s song Maps. The chorus is the first section of the song that has a high energy level, so let’s find out how to express that energy in the dance.

The Drill: High energy parts of the song call for more expansive movements, so we’re going to modify our basic movements to show this energy. As you dance this part of the song, think about what you can do to make your dancing look bigger:

  • Make the slot longer. Leaders can travel slightly more down the line during the middle of the pattern so that the slot becomes longer. Followers can create a similar effect by traveling further from the post. (As a follower, this is much easier to create on your own if you plan ahead and dance into your arm right before this.)
  • Open your anchors. Anchor variations that go to the side or that rotate open (to the leader’s right and follower’s left) create opening movements that communicate high energy. As long as you are cognizant of your own body positioning, either partner can do these movements independently.
  • Widen the slot. Followers can work the slot side to side, especially on the anchor, by ending up off-center and then realigning as they come in to the following pattern. As long as they leave the post where the leader placed it, they have freedom to move themselves around the post. Leaders have the same freedom, although it is harder to express on your own.

Play Maps again, and listen during the chorus to imagine how these motions can add energy to the dance. Then, put on the song and try incorporating these movements into your dancing!

Listen to the song

Part 6: Accents in the Chorus

As we continue dancing to Maroon 5’s song Maps, we’re discovering ways to express the layers of music within a song. Last week, we turned up the energy for the chorus. Now we’re going to dive into the details of the chorus.

Pop music is usually phrased in 32-beat paragraphs, but it’s also common for the chorus of the song to last for two of those paragraphs. Maps does that, so we want a way to change up our dancing within those 64 beats. Listen through the chorus with the goal of picking out some details in the music:

Listen to the song

What did you hear? The newest element in the song is the vocals: the rhythm of the words has changed substantially from the verses. So, let’s figure out how to so that layer of music. We are dancing big and loud because the chorus has lots of energy, so we want to find moments of contrast within the vocals. One thing that stands out is that there is a draw on the first beat of each minor phrase:

…but I wonder
Where were you, when I was at my worst, down on my
Knees, and you said you had my back, so I wonder
Where were you, all the roads you took came back to
Me, so I’m following the map that leads to
You

As you are dancing, show off those draws by changing your footwork. Where possible, take out a triple and replace it with a step-drag the free foot in for the first two beats of each minor phrase. If you have a walk walk on those beats, attack the first step and make the second step quieter so the audience can see the emphasis on the vocal inflection.

Practice dancing to the chorus and adapting your footwork to show these draws. As you get comfortable, you can also start to experiment with adding dimensions to the draws. For instance, if you are rotating during those two beats (like in counts 3&4 of a side pass), practice milking that rotation through your draw. If you are traveling linearly, can you use a controlled level change through the entire draw to enhance the gathering action? Find what motions work for you!

Part 7: The Last Choral Accents

We’ve spent a lot of time on the chorus of Maroon 5’s Maps because there is so much to show within our dancing. In this post, we’ll cover a couple of last, fast accents.

As you listen to the chorus, pay attention to the rhythm of the vocals during the second half of the chorus:

Listen to the song

Notice how there’s a really fast set of syllables: “following following following”? We’ve opened up our dancing in order to show the energy of the chorus, but we don’t yet have anything that specifically accents this moment.

Feet are great for hitting fast accents, so let’s change our footwork to hit these words. To speed up the footwork, we need to add actions, but we’re going to try to not affect the rhythm of the dance too much so we don’t force our partner to adapt to us.

If you are doing a triple step when the words “following” start, you can add an action that doesn’t have a weight transfer in order to create more noise. Syncopate the triple as follows:

  • On the & (before the downbeat!), take the first step of your triple. This is sooner than you normally would step, so be ready.
  • On the downbeat, use your free leg to do an unweighted kick or point. Keep your weight entirely over the previous foot, or you’ll get stuck in the next part.
  • On the next &, put your weight on the foot that just kicked or pointed.
  • On the upbeat, finish the triple with one last step.

If you did this correctly, you should have three weight transfers (&, & upbeat) and four actions (every count and half count through & downbeat & upbeat), and your weight should be on the same foot it would have been if you did a normal triple. This is a great way to turn up the energy on your footwork.

Followers: this syncopation doesn’t work when you’re spinning, for obvious reasons. The good news is that spins are already high-energy moments, so if your leader led a spin during this part, you are hitting the music with the pattern. You’re covered!

What if the words fall on a 1, 2? This would be a great time for quad rhythms: doing a ball-change on &1 and another ball-change on &2. Throughout the entire quad, think of keeping your weight primarily over the foot that your weight was on before you started doing ball-changes. You have four weight transfers, but because they are so fast you don’t have time to get your entire body over each foot. The ball-change allows you to put weight into the & counts but keep your body over the beats so you don’t look chaotic.

As you dance, try to add some foot actions to hit the “following”s!

The Review

Isn’t it amazing how many options you have to dance to the music? We have explored how to dance to the different musical layers in Maroon 5’s song Maps. By now, it should be clear that even relatively simple songs have tons of elements that you can highlight with your dancing.

One of the most important lessons from this series is that musicality doesn’t have to depend on your partner. None of these musical accents required the leader to lead a specific pattern, and almost every idea could be done regardless of what your partner was doing at that moment.

So, where can you go from here?

  • Listen to songs more closely. Make it your goal to find something new in a song every time you hear it. Great dancers don’t just stumble upon cool accents—they seek them out. Now you can too!
  • Change up your dancing & styling! In this song, we called attention to over ten different elements in the first minute and a half. That’s a new look every ten seconds. That pace might be aggressive when you start trying to apply this on the social floor, but set a goal for yourself to keep changing the look of your dance. Start by having a different look for each verse and chorus, and build from there.
  • Experiment with your movement. This series only scratched the surface of how you can create different looks with your body. Spend some time dancing freestyle by yourself so that you can learn what other movements you can do. The more you develop your own movement repertoire, the more options you will have when social dancing.
  • Above all, have fun with the music. Dancing to the music is a creative experience. Sometimes you will do something amazing, and other times it won’t click. That’s ok. All great dancers will have stories of dances where their musicality did not work at all, but they still had fun with their partner. Be that partner that enjoys trying things, even when (in fact, especially when) it doesn’t work out perfectly.
  • If you understand music and phrasing, you can jump ahead and learn how to find phrases in the middle of a song

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