Question: I feel stuck in my dancing with 123 567. I can tell that when you dance you’re breaking up the music in different ways, especially with footwork – even when you’re following turn patterns. How can a follower start to be creative this way and still keep up with turn patterns?

I would also like to know about hitting the breaks, the accents, and pauses in a particular song. Again moving away from 123 567, sometimes I’ve seen your dance follow the rhythm of the piano or the singer. I’ve never studied music or played an instrument. I’ve tried just listening to a song to figure out at what moment in a measure an accent happens and how long it lasts, but I’m never sure of myself. What do you recommend? How did you develop your musicality?

Answer: Part of being creative while still following is to have a firm grasp of your basic. Knowing your basic to the point that you don’t feel stuck doing it but rather that it’s an active choice. The first steps would be to experiment with little movements or footwork in open positions, where your partner is actually giving you some freedom to move.  Then try to add something in closed positions until you feel like you’re not affecting the lead.  But work your way up slowly. If you try to do a lot of crazy things early in the dance you will probably pull your partner out of his equilibrium.  Remember, often, it’s not about how big and crazy your movements are but rather how well they work with the music, your partner, and your environment.

As for figuring out the music, definitely keep listening to it.  The more you listen to music, especially within the same genre, the more familiar you will become with common patterns. Music follows a structure which can be learned and from thereon, easier to predict.  I like to group this structure into sentences and paragraphs. One sentence is one 8 count or 2 bars of music and one paragraph is usually composed of 4 sentences.  Sometimes paragraphs repeat themselves immediately and sometimes they will be grouped together into 4 or more paragraphs before indicating a repetition.  My musicality comes from an understanding of this structure but more importantly a focus on active vs. passive listening.  I try to pay attention to a song and remember each part even once it’s over.  That way, if it should repeat itself, as it often does, I can recognize it and have an idea of what is coming next giving me room to be more connected with the music in my interpretation.  

With time and active listening, you can start to develop an ear for where the song is going and what’s going to happen next. Combine that with a solid technical foundation in your dancing and an open mind, and you will be able to build your skills interpreting the music with and without your partner.