Jazz and Dance
A commentary on the relationship between improvisational jazz and social dance.
Dance, a psychomotor and visual musical performance, can be compared to instrumental performance, and dance can be comparably categorized as compositional or improvisational. Certainly the performances of exhibition and competition dancers are enjoyable for both audience and performer, and such dances are carefully and precisely choreographed. The social dancer requires little choreography; social dancers depend on leading and following abilities to add variety to the dance. Thus, one would expect an emphasis on leading and following in the teaching of social dance; the teacher would stress leading and following in all lessons, and the student would demand it were it not present. Strangely, this is not the case. Rather, social dance teachers typically concentrate on step patterns, with only cursory mention of the associated lead and follow aspects. Interestingly, many "steps" are not so much "leadable" as they are "learned choreography," comparable to rutines of the competitor/performer.
Social partner dance, like jazz, is inherently improvisational; thus its practitioners best learn the principles of social dance in a fundamental and elemental manner so that those components could be woven together to create an enjoyable and evolving whole, not unlike improvisational jazz. Rather than precise, written compositions, jazz musicians master a bit of music theory, understand scales, arpeggios, and chord progressions and are amenable to using them in a flexible manner. Jazz is a multiple partnership, where musicians collaborate as they perform, interacting via fundamental components rather than through a detailed musical score. Social dance and improvisational jazz are also similar in that each incorporates several styles with identifiable and distinguishing components, yet within each style there is extensive opportunity for improvisation.
One of the most interesting, and, upon reflection, unexpected aspects of social dance is the extent to which its practice and curricula are focused on learning "steps," while the components and enabling skills for improvisational lead and follow are generally neglected. Even experienced dancers are often unaware of the fundamental principles and skills that provide functionality to partner dancing, and many struggle with marginal lead/follow abilities. This is not complimentary of either dancers or teachers of dance, and social dance would likely improve for all involved were the community to put more emphasis on the basics rather than focusing so much on “steps.”
©2008, rev. 2009, J M Nelson