Musicality in Salsa

Photo credit Daleena Spainhour

I took my first “Musicality” workshop with Mr. Mike Bello, the Mambo Fellow (I think 2004 or 2005).  It was a lecture-style workshop about the different traditional rhythms we commonly hear in Salsa.  It was a great class with a lot of new information for me, which I though was very important for any dancer to understand and apply to their dance.  It seeded in me an interest that put me on a journey of over 15+ year to learn more about the music I’ve been exposed since I was a child.

Over the following years, I took a few other “Musicality” classes with a few other instructors. These classes; however, were concentrated more in choreography.  Only one song was used through the class, hitting very specific notes and breaks from different instrumental solos.  The interesting thing that I learned during these workshops, was the approach to the instructor’s personal interpretations of that song.  I left most of these classes with a sense of dissatisfaction, since I was looking to learn more about the music in general, and with dance material that it could be applied to any song.

After a few years of research, practice (bugging any friend musician I knew) and trying a new methodology during my weekly classes, I finally felt ready to do my own rendition.  It was at the Capitol Salsa Congress in 2009, and Mr. Shaka Brown gave me the opportunity to try my new approach to teach “Musicality”.  When I started teaching the workshop, at first people were a bit confused. “Is it a theory class? A Choreo class? Are we going to be sitting or dancing? Will we be playing instruments?”

I had a few people joining after hearing me say, “It’s going to be a little bit different.  Just come and try it!”  Once the class started with my new approach, Instrument Intro – Rhythmical Pattern – Step, or as I called it “theoretical and applied concepts”, some rushed off the class.  I thought, “Oh no, they didn’t like the class, and I am going to end up with an empty room.” To my surprised, those people have gone out to get their friends from other classes, the vendor area, or hotel rooms and brought them into my workshop.  By the end of the class, my room was over capacity.  Many years later, I heard from people who have taken that same workshops for 5+ years in a row, and mentioned that they always get some new information from the class.

In my personal believe, the concept of “Musicality” has a lot of more to offer than just a few pre-choreographed steps.  It’s an opportunity to explore and showcase through movement not just the traditional rhythms within our music genre, Salsa, but also the essence of the dances, where they come from, as well as who and what they represent.

The term “musicality” also gets used to compliment a dance performance, when a team’s synchronicity with the music becomes one body on stage.  Or when a dancer starts free-styling hitting all accents in the music, or when a couple execute moves giving near-by-watchers the illusion that their interpretation must be pre-choreographed.

To help us identify the slight differences of these dance occurrences, we need to start by defining them concretely:

  • Freestyle.  Personal dance improvisation.  It is executed without any preconceived notion, shape or form, at the complete dancer’s discretion.  Most importantly, there does not need to be a direct connection between the dance and the music, as it’s executed without any constrictions.
  • Interpretation.  In dance, it has to do with the spontaneous interaction of the dancer with the music’s tempo, accents, beats and/or breaks.  There is some freedom of form, but there needs to be some knowledge of the dance being executed.
  • Choreography.  This is about the conscious and preplanned moves that have been practiced repeatedly during casual or proper rehearsal sessions.  There is a direct connection between the music and the moves being executed.  Usually there is a stylistic dance motif, which helps with the cohesiveness of the dance number’s identity.
  • Musicality.  It’s the cohesive stylistic embodiment of the music by the dancer(s) with deep understanding of its cultural references.  Meaning that with proper knowledge about the roots of the music , the dance and the culture it represents, the dancer(s) executes moves highlighting the intricate beats, accents, breaks and time signatures of the polyrhythms found in the music.