Dalcroze and tango

Emile Jacques Dalcroze (1865-1950), a Swiss musician and pedagogue, was the founder of eurhythmics, a system of musical education through the movement, which had extensive repercussions on the new currents of European dance.
He discovered, almost casually, during the solfeggio lessons given to his students, that the acquisition of the sense of rhythm is facilitated if the scanning of musical times is accompanied by movements.

He sensed that the body plays a role of intermediary between sound and thought and could become the direct instrument of feelings. On this initial starting point he undertook a systematic research that led him to build a pedagogical system aimed at developing the musical sense in man understood in his totality: sensations, intelligence, body.

Dalcroze realized that the economy of muscular forces tends to eliminate superfluous movements and to give voice to the inner emotions transmitted by music through a directly meaningful essential gesture. On this basis he set his teaching method, which consists in making the students practice a body solfeggio, with increasingly complex exercises, based on repetitions and overlapping rhythms to which correspond net and essential movements.

It is music that generates the motor impulse that translates emotional reactions.

Why musicality is hard to teach, but not impossible

Why musicality is hard to teach, but not impossible

One of the most difficult topics for teachers as well as for students is musicality. It is fairly easy to explain musical theory, the rhythmical structure of a tango song, how to identify the strong beat, follow the melody, recognise various instruments and understand when a phrase starts and when it finishes. However, all this information, albeit essential, will not make anyone dance musically. No matter how much time a teacher spends talking about musical theory, this in itself will not produce dancers who are more musical. Then what will? And how can someone who has never danced before become a musical dancer in tango?

First, we need to understand what it means to be musical.

Sensitivity to music is the ability to recognise musical patterns: feel the rhythm, identify the melodical line, distinguish harmonies, sounds and so on. This ability comes in various degrees. Some people only recognise musical patterns and feel them, but are not able to move their body rhythmically (clap the hands, tap the feet, walk in the beat). Other people not only hear the music well, but can also associate what they are hearing with a rhythmical movement of the body. The first musical instruments in the prehistoric times were drums (therefore the word “beat”). Music-making and dancing were often one and the same activity, for ritual and shamanic purposes. Primitive tribes still make music by adorning their bodies with sound-making objects and then dancing. We also sing to make music, human voice becoming a musical instrument.

Nowadays our musical instruments are technically so complex and the various dance forms so rich that we have a clear specialization in “musicians” and “dancers”. (For the sake of the argument I will keep the singers in the “musicians” group as singers use their body to reproduce music as if it were an instrument). We also know that it requires two different talents to become a musician or a dancer. If the body of a musician uses its movement to extracts sound waves from an object, the body of a dancer does something very different: it creates an association between a musical pattern and body movement in such a way that the the two fuse into one coherent expression. (Orchestra conductors are possibly the ones who still do both: they “dance” to extract music from the “instrument” that is an orchestra. They are the contemporary shamans.)

We can therefore identify three different abilities: hearing (sensitivity to music), hearing + playing (making music) and hearing + dancing (associating movement with music). Most people have at least some degree of musical hearing and this is why music is still the most widely enjoyed art of all, in any culture.

What does it mean to be a musical dancer? It is not enough to be simply musical, although this is the necessary starting point. A dancer needs to have this particular ability to associate music to movement, to become music that has become movement. Like musicians, people who dedicate themselves to dance have this gift from birth. Yet, as I said, this ability comes in VARIOUS DEGREES. One can be basically musical or exceptionally musical. Just like there are many naturally musical people who play instruments without becoming a musician, there are many “natural born dancers”. Most children dance naturally when very small. While growing up we often lose the naturalness of our musical movement, our brain and body giving priority to developing other skills. Yet some people keep it and are easy to spot: they have an unstoppable urge to move the moment they hear music that they like. You can see them in night clubs, at parties, even on the street swaying or tapping their feet to the sound coming out of their headphones. People who learn to dance at an adult age are often from this group, because dance is always looking to express itself through their bodies. However, in tango classes I also see a lot of people who either never were “natural born dancers” or have somehow lost this particular connection between hearing and moving.

When a person is a “natural dancer”, certain things in a tango class will be easier for him (her) than for others. Stepping in the beat, recognising accents, making pauses, slowing down or accelerating together with the music, all this will not have to be explained, just shown. This student’s ability will be further finetuned to the particularities of tango as a music and a dance, often less by watching a teacher than by simply finding his or her own ways of expression. The “naturals” often prefer not to hear too much of musical theory for it takes them out of their intuitive following of music, confuses them, requires a mental effort they never had to do. They would dance to a syncope naturally but have a hard time analysing why and how they do it.

When a person is not a “natural dancer”, things will be more difficult for him (her) and subsequently also for the dance teacher. Everything, from stepping into the beat to choosing when to pause or to accelerate, will require a lot of attention and practice. Because it needs so much work, many teachers (and students) tend to give up on the musicality altogether or keep it to basic theoretical knowledge. People tend to believe that it is not possible to make someone a truly musical dancer: you either have this gift or you don’t. I would rephrase it: I believe it is much easier to help someone become a musical dancer when s/he is already naturally gifted for it, but the other task is not impossible either.

As I said, most of us have a musical hearing built into our brain. Anything we already have as neural connections in our brain can be further developed and reinforced. Learning a particular dance is about learning to associate a given movement vocabulary to a given music in a meaningful way. Here the “meaningful” means following the musical parameters. By training your brain to better understand and recognise the parameters of a musical piece can help you to associate your movement to it in a more precise way.

To tango students who struggle with musicality, I would give the following advice. You will need to reinforce two areas of your skills: first, your hearing of music and second, your music-to-movement association. Your hearing of music can be improved by listening to it a lot and learning to consciously recognise and identify its parameters: beats, structure, phrasing, melody, instruments and so forth. Here I am talking not only of the theoretical (rational) recognition but also of the “sensations” that hearing creates inside your being. Hearing the violin struck a phrase also means feeling something inside yourself respond to it as if you were a violin yourself (NB: a violin, not a violinist). It might sound strange to you, but this is what happens when you listen to a piece of music you truly love: inside your being something BECOMES it, as if somehow your soul took on that musical shape.

The second skill can be improved in two ways (and I suggest you use both). The first method is to associate the music to some kind of simple movement: walking, tapping of feet, nodding of the head, even singing, until it becomes intuitively right. This will reinforce your sense of RHYTHM. The second method is to allow yourself to dance in a completely free way to tango music, letting go of the tango vocabulary. Thinking of doing the correct moves often requires so much effort on our part that we become incapable of doing it musically. So, take time alone to dance to tango music whichever way you please. Groove to it. Hiphop to it. Sway, rock, swing, whirl, shake your bonbon to it. You will do your brain and your body an immense favor: your nervous system will start building neural connections between what you hear and how you would like to move to it. It will start liberating your DANCE EXPRESSION. In the tango class associating the “proper” vocabulary to music will then become easier because your body will feel more free moving to music at all. These methods are used with children when teaching them to dance or to play instruments. In your learning process you should take advantage of both becoming like a child again AND using the power of your conscious mind.

For those who find themselves thinking “yes, this is all very nice, but I truly have no sense of rhythm, I am so stiff in my body, I feel helpless and awkward when asked to move to any kind of music” I can say the following: think of people diagnosed with autism. They find themselves incapable of recognising emotions of others and adequately reacting to them. Yet, with proper technique and practice, they learn to do it by working with the visible PARAMETERS they CAN recognise. They learn to associate a certain facial expression with “fear” and rationally choose an appropriate response. They do not become truly empathic but can live a much more connected life socially. If you feel you are “musically autistic”, remember that your brain has a plasticity you are not aware of and that there are methods of developing your musicality, just as there are methods for autistics to lead a social life. It will require dedication, patience and work, but it will pay off in ways you never imagined.

For teachers I would suggest not to give up on the “unmusical students”. Giving up on them says more about your own inability to teach them than about their inability to learn. Most dance teachers are naturally musical, intuitive dancers. If you are one of those, then your responsibility as a teacher is to ANALYSE rationally what you do and to explain it to students who are not able to just copy it. You will have to know a lot more about rhythmical structures, how to count the beat, where to find the syncopes, what makes a phrase a phrase. Just like to an autistic person you would say “I am fearful therefore my body become rigid and my face serious” you would have to explain to some students “I pause and hold the pause here because I hear this instrument stop playing and the other instruments hold the same note”. It sounds like a laborious and counter-intuitive way, but believe me, it helps with the cases everyone (including themselves) consider helpless. Of course, you can also just give up on them. You can always say that without a natural gift one cannot be a dancer. You will always be right, at least partially, and you will create an air of superiority around your own talent and that of the “chosen ones”. Yet, I personally believe that tango, of all dances, is one that people can enjoy at any age, with any body type and any innate abilities. I also believe that talent is only the beginning of things, never the end, and that with the right kind of practice we can arrive in places we never dreamt of before.


What is Dalcroze?

What is Dalcroze?

The Dalcroze approach to music education teaches an understanding of music – its fundamental concepts, its expressive meanings, and its deep connections to other arts and human activities – through ground breaking techniques incorporating rhythmic movement, aural training, and physical, vocal and instrumental improvisation.
Since the early 1900’s, the influence of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze has been felt worldwide in the field of music as well as in dance, theatre, therapy and education. In his own time, Dalcroze’s work was considered avant-garde and it met with some resistance, yet he continued to probe the topic of music education reform throughout his life. Today, his basic ideas of teaching and learning have been confirmed by contemporary research.

Dalcroze was professor of harmony and solfège at the Conservatory in Geneva in 1892. He realized that his students could not actually hear the harmonies they were writing. Their playing showed little sense of rhythmic vitality. In solfège, he began to devise ear training games to develop more acute inner hearing. These games sharpened the students’ perceptions and resulted in more sensitive responses to the musical aspects of performance: timing, articulation, tone quality, and phrase shape. Dalcroze noticed his students would exhibit subtle, spontaneous movements – swaying, tapping a foot, a slight swinging of the arms – as they sang. The body was conscious of the life and movement of the music.

Dalcroze capitalized on these natural, instinctive gestures. He asked his students to walk and swing their arms, or to conduct while they sang or listened to him improvise at the piano. He called this study of music through movement “eurhythmics,” from the Greek roots “eu” and “rythmos” meaning “good flow.”

Dalcroze continued to experiment with eurhythmics, giving demonstrations of his method throughout Switzerland and Western Europe. In 1910 he was invited by the Dhorn brothers, wealthy German industrialists, to Hellerau, Germany where they built a large school for him. Several hundred students lived and studied in Hellerau, and it became a world-famous center for the arts, devoted to the education of the complete human being. In 1913, the Gluck opera “Orpheus” was performed at the school, with Dalcroze conducting a chorus and soloists trained in eurhythmics. The production was a spectacular demonstration of music, movement, lighting, and staging representing the culmination of Dalcroze’s work at Hellerau. The school closed at the onset of World War I and Dalcroze returned to Geneva, where the Emile Jaques-Dalcroze Institute was founded in 1915. Today, the Dalcroze Institute in Geneva continues to attract students from around the world who wish to study this remarkable method of music education.

In a eurhythmics class, students typically are barefoot and are moving in some way – in locomotion around the room, in gestures with hands, arms, heads, upper bodies, either in groups or alone. Their movements are responsive to the music that is sounding in the room. The teacher probably is improvising this music at the piano, although sometimes recorded or composed music is used. The task typically is to move in space using certain guidelines that are specific to the occasion or musical piece. The teacher shapes the music not only to the rules of the task, but to what he or she observes the students doing. The students, in turn, shape their accomplishment of the task to the nature of the music – its tempo, dynamics, texture, phrase structure, and style.

The body is trained to be the instrument, not only of the performance of eurhythmics, but of the perception of music. The body is understood as the original musical instrument, the one through which everyone first realizes music in both its senses: apprehending and creating, and the primary, personal, trainable utensil for musical understanding and production. The movements a student makes in a eurhythmics class do not have the essential purpose of training the body to convey a choreographic picture to an audience. Rather, their essential purpose is to convey information back to the mover himself. The movements set up a circuit of information and response moving continuously between brain and body, which, with training and experience, rise to ever higher levels of precision, coordination, and expressive power.

The comprehensive Dalcroze approach consists of three components: Eurhythmics, which teaches concepts of rhythm, structure, and musical expression through movement; Solfège, which develops an understanding of pitch, scale, and tonality through activities emphasizing aural comprehension and vocal improvisation; and Improvisation, which develops an understanding of form and meaning through spontaneous musical creation using movement, voice and instruments. It was Dalcroze’s intent that the three subjects be intertwined so that the development of the inner ear, an inner muscular sense, and creative expression can work together to form the core of basic musicianship.

Certified Dalcroze teachers work in conservatories, universities, public and private schools, early childhood programs, and in private studios. The Dalcroze approach is studied by performers, teachers, dancers, actors, young children, and senior citizens. Those wishing to pursue Dalcroze teacher training may do so at recognized training centers throughout the United States. Due to the intensive training process and the many sophisticated skills required to be a Dalcroze teacher, the number of certified teachers remains small, but their impact on music education is significant.

The continued study of Dalcroze eurhythmics, solfège and improvisation tends to heighten concentration and focus, improve coordination and balance, enrich hearing, and sharpen the senses. In a Dalcroze class, students are freed from the constraints of formal performance to experience the deep musical knowledge and feeling evoked through movement. When they have discovered themselves as the source of their own musicality, they have much to bring to the practice room or to the stage. Based on the philosophy that we are the instrument, Dalcroze invites us to live what we hear.


A masterful and enlightening book on the thought and teaching of Dalcroze that you can find on Amazon: