Chances are, there are less than 10 songs that you seek out at any given time. When a friend hands you the aux cord, you don’t dig deep into your creative memory to find an old song that would be perfect for today, and you don’t take those opportunities to explore new music either. You play what’s familiar and reliable, and typically, whatever is on the top of your mind. That’s not a diss, it’s just human psychology; our brains are risk averse, and the guaranteed pleasure of something we know by heart will win out against all of our friends’ music choices time and time again.
We behave the same way at dance practice. You probably have two or three favorite tangos, and that one rumba that you just have to dance to, but beyond those, how expansive really is the music you play when you dance? And how much of it is dictated just by what you feel like dancing to at that moment?
Maybe you’ve already developed this skill, or maybe you’re not the half of the partnership that manages the bluetooth speaker. Regardless, I’d like to make an argument for you to approach music with a new lense and treat your song choices with a deliberate intention that most competitors don’t even think about.
Fact: music has a significant impact on your dancing. If you need proof, video yourself and watch the way you dance to a song that inspires you, and one that bores you out of your mind. See which one has more energy. Because of this impact, we ought to take some control over this element of competition and use the time we practice dancing to train our ear, our memory, and the musical advantage we have over our competitors. Doing this means striking a balance between two things: exposure and appetite.
Your exposure to music is effectively how ready you are for the curveballs DJ’s might throw at you. More than that, actually, it’s the familiarity you develop with the songs you could be hit by. It means listening to a lot of different songs so that no matter what plays on the competition floor, you’re already comfortable with the piece. Luckily, you don’t have to recite the BPM and key of the thousands of songs you hear. Listening to a song just once or twice is enough for your brain to file it for future use. When a DJ plays that song on a competition floor two years later, something inside of you says “I’ve heard this before” and the stress of not knowing the song or being able to predict what’s next is gone.
Let’s take a look at how this works with a quick neuroscience lesson. The human brain can store approximately 2.5 petabytes of data, or 2,500,000,000 gigabytes (your computer has around 8 gigabytes, if even that). As a result, the memory storage you have is functionally infinite. You’re not going to forget how to ride a bike because you read too much; the storage you have is so vast that you will never have to “empty the recycle bin” to make space for new things.
Bottom line, you remember a ton of stuff, it’s just that most of it isn’t accessible to your conscious mind. For example, there are thousands upon thousands of songs that you would recognize if you heard it playing on the radio, but you’ll be hard pressed to list the names of 200. Having that recognition and familiarity of so many songs might not give you every beat of every one, but that’s not what your brain needs. Just being familiar with a song is enough for some part of your body to say “I know what to do” and pull out some of the data without you even knowing it.
This can develop your dancing in every way from knowing how to accent different parts of the song to feeling when the next hit is coming to just eliminating the stress of having no clue what’s going to happen next. You can strengthen this muscle by picking out songs that you’ve never heard before, and songs that you don’t particularly like dancing to. Go to somebody else’s Cha Cha playlist on Spotify, hit shuffle, and see what happens. This will not only develop your cache by adding most of the unknown songs to it, but it also lets you practice dancing in an unfamiliar environment and cope with the mild stress, something that throws all too many dancers off when they compete.
If we were totally logical creatures, then becoming familiar with as many songs as possible seems to be all that’s necessary. But that’s not the case. Humans are highly emotional, and dancing is an emotional sport, so while we do want to give you the tools to succeed in the future, we also want to satiate your appetite for great music. Dancing to music you love is exciting, and that excitement will affect you in countless positive ways.
First, you will learn faster and practice harder if you’re in the positive mental state playing your favorite Foxtrot puts you in. Your energy levels will increase, your attention will heighten, and you’ll be eager to keep dancing more and more. Running endless repetitions of the same figure gets a lot less painful if you’re in love with the music you have playing, and the round you dance to will be closer to competition levels of excitement if you can’t wait to dance to the music you’ve chosen.
This excitement wets your appetite and trains your brain in two more important ways: it teaches you to listen more closely to music as you become more knowledgeable about your favorite songs, and it helps your brain associate that feeling of joy and excitement with the dance you’re performing. If you’re amped when you practice, that will show on the competition floor and strengthen the energy you project when you perform.
Choosing the music you practice to is all about striking a balance between these two things. You need to develop your toolbox, which means playing things that are unfamiliar and new, but you also need to weaponize your excitement, which means playing your favorite five songs on loop over and over again. Developing your exposure means playing defense by preparing you for what could happen, where satiating your appetite goes on the offense, sharpening your energy and accelerating your learning.
How often you prioritize either one of these is up to you, and I encourage you to experiment with it and see what works in your partnership. But if you have just one take-home from this overextended rant, it’s to be deliberate with the music you choose: always ask yourself, will playing this next song develop me as a dancer in some way? If not, what will?
(Published in Sheer Dance magazine October 2019)