The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 4: The Somatic Element

Somatic Element

In Part 2, I established that although dancing takes advantage of natural associations between sound and movement, each dance is a cultural form that is expressed physically through a specific movement system. A bodily command of placement, balance, and timing within this movement system is required for musicality to be fulfilled in the form of tango, salsa, swing, or any other dance. Without it, musical dancing won’t happen even if a person hears and feels a lot in the music. Many dancers struggle with musicality not for lack of musical feelings but for difficulty translating those feelings into a physical reality. So developing greater skill and technique is essential to bringing the other elements (creative, emotional, relational, and improvisational) into alignment with the physical dance experience.

To agree that there is a physical element to musicality doesn’t usually take much convincing, but there are lots of misconceptions about how this physical element works, leading to frustrations over unfulfilled musicality. Over the course of years of thinking, studying, teaching, and researching, I have come to believe that our culture’s lack of awareness of our physicality leads to a poor vision of the physical element of musicality even in experienced dancers. This creates a disconnect between the other four elements and the physical dance experience.

For the past couple years I’ve been doing a lot of research on somatic therapies, and I’ve been impressed with how their work sheds light on the way we experience and learn movement. What does somatic mean? In Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning, Linda Hartley tells us that “[t]he Greek word soma is defined as ‘the body experienced from within’ and reflects the efforts of modern bodywork practitioners and somatic movement therapists to move away from the dualistic splitting of mind from body, towards a model of integrated functioning of the whole person, psyche and soma.”

Musicality is not a somatic therapy (or is it?!), but defining somatic as the body experienced from within makes it the perfect name for this element. The physical aspect of the dance is not about putting something into the body; it is about encouraging something to arise from the body. One could argue this is just semantics, but I believe these semantics get at the heart of our misconceptions about our body as an expressive instrument and what we can do to overcome them and find a truer and more fulfilling vision. With that in mind, let’s discuss a few ideas that can move us from a physical understanding of our body to a somatic one, where the body is experienced from within.

The most common ideas about the physical element that I hear center around the concept of muscle memory. At its simplest definition, muscle memory is the repetition of a motor skill until it no longer requires conscious effort to perform. Commonly dancers believe that if they practice a technique often enough it will become their body’s default, and if they practice a movement or syncopation enough times, they can pull out the muscle memory they need to respond to what they hear in the music.

Muscle memory is an important and necessary concept, but it does not by itself give us an understanding of the somatic element. This is because muscle memory is not the driver, but rather the enabler, of meaningful movement. Research is increasingly showing that muscle memory alone does not allow for a new movement habit or system to take hold in the body in a way that is natural for the body instead of imposed on the body. Something else is required. To learn what that something is, let’s return to the importance of perception that we discussed in Part 2, but this time let’s talk about affordances.

Affordances refer to the opportunities anything gives us to interact with it or with the world. To start simply, think of objects which can be pushed, pulled, grasped, and otherwise used to carry out simple or complex actions. Applied more specifically to a dancing context, our body parts afford us the opportunity to mark the beat, accent the music by percussing in space, and use the connection to affect our partner’s movement in a particular way at a particular time. These opportunities for interaction, and the way we understand and select these opportunities, determine how we perceive the world. In other words, they determine how our senses are organized and therefore determine the ability of our mind and body to respond to the world. Let’s read more about affordances from Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee’s book The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better:

You also perceive the world through an automatic filter of affordances. Your perception of a scene is not just the sum of its geometry, spatial relations, light, shadow, and color. Perception streams not just through your eyes, ears, nose, and skin, but is automatically processed through your body mandala to render your perceptions in terms of their affordances…

Consider a blue jay perched on your windowsill, looking in at your workspace. In one sense you and the bird see the identical scene. The bird has extremely keen vision, probably even keener than yours. But despite this, in a crucial sense, the bird doesn’t see the same chair or coffee mug or keyboard that you see, and the reason comes down to affordances. We tend to think of visual understanding of an object to be all about edges, angles, textures, colors, shadows, and so forth. That’s the basic part of vision; but there’s a lot more that goes on in your brain after those low-level features are analyzed… We are less directly aware of this higher visual processing, but it is extremely important. When you see a chair, you “see” its sittability, its stand-upon-to-reach-the-high-shelf-ability, and other uses that your human body can make of it. And when you see a coffee cup, you “see” its graspability, its volumetric capacity, its drink-holding-ness. These are body- and action-based concepts, but they are automatically evoked by the sight of the chair and coffee cup. The blue jay, meanwhile, does not see any of these affordances, though it may see where it could conceivably find something worth eating. It certainly sees the top of your chair’s backrest as an affordance for perching, which isn’t something that occurs naturally to you…

Martial artists see a different set of affordances than people untrained in hand-to-hand combat. Lapels and shoulder fabric are gripping points that afford all sorts of leverage. Elbows and wrists afford a variety of locks and twists. Highly trained martial artists see these affordances directly, as inherent parts of the concept of the body, just as an accomplished pianist sees not just individual keys but whole interrelated harmonic complexes brimming with possible melodies that can be extracted from it as wholes, not as individual finger and hand movements.

Affordances are an integral part of how we perceive the world: what we see, hear, and feel, and therefore how we understand and express ourselves. Take the difference between low-level visual features and higher visual processing that the Blakeslees discuss above. The low-level visual features – “edges, angles, textures, colors, shadows, and so forth” – are important because they enable vision, but they do not drive vision. For that, we need to understand affordances: how we perceive and organize the world, and how that drives our interaction with it. This includes movement. We can think of muscle memory as the low-level features of movement: still important as an enabler, but incomplete without the driver. Muscle memory depends on our ability to develop a new perception, a new way of experiencing our body from within. Without this, meaningful and lasting changes in the way we move and interact with the world are limited.

This idea of perception and the body experienced from within directly influences our ability to acquire new physical skills. Even more than that, it changes the focus from acquiring new physical skills to acquiring a new somatic being. This perspective changes our idea of learning completely. Read, for example, the following excerpt from Greg Downey’s excellent book Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art. To give you some background, capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian dance-inspired martial art, and in this section he is talking about his experience learning to do a handstand, which is known as a bananeira in capoeira.

The instruction “Just stand up!” was certainly poetry to me. The words rang true; initially, however, they had been out of reach of my immediate understanding. If anything, over time, the words came to be true to me because my experience shifted to meet them. When I finally managed to perceive them as real, I had an exhilarating sense of revelation. I found the bananeira in myself. Through repeated attempts, I came to experience directly the “standing up-ness” of a well-executed bananeira and the “bananeira-ness” latent in my own body. My instructor had pointed the way by sharing, poetically, how he lived the movement.

Everyone’s experience of learning the bananeira is different. Skills cannot be passed to another person, but must be rediscovered anew by each novice. No matter how many times my instructor did the handstand, it would not rub off on me directly, nor could it be handed on like a relay baton. I had to find the bananeira myself by playing it around in my body until I could feel it.

Anthropologist Andrew Lock has used the term “guided reinvention” to describe how children “come to invent and use language.” With language, adults provide an environment rich in stimuli, including distorted, simplistic, and emphatic speech, that helps a child to “invent” language for him- or herself.

I love Downey’s account of his learning experience because he emphasizes the need to perceive and experience the world in a new way to take on this new skill. Notice that three times he writes about needing to feel the bananeira in his body, and to find the “’bananeira-ness’ latent in my own body.” No doubt the muscle memory through repeated trial and error was necessary, but it was necessary in order to search for a new perception, a new way of feeling and being in his body.

As dancers we also have to find the tango-ness, salsa-ness, or Lindy-ness in our bodies in countless ways. The feeling of the dance in our body is developed affordance by affordance, starting with the first steps and techniques we learn and progressing throughout our dance lives as we acquire increasing sensitivity and skill. This occurs most effectively when we use sensitivity and muscle memory to find a new affordance, a new feeling of moving in our own body, the same way dancers did when they first “discovered” that very same technique or movement. We don’t strictly copy the movement; we follow the process suggested by others and by our own senses to make the same discovery in our own way, a way that resonates with the uniqueness of our body and mind.

This is what is missing in the “pattern-monkey” syndrome so often talked about in the dance world. The purpose of a pattern should be to put ourselves in a situation where we can discover a new affordance, a new set of opportunities for our body to experience the world in a specific way that is new to us. Without affordances, a pattern dissolves into a mere exercise in muscle memory with no ultimate destination. An affordance opens a new door, and muscle memory allows us to walk through it. Without the affordance, our dancing is like trying to walk through a door that isn’t open. The result is dancers who never progress beyond repeating patterns verbatim, never finding new affordances that will allow them to improvise their own dance instead of repeating the memory of another.

Understanding the importance of affordances in acquiring physical skill needs to be paired with an understanding of how our physical affordances are inseparable from the affordances of the other four elements. Our creative, emotional, relational, and improvisational affordances can and should be intertwined with our physical affordances. This means that the affordances of all five elements are wrapped up in a single perceptual system; they are not separate. This brings me to one more misconception I want to blow out of the water, which is the pesky idea that musicality is an act of translation.

Merriam-Webster Online says that to “interpret” is to “explain or tell the meaning of: present in understandable terms.” To translate is to “change words from one language into another language.” Both of these definitions refer to the idea of looking inside for how music moves you and then putting it into another language that you have learned. In other words, translating emotion into movement. This is how musicality is often described in the dance world. The problem is it implies that emotion and movement are two different languages, and that dancers must do some kind of translation, which often makes dancers feel like they have to “act out” an emotion like an actor or a mime. This certainly can be done (and it is part of the repertoire of many non-partnered dances), but it is less connected because it sees the two as separate languages. Most dancers don’t want to act; they want to express, with their movements being an extension, not a representation, of their feeling.

Movement as an extension of the dancer’s feelings is an appropriate phrase, for what makes musicality possible and powerful is this: Our creative ideas and our emotions are already physical realities. To keep this article short and manageable I won’t cover the research here, but hopefully Parts 2 and 3 of this series gave you some hints. In Part 3, for example, I discussed how understanding our primary emotions allows us to extend our inner movement into our outward movement.

The best description of why translation is unnecessary and ineffective comes from David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, in which he discusses the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Let’s read what he has to say about language, keeping in mind how it applies to dancing:

The gesture is spontaneous and immediate. It is not an arbitrary sign that we mentally attach to a particular emotion or feeling; rather, the gesture is the bodying-forth of that emotion into the world, it is that feeling of delight or of anguish in its tangible, visible aspect. When we encounter such a spontaneous gesture, we do not first see it as a blank behavior, which we then mentally associate with a particular content or significance; rather, the bodily gesture speaks directly to our own body, and is thereby understood without any interior reflection…

Communicative meaning is always, in its depth, affective; it remains rooted in the sensual dimension of experience, born of the body’s native capacity to resonate with other bodies and with the landscape as a whole. Linguistic meaning is not some ideal and bodiless essence that we arbitrarily assign to a physical sound or word and then toss out into the “external” world. Rather, meaning sprouts in the very depths of the sensory world, in the heat of meeting, encounter, participation…

We do not, as children, first enter into language by consciously studying the formalities of syntax and grammar or by memorizing the dictionary definition of words, but rather by actively making sounds – by crying in pain and laughing in joy, by squealing and babbling and playfully mimicking the surrounding landscape, gradually entering through such mimicry into the specific melodies of the local language, our resonant bodies slowly coming to echo the inflections and accents common to our locale and community.

We thus learn our native language not mentally but bodily.

These words from David Abram’s book are perfect for meditating on the somatic element and how it is intricately connected with the other four elements of musicality. My goal as a dancer is to have affordances as varied and nuanced as the possibilities that exist in the music, allowing me to experience the elements from within my body instead of trying to translate them from the outside.

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If you would like to more fully explore your own ideas about musicality and the concepts we’ve just explored in Part 1 of this series before continuing, check out The Five Elements of Musicality: Homework.

Here is the next post in this series: The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 5: The Relational Element.

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