For quite a while now I’ve been wanting to respond to the argument that being familiar with a song or a partner reduces the improvisational quality of the dance. Here is an actual quote from someone who made this argument: “Knowing music pieces by heart goes against improvisation. Improvisation would be dancing to an unknown song with an unknown partner. Memorizing the songs is somehow like preparing a choreography… If the leader knows more or less what the accompaniment is going to be, it’s a lower form of improvisation. The more known-beforehand factors you add (dancing at your usual milonga with your regular partner on the same song that the same DJ always plays at the same hour), the more likely you are to lead the same dance.”
Our lives and our communities are largely made up of a relatively small set of recurring patterns. Very few people live drastically different lives from day to day; the character of our lives comes from the activities and people that inhabit them the most frequently. According to a popular saying, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. As architect-philosopher Christopher Alexander has written in The Timeless Way of Building, “Our individual lives are made from [these patterns of events] . . . so are our lives together . . . they are the rules, through which our culture maintains itself, keeps itself alive, and it is by building our lives, out of these patterns of events, that we are people of our culture.”
As “people of our culture,” we are form-loving creatures. We enjoy uncovering and creating order, from weather patterns to our daily schedules, and we structure and improvise our lives around these patterns. Our creative endeavors are based on the same principles of order, structure, and improvisation. Without the ability to dance to the same music with the same partners to the same steps, we wouldn’t have an evolving dance form. In fact, we wouldn’t have a dance form at all, and dance cultures and communities would cease to exist. There is a type of music called “free form,” the entire purpose of which is to create music specifically without reference to any other form or common reference. But this is a fringe community that will never become mainstream precisely because it is formless, detached from our form-loving nature. Free form is interesting because it attempts to start and continue completely from scratch, but it’s an uphill battle, like a psychological experiment (and no doubt a valid one) to determine what it would be like to interact with others without a language.
So our dance is a dynamic movement-music system that has order and structure. The fact that is has common rhythms and common movements is precisely what allows dancers to entrain to it. Repetition is an essential foundation for building a common sensory language through which dancers can communicate. In fact, we could say this repetition is what creates the grooves in the record, the grooves in both the music and the dance. This repetition doesn’t mean that we will end up doing choreography, dancing the same dance each time. If you’re doubtful, attempt to design a choreography and you will quickly be disabused of this notion, as designing a choreography, even an unmusical one, is incredibly difficult. And that’s just one; think about designing one for each song you know by heart and you’ll understand how unlikely this theory is.
Every dance community has its favorite music that many dancers know by heart. But each time the song is played, the dancer is in a different time and place. The elements are the same, but the relationships – between the musical elements themselves, between the music and the body, between the musical bodies of both leader and follower, between the dance couple and the flow of the room – are ever new. Experienced dancers have favorite music that they love to hear over and over not because they have it memorized and are out to prove it, but because it’s like home, a familiar place to live and to improvise, to dig deeper into something familiar and to find something entirely new.
Of course we can’t deny the difference between well-known songs and completely unknown ones, between recorded music and live music. But for experienced dancers, both have equal potential to bring about improvisational bliss. Familiar music provides a comfort that allows for both relaxed engagement and courageous exploration, finding greater depth and possibility than they ever could in just a single listen. The same applies to new and familiar partners: Dancing with a familiar partner is like spending time with a friend; it doesn’t feel boring and lifeless because you already know them. The shared history doesn’t doom you to repeat it; it excites you into continuing the journey and deepening the experience.
Ultimately, the threat to improvisation doesn’t come from familiar music, familiar partners, or a familiar dance structure. It comes from trying to make yesterday’s groove work today. Life very quickly reveals the falsity of this illusion. It teaches us that each new moment is to be lived on its own terms. This understanding makes sense of what I have recently written about the dual meaning of groove: Playing a groove – a repeating set of patterns – doesn’t guarantee that the music will groove. It also doesn’t guarantee that it won’t.
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You may also be interested in reading:
What Choreography Taught Me About Improvisation and Individuality.