Mickey Mousing: Too Much Musicality?

Tango Immigrant’s recent post, Musicality: Description or Empathy?, reminded me of some thoughts I’ve been wanting to share in the ongoing debate about Mickey Mousing and musicality. Mickey Mousing, Tango Immigrant reminds us, means “mimicking the music while dancing, but in a superficial and automatised way.” In Simba Tango’s 2010 post on the topic, she describes how the term Mickey Mousing comes from the name for a film technique, often used pejoratively, in which the music precisely mimics the movements of animated characters.

Read both Simba Tango and Tango Immigrant’s descriptions and you may recognize Mickey Mousing from dances you have seen or experienced:

  • Simba Tango: “At times I also get the feeling that the dancers are ‘too clever’, and not conveying any emotional content corresponding with the music I hear… [I]t feels like they are not even listening to the music, which is ironic when in this particular case they are working so hard to match it perfectly.”
  • Tango Immigrant: “It was with a leader who obviously knew the music really well – the phrasing was right, every “important” pause was there. Everything was by the book. The tanda had all the stuff one would expect to learn in musicality classes. Yet the dance seemed strangely empty. It matched the music, but it was like everything was pre-programmed. I could have been dancing with a robot.” 

Some dancers deny that Mickey Mousing is a real phenomenon. After all, how can moving in a way that reflects the music be a bad thing? Dancers who object to the idea of Mickey Mousing usually do so because they think that Mickey Mousing means too much musicality. But I’ve come to see that Mickey Mousing is not about too much, but about not enough. Mickey Mousing does not mean there is an excess of musicality; it means there is a dimension of musicality that is missing.


The Dimensions of Musicality

In my series on musicality, I described musicality as having five elements.
Musicality, I wrote, is…
… emotional.

Our understanding of musicality tends to center around the creative element, the synchronization of movement and sound. This dimension of musicality is the easiest to see: When our feet syncopate to the drums, when a shoulder or arm draws a smooth gesture in space like the bow across the violin, when we turn to the rhythm of the melody – all of these are creative expressions, pleasing to both see and feel.

But this creative element is only one dimension of musicality. In isolation, divorced from the other elements, it feels – as Simba and Immigrant have described – “too clever,” “strangely empty,” “pre-programmed,” like “dancing with a robot,” or as if “not even listening to the music.” So if creative musicality by itself is one-dimensional, what are the other dimensions? What is missing in Mickey Mousing? If we look at the other four elements I have suggested, we find some possibilities.


What’s Missing in Mickey Mousing

The creative dimension of musicality may be the easiest to see, but there are four other dimensions that make music and movement groove. We can think of Mickey Mousing as musicality that is missing one or more of these dimensions.

Mickey Mousing is Missing Emotion.

It’s possible to express something that exists in the music while going against the overall mood, character, or groove of the song. It’s also possible to describe the music (as Tango Immigrant phrases it) without letting yourself be affected by the music. Both can result in dancing that looks and feels flat, empty, or even robotic.

Mickey Mousing is Missing Connection to One’s Body.

Every body has its own unique way of moving and grooving. And even the same body has different sensations and abilities on any given day regardless of how it felt and what it was capable of on any day before. Trying to impose someone else’s or another day’s movement, musical interpretation, or expectations on your body will look and feel strangely unmusical.

Mickey Mousing is Missing Connection to One’s Partner.

Mickey Mousing often involves successful or unsuccessful attempts to display individual virtuosity, which can leave the other person feeling like they’re not even there, or like they’re a prop being used by their partner to show off. This results in a disjointed or broken partnership, far from the pleasing harmony or creative tension we find in music.

Note: There are many different ways of finding “connection” when we dance with each other. Some dances are about enjoying the purely sensory or emotional aspects of movement and music. Others are about exploring physical or creative limits. All of these are legitimate options. But whatever the dance is about should not be imposed by one partner on the other; it should develop within and between the two bodies, negotiated and shared as the dance unfolds in the moment. Which brings us to our next connection, which ties all the other dimensions together:

Mickey Mousing is Missing Connection to the Moment.

It’s important to own the way the music makes you feel and move. Argentine tango teacher Homer Ladas has poetically called this “finding your answer.” But taken to its extreme, finding an answer can become having an answer, something done rather than an ongoing process that happens throughout the dance. Oftentimes when we have an answer we stop listening for new ones that may arise from our creativity, our emotions, our body, and our partner in the moment. When this happens, we impose our interpretation on the music instead of allowing an interpretation to arise from the forces within and between us.

In his book The Heart of Teaching, acting teacher Stephen Wangh describes how searching and questioning allow true improvisation and artistry to take place. Finding and performing answers, on the other hand, cuts us off from both:

[Grotowski said that] “having a question and not an answer to express, is why many actors are better in rehearsal than in performance. They search in rehearsal, find answers, and then perform their answers. This is not creative.

… [L]ittle by little, I learned to perceive the ways in which the act of searching, probing, and questioning with body, voice, and image do, indeed, give rise to something special within the actor who plunges deeply into this process. Over time I got better at noticing when an actor has stopping ‘questioning’ and has settled for an ‘answer.’ I became able to perceive the subtle change in an actor’s gesture when his Romeo is no longer really reaching toward Juliet’s balcony with newfound yearning but is merely repeating the gesture he discovered last week. And I began to hear the faint flatness in an actress’ voice when her Juliet proclaims: ‘What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face’… but does so with a memorized intonation, no longer truly searching for the images, no longer quite so flustered as she adds ‘… nor any other part / Belonging to a man.’


Why Mickey Mousing Can Be a Helpful Concept

The existence of Mickey Mousing as a concept points to our sensitivity to the other dimensions of musicality that we don’t often talk about so explicitly. We sense that musicality isn’t just about improvising moves and rhythms to the music, but about improvising with our ideas, sensations, emotions, and relationships moment by moment throughout the dance. Without these dimensions, even movement that corresponds to the music can feel empty, unconnected, and lacking in creativity. This shouldn’t be a burden but a relief: Musicality isn’t only about skill. It’s about listening, to more than just sound.

If Mickey Mousing points us towards dimensions of our musicality that hold greater potential and possibility for our dancing, it can be a helpful concept. It can be helpful for ourselves, to evaluate our own musicality. It can be helpful for teachers, when there is trust, shared humility, and considerate communication with students. It can be helpful for our communities, by giving us a shared vocabulary with which to discuss and debate our values. The term Mickey Mousing can be used to shame or judge other dancers, as some have warned. But only if we choose to see each other in one dimension.

2 comments on Mickey Mousing: Too Much Musicality?

  1. Kai Sosceles
    November 20, 2015 at 9:32 am (9 years ago)

    For years growing up in communities of dancers, our elders would often scold us by saying nothing more than “…but you’re not /Dancing./” and this was always confusing to me as dance has so many facets that I wasn’t sure how to improve with this type of critique and it ultimately became a thought terminating cliche in the communities that I was a part of, feeling like a vague and belligerent line in the sand between the Haves and the Have Nots.

    Years later after several breakthroughs in various dynamics of dance, I felt like I was able to articulate this difference of Dancing vs. Not Dancing to my students in the way that my teachers had not been able to do for me, using terminology that I had learned from other more established and traditional dance styles and the study of music and musicality. However, it’s still quite a long winded response…as this article shows.

    And now I feel with this article moving around, the next generation of dancers are yet another leg up in being able to articulate this problem in constructive ways by using a single phrase: Mickey Mousing.


    Thank you for taking the time to write this up and to help spread common-use vocabulary in dance communities. 🙂

    • Joy in Motion
      November 20, 2015 at 5:48 pm (9 years ago)

      Thank you for your comment, Kai!

      “…dance has so many facets that I wasn’t sure how to improve with this type of critique and it ultimately became a thought terminating cliche in the communities that I was a part of, feeling like a vague and belligerent line in the sand between the Haves and the Have Nots.” – Absolutely! I feel that my article is still rather vague, but I think it starts circling the right areas that we can color in more as we learn, discuss, practice, and teach with movement and music itself. Though I hope/plan to get more specific with future writing.

      How awesome that you’ve made those breakthroughs, and that you’ve invested in articulating them and passing that wisdom on to your students. Here’s wishing us all more of these breakthroughs!


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