33. Characterization Part 2

Following the article on characterization – as applied to performance of dance in competitions – which appeared in Dance News edition 1525, I received a letter from a Mr Hammond of Plymouth. His query was about my views on what I considered “to be the basic steps and standard variations which would ensure that the authentic characterization of each dance is maintained?” A sensible question but characterization is not just about the type of steps used.

This was my answer:
“Dear Mr Hammond, Many thanks for your letter of the 11th November. You ask about characterization. I think every advanced dancer has some conception of what the music of a particular dance means to him or her. Obvious examples of characterization are the Paso Doble (the story of the bullfight) and Rumba, (the dance of sensual love) where every demonstrator will tell the audience what the dance means.

The Waltz, for example, has connotations which are just as clear. When looking for descriptive adjectives to define the character of the Waltz and its music, nothing is more apt than such words as romantic, dreamy, sentimental, amorous, loving; a fact well known to lyric writers and composers. Always one of the most popular dances; ballrooms, public and private, traditionally ended a night’s dancing with a Last Waltz, which might have a title such as ‘Who’s Taking You Home Tonight’ or ‘The Last Waltz With You’. At Wedding Receptions this association with romantic love ordained that the newly married couple would lead off the dancing with a Waltz.

Characterization – conveying an emotion to the onlooker through the interpretation of music – is an advanced technique which has little to do with steps per se. It is the treatment and presentation of the dance through body language. In this instance, (Waltz) soft drifting swings of movement, spins of ecstasy, picture lines which suggest amour.
To repeat, it is not (necessarily) the steps. Two couples can dance identical routines in a Waltz. One attacks the work vigorously and muscularly, shows effort. The other floats, swings and drifts effortlessly over the floor, dancing to the girl, concealing the effort. Which do you I think has the more authentic characterization? Happy dancing.“

I am quite clear in my mind as to which approach I prefer as being characteristic of the romantic Waltz. Certainly not the vigorous attacking style! During the days when Doreen and I were active as demonstrators, we always wanted to maximise, in our presentation, the romantic character of the Waltz. We would have the Waltz music played very softly. We would choose melodies which seemed to us to epitomize the spirit of the dance, as described above. Of course, when competing in championships we had neither of these choices open to us. Nevertheless, our interpretation was dictated by our mental picture of Waltz character.

Even demonstrating in a large ballroom like the Hammersmith Palais we would want only the piano and violins – no drumbeats – and even those two instruments were required to be played pianissimo. A loud strident Waltz was always anathema to our view of its character. Which was why it was a source of pride to make no foot noise in our movement over the floor.

Competition dancers should develop a clear idea of the emotion they wish to portray in each dance. Read the history of the dances in which you take part. Sit quietly and listen to the music of these dances. Think about them. Do they evoke within you any type of emotion? What types of movements will fit this mental image of ‘character’? The blind copying of figures taught to you without also acquiring a ‘feel’ for the meaning of the dance is of little value. Warning! Music which was created for, say, Disco dancing, and has been adapted for a ballroom or latin rhythm will not necessarily be the right type to interpret. Listen to music which was written for the dance which you wish to characterize.

The best Viennese Waltzes are, indisputably, the ones written by the Johann Strausses, father and son, but there are many other composers who composed specifically for the Viennese Waltz (especially during its heyday in Vienna) which are almost as good. But I have heard some diabolical, contrived adaptations of tunes played for competitions, whose only pretence to be associated with the Viennese Waltz is that they have been put to 3/4 time.

Authentic characterization, which means interpreting the authentic music, becomes an impossibility under such circumstances. What, for instance, do you read Into the mood of the Slow Foxtrot? I have always thought of Foxtrot as being to the ballroom dances as “Swan Lake” is to Ballet. Both are classical. Foxtrot is the ‘classic’ dance in the sense that it should be simple, elegant, sophisticated, danced with immaculate style, seamless flow of movement and be not much affected by changes in fashion. Fiddly, pretentious, rigor-mortis stoppy, curlicue swirly- whirly, types of figures do not fit into my vision of Foxtrot characterization.

I close this second article on characterization by re-stating parts of the two opening paragraphs of my previous essay on the subject.

CHARACTERIZATION! As a competitor, is this a subject that you and your dance teacher take seriously? Do you research the history and development of a dance in order to get the feel of its traditional character? Do you attribute a separate charac¬terization to each of your competition dances? You should!

If you are a coach/trainer/teacher/choreographer of dance, do you critically examine the types of figures you are teaching and the ‘mood’ of their presentation to ensure that they fit within the framework of ‘authentic’ characterization? You should!

Or do you poach from the other dances, perhaps even from ballet and jazz dance for your ideas? Unless these imports completely satisfy the criterion of characterization, you shouldn’t!