Music, Speed and Story: Paso Doble

Matador hat and red cape

By Michael Herdlitzka

Quality of movement can be evaluated by the factors “contents” and “form”. Form describes how a movement looks like. Often in arts and also some sports there are rules or expectations how a certain movement should look like.

In dancing we often believe that the technique is such a “rule of form”. That is a misconception of the role of technique. Nevertheless rules of form exist also in our form of dancing and are in my opinion heavily overestimated nowadays. The paramount weakness of most competitors today is the exaggeration of form aspects at the expense of contents. I will use the opportunity to expand a little bit on the contents topic.

The contents of a movement is best understood by questions like “What is it good for?” or “What does it mean?” I will use some examples to illustrate what is lacking severely in most of today’s competitive dancing.

If you ask anybody for the meaning of the Paso Doble you will surely get the answer “bullfight” in short. Yet NO ONE competitor nowadays displays (at least) two of the aspects a true matador will always show.

First, a matador will always focus on the bull in order to survive.

In our dancing the bull is imaginary but without focusing on that imaginary dangerous animal most movements, especially the “caping” ones, will lose any meaning. Competitors of all grades focus on their partners as they (should) do in the other dances. Doing so does not reflect the original “story” behind that dance and often ends in illogical and useless (but “good” in sense of form) looks. The matador would not focus on his cape and certainly not in an angry way. This leads to my second point.

A matador is –- or at least tries to look –- as calm as possible.

The more calm he appears the “better”, because the more brave his work is seen by the audience. Less experienced and famous matadors may feel anxious but there is no reason to be angry at the bull. On the contrary, the best matadors feel great respect for the bull and sometimes –- if demanded by the public –- they exert mercy.

In the world of matadors there is no room for anger or other emotions as both fear and anger would make it even more dangerous. The surviving matador is calm. He will try to do a lot of things, but certainly not to frighten the bull. And then look at and listen to our competitors. They draw angry faces at each other (because there is no more imaginary bull there anyhow), make all sorts of noises by their feet (which would not work in the arena sands) or their breath (which the bull might do but not the matador).

Our competition floors are full of bulls but empty of matadors and capes. Who is going to be frightened? The audience? It sometimes is. The adjudicators? Off the floor they make rather fun of it. My few memories of authentic matadors on dance floors go way back to Peter Maxwell, Jukka Haapalainen and Dimitry Timokhin, all with their great partners of course.

The original stories of each dance are not reflected by nowadays dancing. This is true for Paso Doble and Rumba, where the stories are at least present in mind.

The situation is worse in the other Latin dances where people (teachers, competitors and adjudicators) think even less about the contents of the dance.

The situation is disastrous in the Standard section where people (teachers, competitors and adjudicators) do not even remember the original story, the genuine meaning of each dance.

The content factors of a dance are of course heavily influenced by the music. Concerning the role and character of music our profession  is – same as  with some aspects of technique – driven by misconceptions. The music is for the dancer what the water is for the swimmer. For the swimmer it is obvious that he/she can only use but not change the water.

In the dancing profession the music has been used but also changed – away from the original – all the time. The character of the music has been given up for “fashion” reasons. The construction of music (arrangement of 8 bar sets which is unnatural for all dances except Viennese Waltz) has been changed for – I do not know for what. The speed of music has been changed in order to “be able to perform the technique better”. That is a double mystery. The music, the character, the story of a dance is closely related to the original and characteristic speed. The technique should enable dancers to adapt to the speed and not the other way round. If a swimmer develops a certain technique suitable for a different kind of water (e.g. more or less dense) the whole swimming business would not add or extract salt from all of their waters. Why do dancers give up character and other contents for “fashion” or “technique” reasons?

By the way, reducing the speed of music did not work properly anyhow. Every speed reduction was absorbed by more frequent use of syncopated movements. The more the music speed is reduced, the more couples try to impress adjudicators by even more speed on the floor. Overwhelming speed and energy at the expense of character and story –- dancing, where are you going? Most fellow adjudicators would be much more impressed by true and characteristic interpretation of original music. Who is going to tell this to teachers and competitors?

Michael Herdlitzka

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