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Music is a Language – Dance is a Conversation

January 22, 2018 by Oren Pardes

Music is a language – and so is dance. A song is musical communication (from musicians and singers) TO those who hear it – and musical conversation WITH those who dance to it. A dance is a physically moving expression of the music, lyrics, and dancers’ eMotions. Like languages, different music, songs, and dances all have their own distinct structure, grammatical rules, appropriate and acceptable usage, and traditional meanings that may not exist in others.

Many people reading this are able to speak more than one language – and to dance more than one style to more than one song in more than one genre of music – without mixing them up. Notice what you are reading is written mainly in one language rather than trying to impress you or amuse myself by mixing all the ones I know. Languages (and dances) evolve and change over time – and speakers of different ones can and often do influence others – as do people, cultures, and traditions, but what is appropriate, acceptable, and understood in one is often not in another. Language is not simply words that can be substituted nor is dance simply steps or styling or (choreographed) movement patterns that can be freely taken from one dance and inserted into another (just because elements of aspects could be or because someone wants to).

When someone speaks to you in one language, they expect and probably only understand a reply in the same language rather than either another one or one with words from another especially if in a different order. There are other ways to say something (that you might prefer in another language) but resist the urge to confuse people by blending words and phrases and sound meanings of some different language they are not expecting and may not understand or appreciate. Different genres/styles of music and dance evolved to fit together in specific ways without need to introduce or fuse something else unrelated – for no particular reason except that it is possible (or gives the illusion of being distinct). Just because someone can speak many different languages or dance many different ways is not a good reason to mix them all up – just for fun or some sincere but misguided belief about the benefits and desirability of “diversity”.

Too many cooks (or ingredients) ruin the “broth”.

In Portuguese, “broth” is “caldo“. It can refer not only to soup to eat, but also to a dance party – soup for the soul. Also meaning party/dance/music are Zouk in French and Bachata in Spanish. A “party” is usually much more about food, music, and dancing than anyone drinking alcohol – especially to excess. Salsa is the Spanish word for “sauce” – to give food extra “flavor” (sabor).

But a “party” doesn’t need (or benefit) from adding “sauce”. It doesn’t make it “better”. Often it makes it “worse” – by covering up it’s already existing “flavor”. The inherent “sabor” of most food (and dance) is more than sufficient to enjoy “as is” – and does not need to be “salsafied”. Yet many people outside of the Dominican Republic now seem to dance bacahta like it is salsa.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”

It is possible to dance most choreographed step and turn patterns “on” any “count” of the music but if your dance partner is used to dancing on a particular “timing”, and you notice concern, confusion, or conflict, use the timing and techniques they know rather than insisting they instantly learn a new different language. It can be very difficult for someone who may know no other way to adapt and enjoy dancing together if you do things even just one “count” differently.

More different in usage than counting music is the word “mambo” – from the Kongo language, spoken by Congolese people in several Central African countries. In modern Swahili language, the word “mambo” is sometimes used to correspond to the English phrase “Hey, what’s up?

Mambo” is not really a specific type of music or dance or rhythm or section of a song; it is a “conversation with the gods” – in which musicians, singers, dancers, and listeners can lose themselves and find themselves by connecting with “more” than themselves. Partner dancing is a “shared conversation” – not only with the song (and whoever is playing it) and with oneself but also with another person (doing the same). Stage performance dancing adds an audience to the conversation. “Social dancing” is not nor should be “social performing”. The former is like a personal intimate “private conversation” and the latter more like a formal “public” presentation.

A song with lyrics is more than simply spoken word poetry accompanied by some rhythmic instrumental sounds. Like a story, in any form, songs have a beginning, middle, and end. Most songs have parts that repeat – both in rhythmic pattern and in the lyrics. How you dance and move together and what you do should do the same – matching the music of the moment rather than ignoring or trying to compete with it by trying to “bust a move” or force fit some pattern.

Argentine, International, and American tango styles are more than merely dialects of the same dance language but are now different enough than dancers can have difficulty (enjoying) dancing together. And none are interchangeable with Semba or Kizomba – or Urban Kiz – all of which are different from Zouk. The same is so regarding what is now being called Traditional and Urban Bachata. What some people think of and enjoy as a “party” is often very different from what others think and enjoy. Don’t mix them up! Some people like to dance in place, others like to travel; some move in circles, others in angles, and still others in straight lines (often back and forth). Some rise up from the ground with each step, others sink down into it – and it does not usually feel good to either if/when the other insists upon doing the opposite.

Recognize and respect the preferences, capabilities, and dance language of your partner!

Also respect the song playing, the culture from which it comes, and the traditions of the dance that fit it best. When “conversing with the gods”, with the music playing, with a dance partner, or with an audience, try to speak in the language spoken to. If you are the one “initiating” the “conversation”, choose a single language most likely to be understood rather than attempt to create a new language of your own from random bits and pieces of any others. IF you really want to “pick and choose” some “mix and match” combination, at least do so as a sequential “medley” clearing using one at a time rather than mixing them and making it hard(er) for your partner or audience to understand, follow, and/or enjoy. Before trying to invent “new” forms of anything make sure you really know what already exists and works and be respectful of the language and culture and traditions of the music you hear and the existing styles of dance that evolved with it.

© 2018, Oren Pardes. All rights reserved.

Oren Pardes

Oren Pardes has written 24 post in this blog.


  1. Horacio says:

    “There are other ways to say something (that you might prefer in another language) but resist the urge to confuse people by blending words and phrases and sound meanings of some different language they are not expecting and may not understand or appreciate. ”

    … and a few words later…

    “Too many cooks (or ingredients) ruin the “caldo”.”


    • Oren Pardes says:

      I would agree that using a “foreign” word goes against what I wrote earlier except that using the English word would not make the “connection” to the dance community the line was intended to reach. So, perhaps what I should have done is explained it – for others who might not understand or make the connection.

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