The rhythmical dialogue between music and dance

Guest article by Wendy Timmons

Rhythm is fundamental to our very being: A baby, before it is born, moves in the womb and performs rhythmical patterns which are known to have communicative and expressive significance (Lange, 1975). Rhythmical patterns can also be defined by uniform metrical rhythm that was a common approach in concert music in the Western world in the 19th century. Latterly the global amalgam of musical tastes and styles embraced the idea irregularity allowing rhythms to be expressed, manipulated and shaped by tempo, accents, dynamics, and in conjunction with flow and spatial properties melded together with bodily movement – to form dance. 

Historically, the dance or Ballet Master provided the tempo for class with his baton on the dance floor, or with an instrument (typically the violin). This was clearly evidenced and powerfully documented in the impressionist works of Degas where Noverre (1727-1810) is depicted in the dance class, backstage and in rehearsals. In these settings Noverre maintained that balletic movements within performance should not only be technically brilliant, but should also result in an emotional engagement with the audience. This was achieved through Noverre’s insistence that music should be composed to fit the movements, as opposed to setting the dance to existing scores; he pushed dancers to understand how to use rhythm expressively, rather than simply to count the number of beats. This fundamental tenet is alive today in the work of Farrell (NYCB) who emphasizes the importance of acute listening and relishes changes in tempo to ‘challenge the dancer’ (Jordan, 2000, p94).

Of course, dance and music enjoy individual existences as forms of rhythmical expression, however it is the togetherness of these expressions that is of interest here.  Cavalli (2001) argues that music for dance ‘accompaniment’ is different from music for listening to – and should complement, reflect, motivate and enhance the movement. Not in a thudding beat to maintain uniform rhythmical patterns, nor as frippery, but as an organic part of the dance as the dancer’s body itself. Yet the term ‘accompaniment’ contains, for some artists, a misconception that an imbalance in creative worth exists between the dancer and the musician. Mistakenly, some musicians perceive that they are a garnish or accessory to the dance, rather than an integral part of the dance.  In the traditional genres music, historically, the converse was the case (see figure below): Musician and dancer coexisted in their entirety, many of whom argued that the music and dance are one and the same, negotiating the nuances and complexities of rhythmical communication and expression in an interactive dialogue. Together they build and support each other, generating meaning that sadly will be lost if considered and pursued in isolation.

Separation and individuality as a worldwide process characterizes post-modern   societies   and the once  accumulative   sense  of  community  and  responsibility  for  others  is  today too often implicitly  replaced  by  individualistic  principles.  This is indeed also now all too commonly apparent within the coexistence of traditional music and dance. The schism and appeal for separation may not be a result of individualistic tendencies coming merely from a practical, sustainable perspective that is a resultant of emerging digital technology. Whatever the case, the visceral unmatchable high a dancer feels when supported by live accompaniment and the challenge the musician rises to when engaged in this expressive dialogue with the dance is one that should be reconsidered and cherished before this beautiful baby is thrown out with the bathwater…

Paliokastro Dance Configuration


















Figure 1: Cretan women circle-dancing, and the one in centre playing a lyre, from Palaikastro, Crete, around 1300-1100 B.C.

Photo Credit: Dance configuration dating from the 15th Century B.C[1]. Found at Paliokastro in Crete and held in the Natural historyMuseum of Heraklion[2]

[1] Author’s own photograph, [2] The Natural History Museum of Heraklion, Platia Eleftherias Square, Heraklion Crete. +30 2810 393276.

Wendy Timmons is the director of the Master’s in Dance Science & Education programme at the University of Edinburgh,