Category Archives: mental models

Musicality and Creativity Are Best Buddies

I just finished re-reading Rebecca Brightly’s post, Musicality Is Overrated, started to respond with a comment, and decided to write a post instead.  I recently wrote a bit about what I mean when I discuss musicality in Musicality: Macro and Micro, so my thoughts on the issue are fresh.


I think there are some strong comment responses because of the strong oppositional statements against musicality (“sucks”) and driving toward a new paradigm of creativity.

I don’t quite agree with the premises:

Ambiguity of Definition

I think this is easily combatted by thought, discussion, and definition of personal terms.  I mentioned how I use micro- and macro-musicality, but I could have used rhythmic- and expressive-musicality (Darn, those might be better terms since they imply their definitions).

Is it a problem that other people have different definitions for the same or similar phrases?  Not as long as we all know each others’ definitions.  What I think of as macro-musicality seems to closely align with Rebecca’s expression of creativity.  I think it might come close to a linguistic difference.

Impossibility of Teaching

I’ve used the exact same creativity exercise referenced in the original post, packaged as a musicality exercise.  I’ve gone through the process of walking through different variations and points in music where rhythm changes match up to the variation.  It doesn’t feel that difficult to me.  It does require more time, effort, and students ready to be receptive to the ideas (learning where best to apply existing knowledge as opposed to learning new material doesn’t feel like a good value to some people).

Intuitively Difficult to Understand

I think this probably flows from lack of definitions.  If I can define a thing more clearly, it’s able to be understood by other people more clearly.

Doesn’t Go Far Enough

I think this flows from a lack of definitions but might also come from a mental model of musicality that is limiting rather than embracing of new things.

Best Buddies

If, to this point, I sound like I don’t like what Rebecca Brightly wrote, I apologize.  I think I disagree with the framing, but we probably think about musicality differently and have different existing paradigms in our heads, which lead to different expression of ideas (Actually, that’s a great parallel for expressiveness in dancing).


Ultimately, I think that musicality and creativity go hand in hand.  If Rebecca Brightly says “creative expression” and I say “musical expression” and we mean about the same thing, is that so terrible?  I don’t think so.  Do I think it has to mean the exact same thing?  Probably not.  Creativity could cover a large number of meanings, as could musicality.  There could be musical parts of dancing that minimize creativity and creative things which aren’t musical.  So no, there isn’t 100% overlap.  At the end of the day, when I read about this phrase “creative vision” as applied to Lindy Hop, I think to myself, “Those are my words for an aspect of musicality.”


It’s apparent that another source of stimulation for Rebecca Brightly is the presence of sources for stimulating the creative process.  I really love this too, and am checking out a number of the sources she references.  I’m obsessed with process.  I’m convinced that a big difference between dancers who improve and dancers who don’t improve is the processes they use (if any).  The pedagogy of teaching musicality is a subject that’s rich for mining, I think.  I’d looove to have that discussion!


One of the main reasons that I started writing about how I think about dancing was to get contrasting views, and for this reason alone, I loved reading the post.  I got some pointers to cool resources and got a peek inside someone else’s thought process.

Musicality: Macro and Micro

I thought I’d just briefly write something down about how I discuss musicality.  If you think about it in different ways, I’d love to hear about it.  In broad terms, I think of musicality as coming in two flavors, macro and micro.


To me, macro-musicality is the general feeling and atmosphere inspired by a song or a section within a song.  I think I first awakened to the idea during a class by Sean and Tonya Morris during the first Inspiration Weekend (2008?).  They played Savoy Blues (Kid Ory), and asked us to react to the eight eight-counts, then feel how the following section and various solos created different feelings.  “Holy crap, they totally do,” I thought.  It hadn’t penetrated my mind that if I listened closely to the music, I could really be conscious of how it made me feel or that I could reflect those feelings in my dancing.

The opening to Savoy Blues is pretty staccato and upbeat.  The next section has more two-beat draws, which feels more like movement should be drawn out or legs should be swept around or something like that (the last part of this is in the Amazon sample).  The early part of the next section has long trombone draws with a quick clarinet counterpoint, transitioning into solo clarinet with long held notes and trill/vibrato (the first part of this is in the Amazon sample).  Then the trumpets break in for a really brassy, higher-energy solo… etc, etc, etc.  If one dances the same way to each of these sections, one’s not really listening to the music.  They have different energies which can be reflected in posture, energy, even facial expression.


Micro means small, right?  I think of micro-musicality as the matching footwork rhythms to rhythms in the music.  If there’s a beat that’s slightly different from the standard triple rhythm, can I match it?  If there’s a draw, can I do that instead of my 7-8?

How about a visual example?  Sure!  I think Nick Williams and Nikki Marvin accomplish both types of musicality here, but I especially like watching the footwork and how the moves get modified in relation to the music.

Nick Williams and Nikki Marvin – US Open Swing Dance Championships 2010 Strictly Lindy Winners

The whole thing is a clinic in micro-musicality.


Lots of fun, lots of ideas.  Did you catch this moment at 1:08?  Pure awesome.  The entire dance is full of moments like that, but I hate gushing.  Hate it.




How do you think about musicality?  Do you have a different paradigm that you fit things into?  Contrasting definitions of the same words?  More precision?  I’d really like to know how other people think about this.

Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition

One of my main motivations for starting this site was to discuss some of the mental models that I use to think about dancing.  I previously referenced my reasons for calling the blog “Black Belt Lindy,” which implies the use of the martial arts as a model.  Unfortunately, the belt system in martial arts is a system of colors and can be fluid in the meaning of certain colors.

About a year ago, I read Andy Hunt’s “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning” which stimulated an avalanche of thinking and re-thinking.  It’s nominally about computer programming, in that it’s written from the perspective of a programmer and a lot of the examples reference programming, but the lessons are quite easily applied to things like dancing.

Today I’d like to focus on a single idea I was exposed to: The Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition.
The idea behind this model is to classify someone’s skill level so as to better give an instructor guidance on what a student needs to work on to advance.  Here’s the description from the wikipedia page on the Dreyfus Model:

A helpful summary of the model is provided by Eraut (1994)[2]:
1 Novice

  • rigid adherence to rules
  • no discretional judgment

2 Advanced beginner

  • situational perception still limited
  • all aspects of work are treated separately and given equal importance

3 Competent

  • coping with crowdedness (multiple activity, information)
  • now partially sees action as part of longer term goals
  • conscious, deliberate planning

4 Proficient

  • holistic view of situation, rather than in terms of aspects
  • sees what is most important in a situation
  • uses maxims for guidance, meaning of maxims may vary according to situation

5 Expert

  • no longer reliant on rules, guidelines, maxims
  • intuitive grasp of situation, based on tacit knowledge
  • vision of what is possible

6 Proficient Expert

  • Knows the evidence base and underpinning knowledge to entirety
  • Can teach the skill to others
  • Can utilise the skill interlinked with other skills

This is evocative of so many memories!  Being a novice all all about needing the rules explained.  Ever remember a someone asking, “How do I know when to do six or eight count footwork?”  Someone looking for a hard and fast rule is placing themselves solidly in the novice range.
What about the inability to understand priorities?  I remember acting as a teaching assistant at a workshop and asking the instructor what the priorities in fixing problems were.  Frame before footwork?  Footwork before lead?  The inability to prioritize the focus of my instruction was the mark of an Advanced Beginner.
As we shade into Competent practitioners, we start to see more of the big picture.  We can see how decisions we make in our dancing affect the aesthetics.  How actions in one part of a move affect latter parts.  How the end of one move naturally feeds into the beginning of another.  How changes in the music should elicit changes in the dancing.  How the structure of the music helps us to anticipate future decisions we’ll be making.
I don’t claim to be a Proficient practitioner, though maybe I’m shading towards this level.  I’ll be working for a while at getting enough practical experience to really claim this.  At this level, rules get abstracted into maxims, which might be so nuanced as to seem meaningless to the Novice.  One I’ve heard is, “Dance the way you walk.”  That meant almost to nothing to me until I was shown a practical application.
OK, so how does this help us become better dancers?  Well, I’ve never talked to someone in swing dancing who’s heard of this model, so I kind of doubt any workshops will be adopting it to mark teaching levels.  To be honest, I’ve never talked to anyone who’s heard of this model, so it’s not something unique to swing dancing.  What it can help us do is to better understand where we are in the process of learning.  It’s actually a continuous spectrum, not a series of discrete steps, so you may have characteristics of multiple levels.
I’m classing myself as a Competent shading towards Proficient swing dancer.  I can very quickly see whether someone is fitting my aesthetic sense and kinesthetic sense of “good dancing,” and figure out why with minimal review.  I’m someone who’s able to think before I walk, so I feel like I grasp some of the ideas behind being Proficient while I lack a lot of the experience.  For example, I’m usually fine on the social floor at most speeds, but tend to freeze up when asked to jump in and do 8-8’s in the middle of a song.  I need a lot more practical experience before that becomes a natural part of my dancing.  I’ve spent most of the past 18 months ironing out my basics and adding in rhythm changes and very minor footwork variations as my styling.  I need to add a lot more styling variations and get comfortable with them as part of a “flash” library.  My personal style tends to be more subtle so I need to be more comfortable with a “bigger” style if I want to compete.  My reactions aren’t geared towards “listening” to an assertive follow telling me she needs extra time or wants to play with a theme.  I need a lot more practice at being responsive to this.
So let me throw this out there.  Where do you rank yourself as a swing dancer at the moment?  Do you have any specific memories that are linked to anchoring you at a point in time to a specific characteristic in the Dreyfus model?

How does this affect your thoughts on basics vs. styling?