The Intersection of Dance and Music in America - Dance Week


Tilly and The Wall photo by Anders Jensen-Urstad

What does dance have to do with music? Dance is a response, an accompaniment to the melodies and more often than not, a crucial part of music itself. Americans wouldn’t normally think that; in the Western world, most bands and music makers are separated from their dancers by a stage or a barrier and by a cultural standard that doesn’t let the two mix.

However, there are other cultures in which dance is an integral part of their musical history.

Egyptians had dancers at dinner parties, public celebrations and gatherings, to accompany the band and to please the kings. Their philosophers were perplexed at the Greek culture which didn’t use dance as heavily as the Egyptians. Malaysia had many dances born out of necessity; they used drum beats to spread important messages and the dance that evolved to accompany the beats became an integral part of the message itself.

Silat is one type of Malaysian dance form that originated as a deadly self-defense practice. Sarawak is another form of dance that developed as story-telling display that was often performed in the culture. In South Africa, music and dance are inseparable because of their strong roots in individual communities.

Dance developed as an integral part of music in other countries. However, in America it’s been a different story. There’s been the Polka, Square Dance, Jazz tapping and other types of dance, but no form where the band needed the dancer as a critical part of the music. Tilly and the Wall is a new breed of band, one that fills this need for a greater intersection of music and dance in America. Like most other bands, they have a percussionist but in this instance, she is a tap dancer.

“She actually pioneered a new style of dancing, not to mention a new percussive element,” says singer and bassist Kianna Alarid. “She literally invented brand new steps that had never, to our knowledge, existed in classical dance or elsewhere.”

Tilly and the Wall hadn’t originally planned for this to be their percussive section, but tapper Jaime, who had done this in other bands before, volunteered to “do it for now” when the band at first had no drummer. Apparently it worked out really well, especially for the sound they were trying to achieve and she stuck with it. It’s worked out so well in fact, that the Tilly girls all dance during live shows, completely eliminating the border between dance and music.

“One of our only preconceived ideas for the band was that we wanted to focus on our live performance, making sure it would be entertaining,” Kianna said. “We set out to incorporate visual elements into the show and the girls love to include choreographed and synchronized dance moves as a part of that.”

It was an uphill battle for a band trying adamantly to break the cultural norm of separation between music and dance. The singer, and recent new mother, characterized their progression as going from “that gimmick band with a tap dancer” to “that weird band, the one with the tap dancer.” But they are gaining popularity and making waves on the underground music scene with their big performances. Why does she think American music is so separate from dance?

“’Cause people here tend to give a shit. It’s a real shame, people in this country, musically and otherwise, are a little… tight.”

There is one band that’s trying to get back to the roots of all of this. Beats Antique, a tribal dance-tronica trio that takes the dance element to new heights. While she doesn’t particularly create a musical line as she dances, Zoe is an integral part of Beats Antique’s music and without her the music wouldn’t exist. True, she is a percussionist and producer for the band, but she’s also the belly dancer.

The concept for the group came about because of their World Music label. It was largely focused on dance music, and as a dancer for most of her life and a producer, Zoe was able to hear where the two other guys needed to make some space. The dance was such a critical part of the writing and development process that when they took the act live, she had no choice but to dance along with it. In fact, the music wouldn’t be remotely the same with out it.

“When we’re performing on, stage we’re a unit. We’re locked in and one force. I represent the more visual part of the force, and it would change them to not have me. They wouldn’t be at all the same performers without the dance. And it’s something we really crave, so moving forward we want more of it.”

The band does some improvisation on stage, and even then, they play off each other and the dance is seamlessly integrated into the beat, like a perfect part of a musical equation. Zoe explained how she could tell when a musician has not played with a dancer before, describing it as being slapped on the cake instead of the icing gracefully coating it. Working with musicians, she’s discovered a symbiotic relationship that automatically fits. And it baffles her as well, why dance and music don’t come together more often.

“For some reason, dance and live music in this country aren’t presented together in a cohesive whole that often to the general public. In big theaters, we see all these dances and dancers but maybe if they’re lucky they have a band, and then you see live music and they don’t have dancers which is totally ridiculous,” Zoe says. “I just love that Beats Antique has a chance to do this, especially for people who aren’t going to watch a modern dance performance, maybe that’s not even their sphere. So I’m hoping to be a gateway drug to inspire more of this in the US.”

For Tilly and the Wall and Beats Antique, dance and music are inseparable forces. The interplay between them is stellar, and hopefully this trend reaches the mainstream music scene.