Edwin Denby on dancing to the beat

Edwin Denby was a poet and influential dance critic. This excerpt is from a 1959 article, ``In the Abstract.'' When you watch couples dancing on the dance floor, most of them step to the measure, but they seem to first hear and then step with a sort of tiny lag. That is the respectable or ``square'' way of dancing. Other couples, particularly to soft music, don't hold to the beat, they also step across it -- now a bit too soon, now a bit too late -- with a swooping flow that corresponds over several measures to a phrase of the music. They look gracefully sentimental, or as the children say, like creeps. These are two kinds of dance rhythm, the first with an even beat, the second with an uneven one, and neither of them builds up pressure in the long run.

The high school couples cultivate a third kind, a kind that builds up pressure. They dance with a rhythmic thrust that is quick and exact, but percussive, not staccato. Watching the beat both as a pulse and as a time unit, they dance on top of the beat. They seem to me to keep on the edge of the upbeat awhile, getting their double balance on it, and they explode in a counter-rhythmic break, like wire-walkers turning a somersault in the air and landing on the wire again. It isn't only the gift and the nerve I notice, it is also the strict discipline of ear nobody has imposed on them but they themselves. They are absorbed and dance all-out . . . .

``On top of the beat'' is a jazz expression. But with quite different music, with quite different steps, gestures and accents, what you recognize isn't any derivation from jazz, not at all. What you recognize is an on-top-of-the beat type of dancing, the percussive kind of continuity and its special pressure of pulse. You see individual great dancers who have that rhythm, dancers black, yellow, red, white and greenish-pink. The Balinese little girls and grown men dancing in ``noble styles'' have that type of rhythm to perfection. And a strong tendency toward it distinguishes the New York City Ballet from the great classic companies abroad. You see it here and there in European troupes, but their main tendency goes in another direction.

Of the great European companies, the Paris Opera and the Moscow Bolshoi specialize in phrasing. You keep seeing the dancers not hit the beat; they prefer to hit it just now and then, and in between step a trifle ahead or a trifle behind, accelerating or retarding within the length of the phrase more obviously than the orchestra. Within the length of the phrase, they keep gaining and losing impetus. The art of this across-the-beat rhythm can be very striking like -- ``is-this-a . . . DAGGER . . . that-I-see-before-me.'' But everybody who dances on stage isn't in a state of story crisis all evening long. Many of the dances add no more to a story than ``tralala, tralalee, tralaloo.'' The company phrases these too. It gives to the rhythm a suggestion of local speech rhythm -- the Parisians make it staccato, chattery and charming, the Muscovites make it legato, sing-songy and soulful. To appreciate their artistry, you need only watch it in the right language. So too in the old-fashioned Bournonville style of the Danes, when a dancer ``swallows'' part of a classic step now and then, she isn't being careless; she is echoing an adorable ``glug-glug'' of the local polite speech rhythm. Excerpted from `The Collected Dance Writings of Edwin Denby,' to be published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., February, 1987. By permission of Robert Cornfield.

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