Same Word, Different Dictionary

by Jared Adamson-

I’ve never been very good at dancing. I’m not terrible. I don’t have two left feet or anything. But I’m not very good at dancing. These boots were made for walking. Fortunately, I’m tall. So when I’m cast in a show, you can put me in the back so no one sees my feet.

And there are other things that I’m not very good at—sports, for example. But that doesn’t bother me. I’d be perfectly content to sit in the stands and cheer for my kids’ on the field, or diamond, or court. And I’ve been famously quoted as the dad who said he had to take his kids to baseball rehearsal.

But the dancing thing does bother me…less than a lot, but more than a little bit. But it’s because I feel like I ought to be better at it. The movements, the steps—they make sense to me. I see them and can duplicate them (not always with finesse at first). But when we put the music with it, I’m like a newborn foal trying to walk or an albatross trying to take flight. Goofy might be the most accurate description.

And that’s the part that bothers me the most: the music. Because I’m good at music. I understand music. I live, eat, breathe and dream notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. So why can’t I dance to music? I’ve conducted orchestras and symphonic chorales and my arms move in luscious synchrony. I play piano concertos with precision and nuance, subtlety and skill. My body can move to create music. Why can’t it move with the music?

Because musicians and dancers count differently.

The same music works for both art forms, but it’s not the same for either one. And really, this is not just an issue of perspective or interpretation for musicians and dancers actually have to work together for the final product to be a thing of beauty. When it comes to counting the music though, musicians and dancers have the same word, but different dictionaries. Dancers move along phrases of music; musicians count measures. And this first came to me when I worked with Bonnie.

I was young and a little arrogant; Bonnie used to be young, but never arrogant…because she actually was always right. All the time. She wasn’t sure what to make of me and I didn’t know how to take her. Bonnie was choreographer for a show I was doing. It was my first shot at a lead in a musical. I could act the part easily and sing the part to near perfection. But I’m not good at dancing. And Bonnie tried to teach me. She was patient with me even when I was not patient with myself. “Ok, everyone. Let’s take 5. Except for Jared…let’s see if we can clean up that step-ball-change.”

After one particularly aggravating rehearsal—frustrating to me and to Bonnie—I was about to quit. I told her I just didn’t understand the counting and when to step where and how. And in her frustration she exclaimed, “What don’t you understand? It’s just 5-6-7-8!”

“How can we start with 5 when there are only 4 beats in a measure?!”, I fairly screamed in reply.

And then Bonnie smiled. And the smiled widened to a chuckle. And the chuckle erupted into a full-on belly laugh. She finally realized that she’d be speaking dancer-tongue, but I only understood musician-speak; she’d have to translate. And to quote one of my new favorite musicals, Come From Away, “that’s when we started speaking the same language.”

A little background: Bonnie was in her 70s when we met, and she could still go toe-to-toe with any dancer that crossed her path. She was shaped a bit like humpty-dumpty, about as tall as a 2nd grader, but she could still dance like Ginger Rogers. In her career, she’d danced on Broadway and been choreographer for an NFL cheerleading squad. But in-between those gigs, she’d married and settled down and became, of all things, a public school music teacher. She had access to both dictionaries!

From then on, our rehearsals became significantly more productive. She’d teach the steps just like she had been, but then she’d whisper to me privately the way I’d understand it. And I found out that I actually could dance. I’m still not great at it, but I enjoy it a whole lot more because it makes sense to me.

I’ve lost track of Bonnie over the years, though I was fortunate to work with her many times over the years. She is my standard against which all choreographers are measured. She set the bar high! But she helped me become a better performer simply because she could translate the same words from different dictionaries.

Jared Adamson 10/23/2017

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Jared Adamson is the Minister of Worship and Creative Arts at Centerville Christian Church in Centerville, IN.  Studying voice, composition, organ and improv, he has a Bachelor of Music in Church Music with a double major in Bible and piano from Cincinnati Christian University where he later served as an adjunct professor in the music and worship department.DIVA logo square transparent bg

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