It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing, or so the classic song lyric goes. Which means that I must lack meaning, since when it comes to dance, I am best described as "athletic" rather than artful. It's not that I can't feel the beat, but that I lack that certain je ne sais quois that makes something "dance" as opposed to mere rhythmic movement.
Remember that scene in Miss Congeniality, where Sandra Bullock's character is trying to learn a dance routine for the beauty pageant, and resorts to martial arts moves when she can't remember the steps? Ahem. That would be me. Endurance? Check. Timing? Check. Enthusiasm? No problem. Actual fluidity and grace? Not so much. And yet I thrill to films like Strictly Ballroom and Idlewild, imagining myself capable of those frenzied yet artfully timed dance moves. In my mind, I am Ginger Rogers and Shakira ("Hips Don't Lie") combined -- with just a hint of the Dancing Pipecleaner Man (hat tip: Angela Gunn, who reminds us all that "F is for Footloose"). Not even this handy Website Jen-Luc Piquant unearthed, with tips on how to dance specific styles, would be much help, I fear.
Physics might not be able to explain my sad lack of swing-y rhythm (and self-delusional fantasies to the contrary), but it definitely has something to say about the accompanying music, according to Kenneth Lindsay, an acoustician and Brazilian percussion player who has created a computer program to visually analyze the musical stylings of swing. I missed Lindsey's presentation at last December's Acoustical Society of America meeting (held in Honolulu, Hawaii), because it conflicted with another session on animal bioacoustics, and I just had to see the excised Siberian tiger larynx in action. But by all accounts, Lindsay's talk was quite the jazzy hoedown, complete with some Brazilian drumming to demonstrate different swingy styles.
Yes, there are a wide variety of swing styles, part of the reason it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what constitutes "swing" from a musical standpoint. Its history dates back to the 1920s and the advent of the Charleston and the Lindy Hop. The swing dance craze really took off when the Savoy Ballroom opened in New York City in 1926, where some of best dancers and bands found a home. The next decade saw the creation of the Jitterbug, a bouncy six-beat variant, inspired by the eponymous tune by Cab Calloway. Add in the influence of swing/jazz giants like Benny Goodman, and my friends, you had a movement, as tap and jazz steps made their way even to the more hallowed halls of professional dance.
Purists would limit their definition of swing dance to things like the Charleston -- usually danced to 2/4 ragtime -- the Balboa (an 8-count dance featuring quick footwork), and the Lindy Hop, characterized by an emphasis on improvisation. (The Lindy Hop was so adaptable, it easily incorporated steps from other 8-count and 6-count swing styles.) Over time, the list has extended to incorporate American jazz, Caribbean beats, reggae, samba, and more bluesy styles like "dirty dancing." Lindsay's work is more concerned with the accompanying music, specifically its ability to get people to move their bodies in such an energetic and rhythmic way. "If you're tapping your feet, that's swing," says Lindsay.
Why human beings react this way to swing music is a question for other sciences, but Lindsay thinks there are clues in the math -- specifically, the unique rhythms of this kind of music. Most notably, swing has lots of triplets, irregular notes -- those that are 2/3 the length of a regular note -- and relies heavily on micro-timing of pulses and meter. Or, as Wikipedia prefers to describe the syncopated timing of swinging jazz music: "a combination of crotchets and quavers which many swing dancers interpret as 'triple steps' and 'steps' -- yet [it] also introduces changes in the way these rhythms were played -- a distinct delay or 'relaxed' approach to timing." This contrasts rather sharply to certain other styles, like syncopation, which plays a note when a pause is expected, or doesn't play a note when it is expected.
The trick is figuring out how to visualize sound in order to analyze it scientifically. Acousticians do this by turning sound waves into spectrograms. Wikipedia tells me that "the spectrogram is the result of calculating the frequency spectrum of windowed frames of a compound signal. It is a three-dimensional plot of the energy of the frequency content of a signal as it changes over time." Whatevs. We prefer to think of it as a live-action visual depiction of a sound wave traveling through space over time. It's basically the aural equivalent of a telltale fingerprint of any given signal, whether it be an animal's cry, speech processing, or -- in the case of the image shown -- a violin.
There's different ways to plot a spectrogram, but in general, the horizontal axis denotes time, and the vertical axis denotes frequency. That's two dimensions. The third plot point is the amplitude of the sound wave (which roughly corresponds to decibel level), or intensity. In the above spectrogram, intensity changes are depicted by using changes in color, but there are computer modeling programs that can create truly 3D visual representations of a sound wave.
Even better: it's a two-way process.There are also a plethora of computer programs capable of turning a digital image into sound, including (for all the hard-core geeks out there, these are for Mac, Windows and Linux, respectively) MetaSynth, Coagula, and Enscribe, as well as JavOICe (a Java applet). So those who create electronic music can "hide" images in their tunes.
We're mostly talking relatively obscure electronic artists who do this, but Internet rumor has it that a leaked MP3 version of "My Violent Heart" -- a track from an upcoming Nine Inch Nails album, Year Zero -- ends with a few seconds of static. Analyze that static in a spectrogram and you'll end up with the image of a hand reaching down from the sky. Spooooky. The cerebral wags in the band might also have included an MP3 of crickets chirping on a second track, "Me, I'm Not," that reveals the number 216-333-1810 when fed through a spectrogram. Trent Reznor's home phone number, perhaps? Who knows? This the 21st century technological equivalent of back-masking, or the Beatles' hiding "Paul is Dead" in a track off one of their later albums.The NIN album comes out April 17th, and it'll be interesting to see if there's any basis to the rumor. (Jen-Luc has her Cyber-Spectrograph fired up and ready to roll!)
But this post isn't about Nine Inch Nails' spectrogramic shenanigans, it's about the serious study of swing. Lindsay had his own fun with spectrograms. He took digital versions of famous swing songs, like Ray Charles' "Fever," and broke them down into their most basic components: notes, even single pulses, to within 3-10 seconds per unit. In some cases, he was able to fine-tune the differences between the sounds to half a millisecond. Why bother? Because the resulting spectrogram allowed him to separate out the sounds of instruments, voices and drums according to their pitch and note. This in turn provides a fuller profile that tracks critical distinctions between the rhythmic patterns in different musical genres -- say, swing versus "Riverdance" or a militaristic Sousa march.
Lindsay learned some interesting tidbits from his experiments, such as the fact that Ray Charles was one tight snapper: his snaps on his famed duet with Natalie Cole are timed so well, he is never more than 5 milliseconds off the beat. Sure, any truly talented musician keep an amazingly precise steady tempo; Lindsay's analysis adds some scientific credence to that ability. He's also now in the process of developing his own (Mac-compatible!) software to make it easier for solo composers and garage bands to modify and get the right timing in their pieces, thereby avoiding the dreaded tinny, over-precise mechanical sound that generally plagues such endeavors.
Rhythmic music is also integral to Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art noted for its acrobatic movements and kicks. In recent years, the style has become hugely popular in North America and Europe, in large part due to its unique blend of music, dance, athleticism, and martial arts strikes and dodges. It's no accident that a scene in Idlewild depicts some Capoeira choreography. Halle Berry trained with a Brazilian Capoeira mestre for some of the fight scenes in the Raspberry-honored movie Catwoman (c'mon, you know you saw it, if only to snicker at the bad dialogue and ogle Berry's skin-tight outfits); so did Charlize Theron for her role in Aeon Flux. Wesley Snipes is fond of incorporating Capoeira moves in his action flicks, including Blade, and the martial art formed the basis for the fighting style of the Jaffa people in Stargate SG-1. Add to that cameo appearances in music videos by Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera, not to mention Mazda's use of a traditional Capoeira tune in one of their TV advertisements (Zum Zum Zum), and Brazil's national martial art is practically mainstream.
Capoeira has its origins in the Portuguese slave trade. From the 16th to 19th centuries, slaves from all over Africa were shipped to Brazil -- then a Portuguese colony -- bringing their cultural traditions with them. Capoeira developed as a secret art, to resist oppression, keep the culture alive and lift the spirits of the unfairly subjugated. Following the abolition of slavery, it soon became associated with criminal gangs, causing Brazil to outlaw its practice in 1890. But eventually Capoeira moved back into the mainstream; in 1937, then-president Getulio Vargas declared the discipline to be the national sport of Brazil. Capoeira schools have proliferated ever since, spreading around the world, particularly in North America.
There was a Capoeira school across the street from my NYC gym in the late 1990s, and on Friday nights, classes would spill out onto the sidewalk for an impromptu "demonstration" of the style. It was quite a party, and never failed to draw an enthusiastic crowd. Participants form a circle -- called a roda -- and take turns playing instruments, singing, and sparring in pairs in the center of the circle. The music sets the tempo and style of the game (jogo) to be played within the roda -- and it is more of a game than a fight in its modern incarnation; practitioners rarely make contact; it's considered a sign of lack of control and technical expertise to actually strike one's opponent. (Nor is it the only fighting style out there that incorporates elements of music and dance: Batuque and Maculele are two lesser-known styles closely connected to Capoeira, and old writings and engravings in Cuba depict a since-lost fighting dance called baile del mani, showing two men moving to the rhythm of yuka drums.)
Instruments used include berimbaus, resembling an archer's bow, with a steel string stretched across a gourd for resonance. Striking the string with a stick produces the tone, and the pitch of that tone is regulated by a stone. The berimbaus set the rhythm, but the music is also augmented with tambourines (pandeiros), a rasp (Reco-Reco), and a double gong bell (Agogo). Sometimes the musicians might add a conga drum (Atabaque), but this is considered optional. There are three basic kinds of songs: a ladainha (litany) is a narrative solo usually sung at the opening of a roda. This is followed by a chula or louvacao, basically a call-and-response format giving thanks to god and one's mestre (teacher). But the real action happens during the corridos, the songs performed while a game is being played, which also employs call and response, except the responses to each call are not set, but can be changed at the whims of the people in the roda.
All movement starts with the ginga, which literally means to rock back and forth, or to swing. The martial aspect can be seen in the attack moves: kicks, sweeps, and occasional head strikes. There are evasive ducks and rolls for defensive maneuvers, cartwheels (with and without hands), hand spins, hand springs, sitting movements, jumps, turns, and flips. (Modern breakdancing owes quite a bit to Capoeira.) One signature move, called the au batido, combines elements of both attack and defense. It starts with an evasive cartwheel, which leads into a block/kick -- in fact, it usually combines two kicks, creating a double spinning kick. Powerful upper body strength is critical to pulling off many of the more advanced moves.
The music dictates the action. Slow music is used for slower (albeit complex) ground moves and handstands; the slower games are all about showing off one's control and finesse, subtleties that are frequently lost on less knowledgeable audiences. The real crowd-pleasers are the faster games, because the faster rhythm means the dancers move more quickly and can generate greater circular momentum -- the key to gaining "big air" for the flashier acrobatic maneuvers. (See? There's some science there! Plus, we eagerly await Lindsay's spectral analysis of the corridos.)
Clearly, that song lyric has it right: it all comes down to that telltale swing (or ginga), whether we're talking jazzy dance halls or musical martial arts. Maybe I can't dance, but at least I can fight. So I do have my own sense of swing.