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Dance Explorations

Gretchen Horlacher (University of Maryland), Chair

An Examination of Improvisatory Practices in Salsa Music and Dance

Rebecca Simpson-Litke (University of Manitoba)

bio for Rebecca Simpson-Litke

Rebecca Simpson-Litke is an Assistant Professor of Music Theory in the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba. She holds a Ph.D. in music theory from the University of British Columbia, having completed her dissertation on pitch organization in the music of Olivier Messiaen. In addition to 20th-century French music, her research activities explore rhythmic interactions between music and dance, focusing on the Latin social dances she has taught and performed in her spare time for the past 20 years. Her salsa research is published in Music Theory Spectrum and in a special issue of the Journal of Music Theory devoted to dance research.


Every night in salsa venues around the world, exciting interactions between music and dance unfold through a complex and nuanced system of improvisatory practices. In this paper, I explore these practices by analyzing videos of improvised salsa performances, showing the range of spontaneous connections between music and dance on the social dance floor. 

I begin by examining the elements that are prescribed by conventions, noting how these fixed components are often embellished—or even defined—by improvisation. On the large scale, the typical two-part formal structure of salsa songs is marked by contrast between a precomposed theme in the first half and a number of improvisatory sections in the second half. It is here that an initial parallel between music and dance practices may be drawn, the improvised call of the lead dancer/singer eliciting a precomposed response from the follow dancer/chorus. 

Another opportunity for improvisation in salsa dance emerges when the lead relinquishes this decision-making role, separating from the follow so that one or both dancers can execute their own individual moves, which are not unlike instrumental solos. I examine how open-work provides opportunities for dance partners to interact spontaneously with each other and in dialogue with the music.

Finally, I analyze elements that are freely manipulated throughout a song, as musicians and dancers express their individuality by finding micro-moments for unique ornamentation and styling. These subtle-but-pervasive interpretive choices have far-reaching ramifications, helping to define the important qualitative distinctions between individual styles and more broadly, between regional variants of salsa.

Supplementary Material(s)

Form in George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco

Amy Tai (Yale University)


Following the precedent of scholars of musical form, most choreomusicologists (scholars of dance and music) model the form of a dance by asserting discrete sectional boundaries. However, dancers and dance scholars adopt a continuous view of time, space, and motion in dance. This paper proposes that because of this continuity, it is generally difficult to pinpoint precise sectional boundaries in dance, and as a result, dance can respond to the relationship between successive passages of music in creative ways. This phenomenon is especially interesting in neo-classical ballets choreographed to the music of J. S. Bach, since both the music and the dance frequently do not admit tidy sectionalization. Neo-classical ballets are additionally suitable for exploring the question of form because the ballets, being non-narrative, are often commentaries on the music.

Motivated by these observations, this paper analyzes the second movement of George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco (1941), choreographed to the second movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto (BWV 1043). The music does not lend itself to obvious sectionalization, and the dance at times clarifies, at times complicates where and how formal junctures appear in the music. By using dance to interpret formal aspects of music, this paper helps to balance the more typical practice in choreomusicology where music-analytical methods are adapted to dance, leading to the neglect of minute details that help give dance its expressive meaning.

Choreographic and Musical Interplay in Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Bartók/Aantekeningen

Lindsay Rader (McGill University)


Previous scholarship in dance and music often treats choreography as a response to musical cues. This model does not account for the reciprocal relationship between synchronous gesture and sound; the musical score, an unchanging object, serves as the source of information for gesture (Leman and Naveda 2010). I challenge this model by arguing that dance and music reciprocally reinforce or contradict one another. This dialectical approach incorporates choreographic analysis into musical analysis, destabilizing what appears fixed in the score. 

The centerpiece for the study is Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography to Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4, titled Bartók/Aantekeningen and released as the award-winning film Hoppla! My analysis translates choreographic ideas into systematic patterns, emphasizing visual and kinesthetic experiences of dance, and expanding on Kozak’s exploration of “musical forms that challenge notions of a linear and uniformly moving time” (Kozak, 2020). I contribute to the rich body of literature on Bartók by reevaluating existing musical analyses informed by interactions with Keersmaeker’s choreography.

My methodology undertakes two analyses, one musical and one gestural, then fuses them to discover their connections and discords. Investigations of metrical layers, pitch collections, and form will bring new perspectives into music- and dance-analytical relationships. Mapping choreography alongside score analysis offers added layers of complexity to formalized music-theoretical elements, giving the music new meanings beyond the fixed score.