|Play the song here!|
My little Nonna Bella used to tell a tale to me
Of all her lovely times back in old Italy
Where out on the piazza filled with lotsa people there
They’d eat and drink and dance out in the country air
I asked her, “Teach me how to dance like you did”
She said, “I can’t remember how to do it
I’m old, and anyway, those dances may not be for you
When not in Rome, why do as Romans do? Ballroom dance
Why not go try a class?
Don’t just sit on your backside!”
Aristocrats in old Vienna floated round and round
The men in powdered wigs, the ladies, poofy gowns
A ballroom so magnificent, each surface blazing gold
That’s where they did the waltz back in the days of old
Compared to them, I feel just like a beggar
Say “Austria,” and I think Schwarzenegger
If I were an archduke then maybe waltzing would be grand
But I prefer Franz Ferdinand the band
Just try it and you’ll see
But waltzing’s not for me
A steamy night in Buenos Aires, couples barely dressed
At times open embrace, but mostly chest-to-chest
Expressing their passion longingly, and in their mouth, a rose
But frankly, I don’t want bleeding gums or pollen up my nose
Sometimes I can’t tell the steps from cha-cha, rumba or samba
And when teacher says, “Feel your burning desire!,” Ay, caramba!
The fancy footwork’s frustrating, and don’t even mention the dips
For Latin and spicy I’ll stick with my salsa and chips
Just try it and you’ll see
But tango, no esta por mi
A hundred Slavic peasants, what a happy bunch of folk, A-
round the barn they gaily barrel, yes, they’re rolling out a polka
They get their fill of beer and sausage — that feels like my speed
Except it goes so fast, please, slow it down, I plead!
How did they do it after full days farming?
Two minutes in, my breathing rate’s alarming
We spin ’til I’m so dizzy, it just doesn’t seem so wise
Now, polka dots dance right before my eyes
Just try it and you’ll see
But polka’s not for me
My other grand-maman, she came from Paris — that’s in France
I’ve seen her drink red wine, but, no, I’ve never seen her dance
She’s watched me hoof around the world, but never as in Rome
She says that I should try a step from my own home
If so far I just feel malaise, ah, c’est la vie
Who knows, perhaps someday, instead, joie de vivre
A foxtrot, quick-step, jitterbug, or Lindy Hop or swing
But, ’til then, dancing doesn’t seem my thing
I tried some, now I see
Perhaps, one day, for me
Spintown decided to launch the SpinTunes songwriting contest. The challenge for SpinTunes 1 Round 4: Musical Road Trip – Write a song using at least three different ethnic styles. The music from each of the three parts of the song should give the listeners a mental image of a place or group of people from a certain area.
My Round 3 song, Will It, fared much better than my songs in the earlier rounds, placing third. However, all but two contestants were being eliminated for Round 4, so I just missed that cut. Adding a however to the however, the contest rules provided a chance for eliminated contestants to get back in if one of those two entrants failed to make a submission on time. In third place, I had more motivation than anyone else to shadow Round 4. Even though time was going to be very tight for me, I decided to go for it, especially given the nature of the challenge.
I’ve always loved playing and composing in different musical styles, so this challenge really appealed to me right out of the gate. At the same time, I’m much more experienced with pop music idioms and less so with ethnic styles, so this challenge was also challenging for me. I knew I needed to find an idea that would work in itself while also letting me use ethnic styles that were at least somewhat familiar to me, minimizing the amount of research and trial and error I’d have if I went with less familiar styles.
One notion I had from the start was using the various styles to provide different versions of what was, underneath, the same song. This would allow the whole piece to be unified not only by topic/story/lyrics but also by the essence of the music itself, despite the stylistic variations. I also felt this would be both a good challenge for myself as well as possibly something to distinguish my entry, on the chance that others might not take this approach.
Though I felt my writing had benefitted in the first two rounds from using Appreciative Inquiry, I hadn’t used it in Round 3, and I ended up placing much higher. I don’t really believe there’s a causal connection there, but the Round 4 challenge was such that I felt I basically just needed to see what ideas I could come up with that would allow for multiple ethnic styles brought together. That specificity led me to some basic brainstorming and to feel that an AI wouldn’t really help much in this round, so I skipped it once again.
I came up with probably about two dozen ideas. Some that I liked quite a lot would have required far more time and work and possibly research than I’d be able to put in before the deadline. Some involved musical styles that I could do confidently enough, but I wasn’t sure they would really count as ethnic, even though they might give a sense of people and place. Some might have benefitted from foreign language lyrics, which I wasn’t in any position to do.
Needing to balance the strength of the ideas themselves with my abilities and familiarity with different musical styles, and also wanting a topic that would make narrative sense of everything being sung in American English, I found myself drawn to one of the many ideas on my list — the notion of someone taking a ballroom dance class and sampling the different styles.
Ballroom dance includes a number of swing dances, and I’ve written many swing-based songs over the years. However, I ruled these styles out for this challenge, feeling them to be not technically ethnic enough. Still, swing dances are only part of the standard ballroom repertoire. Competitive dancesport typically includes waltz, Viennese waltz and tango, as well as other Latin categories such as samba, cha-cha and rumba. Less formally, ballroom classes — like one I took in college — can include polka and other dances. Here were a number of musical styles in which I’d already written in the past. Some examples:
- One of the centerpiece songs from Cupid’s Arrow, the first full-length musical I wrote, was Let Her Know, an upbeat rhythm and blues number that had, for comic effect, waltz and samba breaks in which Cupid tries to teach someone how to dance. There were the multiple styles in one song as well as the dance connection, including two ballroom styles.
- Many years before Mel Brooks did his own, I started writing a musical adaptation of The Producers, including a tango for the moment when the main characters devise their devious plot.
- In the next full-length musical I wrote, The Right Circles, a suite of songs based on around a theatrical audition were set to a Strauss-like waltz. Except for the 30 seconds per section rule, another song from this show would itself have met the SpinTunes challenge. Three Historical Figures had a playwright and songwriter improvising tunes: DaVinci’s was sung “like a Venetian gondolier,” Napoleon’s with a “mournful, French cafe sound,” and then there was the “Einstein Polka.”
- Latinize, beginning as a tango and shifting into samba, talks lovingly and laughingly about the joy of dance, and Latin dances in particular.
- I’d also written a vals — a form that combines waltz and tango — for the Turner Classic Movies 5th Annual Young Film Composer Competition.
Aside from my own familiarity with some of the relevant styles, I felt the notion of a ballroom dance class lent itself nicely to the challenge. Different dances are covered from week to week in such a class, giving a good reason for one musical style to come after another. Waltz, tango, polka and other Latin styles could work well. Rather than just a laundry list of dances and styles, though, I felt I needed a reason for a song to cover this ground. A story. Why was someone going to this class? This led me to think that the student wouldn’t like each dance, making it that much more important to have to try out each one. And that led me to wonder why this person would want to learn to dance in the first place. Given the challenge, even the explanation of the student’s motivation would need an ethnic style, even if it was outside the ballroom repertoire.
Since all non-swing ballroom dances have European roots in whole or part, it seemed natural to look to other European styles. I thought about someone growing up with images of dances from someplace in Europe that didn’t spawn ballroom dances. My earlier work in these various styles gave me a couple of options — Italian and French.
Thus, an Italian grandmother paints the picture of dancing in her youth, but she is now too old to demonstrate or even remember the steps in order to pass it on, so she suggests her grandchild take a ballroom dance class. For fun and to support the notion of dancing, I’d use a tarantella rather than the “gondolier’s” ballad style I’d used before. With dissatisfaction about the ballroom styles and now a non-ballroom style introducing the story, it seemed natural to have another non-ballroom style to create bookends. Hence, the French chanson at the end, with another grandmother, suggesting that the student stop looking to foreign dances for inspiration. The student ends the song considering the possibility of swing dances — the ballroom styles I’d written off as not ethnic enough for this challenge.
Interesting that Italy and France, two romantic countries, are essentially unrepresented in ballroom dance. And perhaps a little strange to have a song about ballroom dance include musical styles from outside the ballroom repertoire, while excluding many standard Latin ballroom styles and all American ballroom styles. But it all made narrative sense.
Ironically, I really like ballroom dance, and dance in general. Like I said, I took a ballroom dance class in college, where I first learned waltz, tango, polka, cha-cha, jitterbug and probably a couple of other styles as well. In high school, I did a comic ballet in the musical Anything Goes. My wife and I took a swing class for about a year before our wedding, and we choreographed our own first dance. And in my early 30s, I took a year of tap at a local dance school. So I felt a little bad writing a song that seems to frown on dance. Still, it all made narrative sense. Plus, it’s clearly the story of one particular person who is only saying that it’s “not for me,” not making a judgment about dance in general. Finally, the student remains open to the possibility of enjoying other dances not yet tried. So hopefully I’m off the hook in terms of disparaging something I actually like.
Musically, I really enjoyed the idea of taking a single basic song and setting it in different styles. The changes might be somewhat abrupt, but this would give a comic effect appropriate to the song’s concept. Just to have something to go on, I started writing in the tarantella style, coming up with the basic melody and a colorful but simple enough chord progression, which I later realized has some resemblance to that of I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady, which seems oddly appropriate.
Eventually, though, the song would never appear exactly as originally written in any of the five sections of the final product. The tarantella essentially kept the original melody, while all other sections have some stylistically appropriate melodic changes. Tarantella itself simplified the chord progression dramatically, down to just I-IV-V, appropriate for the style. Waltz brought a somewhat radical reharmonization, and tango its own noticeable changes to the harmonic progression. Polka and French chanson are perhaps closest to what was originally written, though their chord progressions are identical to neither each other nor the original. Even so, throughout, the melody and overall character of the song remain essentially in tact across all five sections, with changes only as appropriate to serve the needs of the shifting ethnic styles.
Instrumentation was something I wrestled with for a bit. I thought about doing a piano solo, which I knew I could make sound really good, but as good as I could do, I felt it just wouldn’t come across well enough for this challenge compared to orchestration. Deliberately, though, I kept the arrangement somewhat small, almost as if for an actual small band to perform. That idea came from researching arrangements for the different styles and seeing that most are usually done by only a few musicians. The tango, for example, is typically played by an orquesta típica, a sextet comprised of piano, double bass, two violins and two bandoneons. Accordions could feature prominently in many of the styles I was using, as could piano and bass. Tarentella more or less requires tambourine, which I also added to the tango. A drum set made sense for tarantella and polka. I left accordion out of the tarantella even though it could have been appropriate, since I thought it would make its entrance more dramatic with the tango. Different accordions follow in each of the polka and chanson. The strings in the waltz compromise the small-band nature of the other sections, but that seemed necessary for the style. I left strings out of the tango since I was satisfied with the sound without them, but I did add a tuba in the bass of the polka.
While I’d originally thought to do a separate samba section, the song was already looking to be somewhat long, and five sections seemed like plenty, especially when one, the tango, was already Latin in flavor. The samba did briefly insinuate itself into the tango section for comic effect, though, with the lyrics at that moment pointing to some other Latin styles of ballroom dance.
Speaking of lyrics, there are only a few others I’d like to highlight. “Don’t even mention the dips / For Latin and spicy I’ll stick with my salsa and chips” has a sort of oblique double pun, with the dancing dips also referring to the salsa which is itself a dip for the chips, and salsa itself also referring to the Latin dance of the same name. In the polka, the peasants “barrel” around the barn as “they’re rolling out a polka” — punny references to famous polkas such as Beer Barrel Polka and Roll Out the Barrel. Their beer and sausage, says the narrator, “feels like my speed,” only the narrator then switches from talking about preferences to the actual speed of the dance, which is just too fast. Beyond these few things, the song pretty much wears its lyrics on its sleeve, everything else to be taken basically at face value.
Since I’m just the kind of person to notice such things, I couldn’t help but wonder if this song turns out to be a critique of globalization. The narrator is tantalized by foreign things, but never finds satisfaction in them. The initial inspiration is peasant dancing — the Italian tarantella — which the student cannot access. Another peasant style seems to be the best fit — the Slavic polka — but even this doesn’t work. Everything else — waltz, tango, chanson — either is genuinely urban or is associated with the urban — Vienna, Buenos Aires, Paris — and jibes even less for the student. In the end, the student comes to see the need to pursue something closer to home, as opposed to more dances that have immigrated across national and cultural boundaries. Is the message of the song “dance local,” a cultural corollary to various messages we hear about ecological health? Will even the swing dances disappoint, being likely more urban than the narrator’s apparently rural and peasant-like tastes? Or is it this just a silly ditty that doesn’t mean much of anything? You decide
You can check out the Round 4 songs at SpinTunes, or more permanently at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Ballroom Dance at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.
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