The collegiate a cappella world is one of great complexity. Amidst all that there is to take in, The Importance Of… highlights what is truly important, and elements of a cappella that may otherwise be overlooked.
In this edition, we look at the importance of… movement
Movement has become a point of contention among a cappella performers and enthusiasts. One camp, we'll call them the purists, argue that it's the music that matters in an a cappella performance, and that the bells and whistles of choreography are inconsequential to evaluating how good a performance may be. The other group, we'll call them the shakers, contend that movement is a vital part of the presentation of a cappella, and needs to be taken seriously. While I'll maintain that a group's sound is what matters most, this column is still coming from the latter perspective--choices in movement are extremely important in an a cappella performance
Movement is a key way of engaging an audience. In their day to day lives people listen to music while they do other things--while they work, while they drive, while they clean, while the drift off to sleep. If you're going to expect for everyday people to devote their full attention to music, there generally needs to be some sort of visual appeal. In the realm of a cappella, this can sometimes mean as a little as the soloist working the stage, or group on the whole swaying a bit, or stepping from side to side. However little a group does, the movement provides something interesting to watch--a visual compliment to the music. There are times when less movement is appropriate, such as is typically the case in a heartfelt ballad. For these songs, then, it's OK to offer less broad movement. Still there's importance in more subtle movement--changing facial expressions, subtle repositioning during transitions in the song, or even just moving at the start to stand in a visually interesting formation.
Of course, movement, in and of itself, will not necessarily bolster a performance. The movement needs to be appropriate to the song, to the group and to the setting. As I've already written, most ballads are best left without full-on dance routines. Furthermore, there's not much value in choreographing out the wazoo if you're group can't handle the movement. Lots of great musicians are not great dancers, and so throwing in a lot of extreme movement is just going to distract the performers from the music, and, worse yet, look awkward on stage. And then there are groups that set aside the music altogether. I recall one competition set in which a group member didn't sing at all for the last song, in favor of dancing ballet. It sort of worked as a visual, and yet it also clearly crossed the line between movement that complements the music, and movement that is something altogether separate from the rest of the performance. There are times when movement can seem tangential, but is primarily an offshoot of the energy on stage. I'm thinking, for example, of the stomp routines the Binghamton Crosbys and, to a lesser extent, Brigham Young Noteworthy brought to their sets in 2007. These were not exactly musical, and yet the groups incorporated the movement so seamlessly that it took me a second to notice that. This is where exceptional movement meets exceptional musical performance, to form an altogether outstanding presentation.
Movement is a vital part of the visual presentation of a cappella. Like most elements of performance, there exists the potential for it to be misused, or used too liberally. And yet, in the hands of those who can use it correctly, movement is a beautiful thing.