Okay, so I’ve been pretty lax about blogging the lyrics and background of Derek’s and my songs, but I’m trying to get back on the wagon. Think of it as a pre-New Year’s resolution. I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions anyway; I figure, if it’s time to make a change in your life, you should make it now. So, before we have a new song of the month, I’m carpe-ing the diem and writing a bit about “Dancing in Pairs.”
This was another of our earliest cabaret songs and is now part of our song cycle Island Song. The show deals with the dynamic between isolation and connection in urban life: the ways in which we can know the most intimate secrets of someone we’ve never met (as in “Wall Lovin’”) or become completely alienated from someone we’ve known for years (as in “So Far From Pennsylvania”).
“Dancing in Pairs” explores the nature of intimacy—physical and emotional—and the fear of intimacy–as it relates to dancing.
The context for this song is the way that dancers today grow very physically intimate with people (or even groups of people) they’ve never met, can’t see, and can’t really talk to… a lot friends say that being unable to see or hear their fellow dancers makes them much more appealing to dance against. For those few of us who have seen Derek or me dance, I think we can agree: the lower the light, the better (my dancing would probably be classified as “inefficient,” while Derek’s might be described as “dry heaving to rhythm.”)
By contrast, fifty or sixty years ago–when the music was softer, the lights were brighter, and you could only dance with one person at a time–the dance had the potential to be much more intimate, even if orifices were a few more inches away from each other.
This is what “Dancing in Pairs” explores, both the desire for emotional connection and fear of being exposed or scrutinized. After all, if you’re stuck on the dance floor with someone staring at your face and talking to you, you had better have something to say and feel okay about how you look. Deep down, we all want to make an emotional connection with another person, but there sure is safety in anonymity.
The singer goes through this whole thought process, as she dreams of dancing with just one other person and then freaks herself out with the nightmare of self-consciousness that could involve. Ultimately, she realizes that, if she wants to make a real connection with someone, no matter where she is, she’ll have to be willing to be exposed: “if I only let my mask down, take a deep breath, then instead of having flings, I’ll have affairs.” [A note on affairs: I’m using it here not in the sense of adultery, but in the sense of an intense, passionate relationship. I think flings suggests something meaningless or, at least, quickly forgotten.] Once the singer discovers that she has to be willing to be seen for what she truly is, she’s free to enjoy the fantasy again. I think of the last two stanzas as her living the dance—and the end of the dance—vicariously, almost the way we watch movies we’re completely drawn into.
In Derek’s and my mind, the song takes place just outside of a contemporary dance club. That will at least be the setting in Island Song. I recently wrote a new introductory verse for the number, which Derek has set to a techno beat. I’m including the new intro below, along with the rest of the lyric:
Here in the club
In tsunamis of noise,
Where the boys
Need a scrub,
But it’s too dark to know,
And they know
How to glow
In the flickers of light.
And they flock,
As you rock.
As they press…
You release all your poise
For the joys of the beat,
And you welcome deceit,
‘Cause sometimes all you want is a “yes.”
And you stumble outside,
With a boy, maybe not.
The excitement has died,
Or it will in an hour,
And either way, after you shower,
What have you got?
Long ago, or so they tell me,
So they tell me,
People danced in pairs.
And they never knew the numbing
Of the drumming,
Back when murmured words could catch you unawares.
In the past, or so they whisper,
So they whisper,
Couples danced in twos.
Long before these flashes woke us,
We could focus
On the gaze that gave the necessary cues.
And I could share
My inmost thought,
And all I sought
Would be right there.
Come and dance me ‘cross the ballroom beams.
Quick, before my hopes all give out,
Let us live out
All our dreams.
And in my dreams,
I love the way he waltzes,
I love the way he looks in my eyes.
He can un-sheath
The soul underneath…
It’s awfully quiet;
What does he expect me to say?
Where are the drumbeats to fill in each pause?
And where are the strobe lights to hide all my flaws.
He’d probably stare,
And I’d feel so bare…
Thank goodness I’m not really there.
Though the thought may overwhelm me,
When they tell me
People danced in pairs,
If I only let my mask down,
Take a deep breath,
Then, instead of having flings,
I’ll have affairs.
In a time long out of fashion,
They knew passion,
As they danced alone.
And they’d know a true desire
On just how to dodge the dozing chaperone.
Then out! Into the night,
The moonlight waned,
As they walked on.
And, into one another’s eyes,
Before the rising dawn had caught them,
They’d be gone.
* * *
Now to the main point. What I really want to discuss is the way sound works in this song. Often, when drafting a lyric—or in contemplating revisions—one word may sound more “right” than another word of the same number of syllables. Often this is because one phrase is harder to say than another phrase, because one word means something slightly different than another, or because the character would be more likely to use one word instead of another. But, putting these more logical considerations aside, I’ll often just prefer the sound of one turn of phrase to another that means pretty much the same thing and has the same rhythm.
The sound of a lyric—not only rhythm and rhyme, but also alliteration (the repetition of consonants), and assonance (the repetition of vowels)—can contribute to that lyrics’ very meaning. I think that’s particularly true in “Dancing in Pairs.”
It’s pretty clear in the opening verse that putting rhymes close together–and sometimes sooner than expected–creates a sense of agitation or energy that might mirror the dance club beat.
However, once the wistful part of the song begins and the mood becomes reflective, the sound of the words becomes even more important. The singer is singing about something she’s imagining, something she doesn’t have direct access to but knows exists somewhere or once existed. It’s something sort of like an echo. Repeating “so they tell me” and “so they whisper” helps create that sense of an echo (dramatically speaking, the repetition heightens her sense of uncertainty, but we’re focusing here just on sound). That echo is also created through repeated sounds.
We start with alliteration:
people danced in pairs.
and they never knew the numbing…
and move onto assonance (remember that “the” is pronounced “thuh” and “of” is pronounced “uhv”)
…the numbing of the drumming
and then we get both at once:
…back when murmured words could catch you unawares
Here, repeated Ms (murmurred, which also picks up the Ms of numbing and drumming), repeating Ws (when / words / awares), repeated Cs (could catch), and repeated URs (murmurred words), all culminating in a rhyme from much earlier in the verse (pairs / unawares)
I’m not saying that, when we hear this, we’re consciously aware of the repetitions or think, “wow, that sounds like an echo of something I’ve heard before,” but I do think that we subconsciously hear the repetitions and perceive the echoes.
In a case like this, where the singer is groping for something far away, I think assonance and alliteration are much better tools than internal rhyme, because they hint at repetition without making it too explicit or present. Nothing is too certain, nothing is too clear, and even the rhyme is from long ago in the verse. Too much rhyme might feel too concrete, like the singer has too much of a handle on what she thinks and what she wants—or, put another way, too much rhyme might feel like the thing itself, and not the echo. I think the alliteration and assonance (in addition, of course, to Derek’s dreamy Debussy-esque music) is what creates the haunting feeling of this passage.
* * *
In literary critic Kenneth Burke’s 1940 article “On Musicality in Verse: As Illustrated by Some Lines of Coleridge,” he discusses, among other things, the ideas of “augmentation” and “diminution” of sound in poetry. When a certain group of phonemes (single sounds, whether consonants or vowels) is repeated with other phonemes in the middle, we feel a sense of expansion or augmentation; Burke’s example is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “she sent the gentle sleep from heaven / that slid into my soul,” where the sl of sleep and slid is expanded in soul. We may be conscious of a similar sense of contraction or diminution when a group of phonemes is repeated without intervening phonemes—as when moving from the longer phrase “when murmurred” to the shorter “words.”
This technique can be used to create a general jingle or musicality, but it can also be used to enact in sound what the verse is talking about. I think this happens a couple of times in “Dancing in Pairs,” particularly in the second stanza. First is a diminution:
long before these flashes woke us, we could focus
Here, flashes woke us becomes focused into focus, and we hear what is being described. Later on in the stanza, the reverse (augmentation) happens:
on the gaze that gave the necessary cues (where S is a Z sound)
Here gaze is expanded, like the hints it offers, into something larger.
Again, this is not a conscious thing. Moreover, it’s not permanent. The same sounds can be used to create a different effect in a different circumstance. But a certain constellation of sounds, paired with a certain dramatic context, can seem to enact that context. As my former poetry professor John Hollander put it, “sounds don’t have any inherent meaning, but the poet creates a temporary fiction that they do.”
* * *
In the final stanza of the song, as the singer imagines the dancers disappearing into the pre-dawn night and love, the dreaminess is heightened by the swirl of repeating sounds. The passage is chock-full of “aw” (walked, on, dawn, caught, gone), with some other vowels repeating as well (“one another’s,” “waned as they,” etc.)
This stanza echoes even more than it appears to on the page, because T, D, N, and TH are all related sounds. Phonetics alert… but it’s not that complicated, and you can try this out in your own mouth (not as much fun as a scratch-and-sniff blog, but I do what I can):
T, D, N, and TH are all inter-dental consonants; in other words, these sounds are made by putting the tongue against the back of the teeth. T is made by cutting off the air flow with the tongue against the teeth briefly (known as an unvoiced stop), D is made by cutting off the air flow while the vocal chords are engaged (known as a voiced stop), N is made by cutting off the air flow while redirecting the air through the nose (known as a nasal), and TH is made by holding the tongue near the back of the teeth while air is forced through (known as a fricative). Because they are all inter-dentals, they all have similar sounds; T feels a lot closer to N than it does to B, for instance.
As an example of this, imagine you have a head cold and say, “I know the knob has been tightened,” and it will come out more like “I doe dee dob has bid-ided”
Similarly, P, B, M, F, and V are all related sounds, all made between the lips and thus known as labial consonants (yes, Derek, I just wrote the word “labial”). P is the labial unvoiced stop, B is the labial voiced stop, M is the labial nasal, F is the labial unvoiced fricative, and V is the labial voiced fricative.
In the same article as referenced above, Burke points out this aspect of phonetics and discusses what he calls “concealed alliteration” in verse. In other words, because of the close relationship of some of these sounds, phrases that don’t appear alliterative on paper can feel alliterative. One of Burke’s examples is Collerige’s phrase “bathed by the mist,” where we get a b__ b__ m__ concealed labial alliteration, in addition to a __thd __th __t concealed inter-dental alliteration. We find the same kind of concealed alliteration at work in the opening of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, not only in the phrase into the woods, but also in the phrase, “I must begin my journey,” where we get both the m__ b__ m__ sequence and the __t __n __n sequence.
Let us turn again to the inter-dentals in the last stanza of “Dancing in Pairs”:
“Then out into the night, the moonlight waned as they walked on” has a lot more alliteration than it would appear to on it’s face. And so does the next phrase, “And into one another’s eyes, before the rising dawn had caught them, they’d be gone.” Again, try saying these two phrases with a head cold, and you’ll hear the alliteration even more strongly.
By the same token, C, G, and NG are all made in the same part of the mouth, by putting the middle of the tongue against the roof of the mouth (or palate). C is a palatal unvoiced stop, G is a palatal voiced stop, and NG is a palatal nasal. So the progression at the very end of the song has another hidden alliteration as well: rising dawn had caught them, they’d be gone.
So, if these lines at the end of the song feel as echoey to you as they do to me, this may be part of the reason why. Perhaps they echo even more because the alliteration is concealed and we’re not fully conscious of the repetition.
I can’t imagine that any lyricist would ever set out to create a dreamy effect through the use of repeating inter-dental consonants, but this sort of thing is why one phrase might be kept and another might be discarded. I’ll find that sometimes something “sounds right,” and in this case, I think this may be why this constellation of sounds sounded right to me. By the same token, when a phrase “sounds wrong,” sometimes that’s because the sound of the phrase appears to enact something other than what the passage is talking about.
And for all of the singers who are reading this, this interplay of sounds is why a lyricist might sometimes insist on you delivering the lyrics exactly as written. “Could be” and “Might be” may mean essentially the same thing. But, if there’s a certain sound structure set up, they may really not be the same thing after all.
* * *
These are some favorite performances of “Dancing in Pairs”:
Cecelia Ticktin gave a beautiful, emotionally rich performance of the song at the Underground Lounge as part of the Libra Theatre concert of our work “Fleet Week and Other Reasons to Sail” earlier in the year.
Julie Reiber gave a really clear, beautifully sung performance in our “Take Back the Stage” show at the D-Lounge last year.
Holland Mariah Grossman sang the song gorgeously in our third “Barely Legal Showtune Extravaganza” at Drom in the East Village a few months ago.
Maya Sharpe gave the song a smooth, jazzy quality in her performance of the song in BUZZED, our 2010 concert with the Broadway cast of HAIR.