How do you tell a story?

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Basic speaking software

In my Ph.D. research, I worked a lot with blind people, researching how we can make web browsing easier and more effective for them. Back then (2004), in the school for blind children in Thessaloniki, there were a few computers where students would be trained on their usage. They all had a text-to-speech (TTS) device that was connected through a serial port and was able to speak the text on the screen of the computer. Being a hardware device and much older technology the voice sounded quite robotic. However, the first time I saw a person using the computer with this device I was impressed by how quickly the device was speaking. I could hardly understand what it was saying but my blind friend, having been accustomed to it, didn’t have any problem at all. Today, the software voices sound a lot more human-like and they are quite understandable. Technology has allowed for leaps and today there is research on how such software can communicate emotions apart from only the text.

Of course, when you read a website with information, emotion is not really necessary, but what about when reading a book? Have you tried reading a novel with text-to-speech software? I did. It’s nice that you can combine reading with other activities (I was reading while exercising in the gym) but the voice, especially when there were dialogs could not communicate emotions like surprise, sadness, happiness, etc. Things you immediately identify when you listen to someone speaking. Here is where applications like Audible come into play. In such apps, actors are recorded reading the book and then you can hear them out from their recordings. Of course, the quality of the reading is better than having simply a TTS voice reading it. So although in both cases the same message (text) is communicated, the difference in the actual information received is huge since the actor’s voice can also contain all those emotions that the TTS voice can’t.

The breakthrough

As I already told you, there is research today on how to develop software that would read like those actors. Today’s software can actually communicate much easier information coming from punctuation like question marks or exclamation points. How can a piece of software communicate emotion through voice one might ask. First, you need to identify the emotion. Analyzing the text, the software can now tell you how your text comes across if it is too casual or formal, joyful or sad, inspiring or boring, etc. There are tools out there that can even train you to write texts in a way that complies with the message you communicate and the context. Check out Grammaly for example. So, if you already can identify emotions in a text how do you communicate them with voice?

Well, you have certain tools. Basically speed, pitch, and volume (at least). You can make pauses or speak slowly to emphasize things. You can make your voice deeper or higher to communicate fear, sadness, or excitement. You can also shout or whisper depending on what you feel. So can the software too. These are all parameters that can be adjusted when certain emotions are detected. In most cases, we have a common code to understand the emotion based on these parameters and that’s how we can enjoy the spoken text which changes all these variables.

I realized the importance of all these when I had to teach in class. If I was maintaining a specific rate, pitch, and volume during a lecture most of the students would fall asleep after 10 minutes. That’s why I always tried to find ways to include variations in my lectures. I still remember how boring I must have sounded in my first years of teaching since the anxiety was taking over and was not letting me enjoy and really express my passion and love for the topics I was teaching. Once I got free of that… things flew much easier and I could notice the difference in my audiences year by year.

And what about Tango?

So where does all this lead us as Tango dancers? What can we learn from TTS software, ebook reading apps, and so many other communication experiences? If the voice has its tools to communicate emotions what are the equivalent tools in our dance? The medium we use in dance for expression is of course not our voice but our body. So how do you communicate emotion with your body? By doing a back sacada or by the way, you do it? This is the key difference between good dancers and memorable ones. A good dancer knows how to execute a hundred different steps and combinations perfectly, they have perfect technique and balance, etc. but they all are just words spoken with the same intensity, pitch, volume, etc. and they are void of emotion. A memorable dancer knows how to execute all those (or maybe even less) but also knows how to pronounce them in a way that their bodies communicate also the emotion. They know how to change their “voice”!

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How do they do it? There is a common code that we all know which is hidden in our bodies to express emotions. Think about it. Your body posture compresses when you feel fear, softens when you feel in love, your moves are quicker and sharper when you are passionate, softer and smaller when you are sad, etc. These are all tools hidden inside our bodies and we actually use them every day. You might see your friend coming towards you and you can tell in seconds if there is something wrong with them or if they are happy. Just in seconds by looking at their posture, their gait, and their moves. It is in our nature… in our instinct… but when we dance the anxiety and the overthinking of doing the combination or the step we just learned takes over. Much like in my first-year lectures. We become boring and flat, making our audience fall asleep by the end of the tanda no matter how many complex fancy moves we try. So instead of becoming the actors that read those books in Audible, we become this boring quick TTS voice that I heard years ago in my first experience with blind people reading from a computer.

I started this series of posts by explaining the impact of looking at our dance as a storytelling process and continued to explain how researching, reading, and reflecting on the music we hear can provide us with the right stories to tell. So if you do consider your dance as a storytelling process and you know what story to tell this post just explains what some of the best musicality teachers out there will tell you. There are many different ways to tell a story, and they are all acceptable except one. The boring, flat, uninteresting storytelling… like the one in my first years of teaching. Try to avoid it and focus on really telling the story with all your heart.

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango is again a storytelling song. The title says “I want to see you one more time” and there are different ways you can tell it. You may be calm, having processed the end of the relationship which you now look at with a bit of nostalgia and asking for closure. “I want to see you one more time and then I can die quietly” as the lyrics say. Or on the other hand, you might be begging passionately on your knees, emotionally broken to let the person meet you one more time hoping that maybe there is a possibility of a return, and if not you will die quietly out of the pain (being a big drama queen). So here are two versions of the song. One from Francisco Canaro and the other from Osvaldo Pugliese. They both tell the same story… but listen to them. How does each one of them select to tell it? Would you dance and tell the story in the same way in both cases?

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2 responses to “How do you tell a story?”

  1. […] As you probably understood these last four post deal with the metaphor of story telling in terms of dancing. I have written about how the dance changes when you face it as a story telling process, how knowing stories behind the songs can help us in dancing and what tools we have to tell a story when we dance. […]

  2. […] have many times written about how Tango is like a language. How dancing is like speaking a foreign language. What are my vocabulary limitations and how I kind of worked around them. Even the learning […]

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