Two of your students move across the floor. The first one executes the steps well, but she isn’t truly listening to the music; her movements look strangely two-dimensional, monotone. The second dancer is about equal to the first technically, but more powerfully musical. Her dancing has highs and lows, accents and unexpected pauses. She stays on the beat without being flat and even.

Musicality is an ability to connect with music and express that connection through the choreography. “It takes a dancer from good to great,” says Gina Starbuck, a hip-hop dancer and instructor based in Los Angeles. While teachers tend to think about students’ technique first, it’s just as important for us to help young dancers develop their budding sense of musicality.

 

Why Musicality Matters

When students are able to interpret music in a sophisticated way, their work becomes less predictable and more playful, layered and spontaneous. But musical students aren’t just more fun to watch. “Musicality drives students toward artistic maturity,” says Laszlo Berdo, a teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “It inspires them emotionally, so they can go beyond technique and really shine as individuals.” When Berdo’s students look flat during an adagio, for example, he’ll stop the class and talk about finding a visceral connection to the music. He asks them how the music makes them feel, and if they can put that sensibility behind their dancing.

Developing a good sense of musicality also builds confidence, so students can fully inhabit the music and not feel like they’re “faking” it onstage. “Often tension, fear or nerves prevent students from really being in the moment when they perform,” says Jeffrey Middleton, a music teacher at the School of American Ballet. Students with a deeper understanding of music, on the other hand, feel more comfortable making interesting interpretive choices onstage.

 

Can It Be Taught?

Everyone is born with some sense of musicality. This innate quality is a starting point from which to build and develop. “We all have a heartbeat and we all have rhythm inside of us,” says Barbara Duffy, a New York City–based tap teacher. “It’s just a matter of focusing on it and finding it. You can teach it.” The real question is: How?

First, start working on musicality as early as possible. “As teachers,” Starbuck says, “we tend to give a lot of even counts to beginner-level classes just because the students are young and don’t have a lot of training.” But Starbuck suggests giving simplistic movement with syncopated rhythms instead. “Be sure the steps themselves are within the students’ reach, and then make the musicality the challenge,” she says. That way even the youngest students can develop an ear for music, and the confidence to lose themselves in it.

Encourage older students to learn to play an instrument or at least to read music, says Middleton. “Once they understand a basic musical language, meter as opposed to just dance counts,” he says, “they’ll feel more confident about playing with the music in dance class.” And push students to listen to all sorts of music, not just the kind typical of their dance genre. Help them think outside of the box by choosing unusual pieces for class. African drum rhythms might be a great backdrop for petit allegro in ballet class; a Broadway show tune could be a surprisingly fun accompaniment for a hip-hop combination.

But the most effective way to help your students develop their musicality is to set aside a few minutes in each class for two or three brief musical exercises, which help students think consciously and specifically about the relationship between music and dance. (See “In-Class Exercises,” this page.)

 

Incorporating Live Music

“There’s nothing like live music,” says Middleton. “Pieces are a little different every time they’re played. Students need to experience how a repeated phrase can change from time to time.” Accompanists, who are usually highly accomplished musicians, may also intentionally skip notes, pull out a phrase or alter the tempo of a combination to challenge a student’s ear.

But many studios don’t have the luxury of live accompaniment. If you use recorded music, avoid playing the same CD over and over again, Berdo says. Students will tune out if they know exactly what to expect. And if they’re not studying an instrument or are otherwise familiar with the feel of live music, encourage students to find a piano and play a single note. Have them listen to the sound, notice how it resonates and think about the way they can apply that feeling of depth and timbre to their dancing. DT

 

In-Class Exercises:

* Evenly clap out a 4/4 (four beats per measure) rhythm. Then try the exercise again, hitting the 2 and 4 instead. “When you clap on the 2 and the 4, you find a groove within the music,” says tap instructor Barbara Duffy.

* Have your students “sing” the rhythm of the steps out loud (“tom-BÉ pas-de-bour-RÉE, glis-SADE saut-de-CHAT”). Then ask them to sing that rhythm along with the music to see how it fits.

* Have students illustrate a particular instrument’s sound with movement, suggests Gina Starbuck, a hip-hop dancer and instructor. What does the bass feel like? How do you move like a bass?

* Play a piece of music and have the students improvise across the floor, listening to just one of the instruments. Starbuck tells her students to only feel the percussion, for example, and then go again focusing on the vocals instead.

* Give students a visual. Starbuck shows her students videos of dancers or choreography that represent good musicality. Then they discuss what made the clip interesting or appealing.

* Give a simple combination, and then repeat it using a song with a different rhythm or tune. Laszlo Berdo likes switching up the music because it helps the students think about different phrases and steps to accent.

 

Julie Diana is a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet. She has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox