"5, 6, 7, 8..."

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.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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