Change, both physical and mental, is a given for new dance majors. But some changes are harder to embrace than others. Ask a freshman choreographer to replace Radiohead with a John Cage soundscape, for example, and you’re likely to run into some serious resistance.

Weaning student choreographers off of Top 40 picks and getting them excited about a broad variety of music is a challenge faced by many college faculty members. Some dance programs go so far as to employ musicians to help expand dancers’ musical awareness. The result? A deeper musical knowledge enhances dancers’ creativity.

 

Meet students where they are

 

Arthur Solari, senior dance accompanist at Hofstra University, says that accepting what students already listen to is an important step toward getting them to listen to something new. Once they trust that you are not dismissing their musical tastes out of hand, “students are more open to making an appointment so you can advise them,” Solari says.

Tigger Benford, musician, accompanist and associate professor of dance at Rutgers University, agrees. “I am never going to tell [students] not to like something that they currently like,” he says. “But I am going to work very hard to get them to like things that they currently dislike.”

 

Expand their ability to hear

 

One challenge teachers must overcome is the pervasiveness of music. Most incoming college freshmen hear it constantly—on their iPods, at Starbucks, in stores. But too much of a good thing dulls the ears. Students tend to listen to music to relax or while they “shake it” at the club, says Benford. As a result, they listen passively, letting the sound slide by as a series of undifferentiated audio events rather than distinguishing the relationships between its parts.

 

To activate listening skills, Benford engages students in environmental listening; he has them lie down, indoors or out, and guides them as they listen to ambient noise. Benford uses imagery, asking students to think of how the pupil of an eye dilates and contracts in response to light, and then to imagine that their ears have pupils that can open or close to accommodate different amounts of sound. “The sounds that are easiest to miss are the constant ones,” Benford says. “I always mention the hum of refrigerators, because almost everyone has had the experience of being unaware of the sound until the moment it suddenly turns off.” He says this exercise heightens acoustic sensitivity and a fundamental level of receptivity that is important for all artists to maintain.

 

Free them from musical crutches

 

Young dancemakers tend to be drawn to a piece of music because it holds the meaning and content that they hope their dance will express. So how do you convince a dancer that over-reliance on a song’s emotive content puts the dance in danger of becoming superfluous?

Richard Woodbury, music director and associate chair at Columbia College Chicago, has developed an exercise to help his students see how dance can (and should) be more than a visual depiction of music. Woodbury gives his students CDs containing 10 one-minute songs. The students choreograph to a track of their choosing and perform their solos for one another during class. Directly following an individual’s performance, Woodbury plays a different track from the CD and challenges the student to renegotiate the same movement to the new music. Invariably, he says, his students realize that their second performance is more compelling. Students report that this exercise deepens their dancemaking by demonstrating the power of juxtaposing music and movement.

 

Help them find new sounds

 

Convincing student choreographers to consider a wide array of sound options is one thing, but it can leave them feeling uncertain of where to find new music and how to make a selection. Woodbury works with dancers one-on-one at this stage. “When a student comes to me wanting to create a sound design,” Woodbury says, “we have conversations about what purpose the music is trying to serve.” Once they have identified the intent, Woodbury selects a stack of CDs for the student to investigate.

 

To give students a sense of different styles they might choose from, Benford creates a mix CD and requires students to listen to and journal about what they hear. He chooses pieces that are about four to five minutes in length, not “too bizarre or strange,” but that have enough depth to withstand repeated listening and still reveal new aspects of their character. And he only includes vocals if they’re written in a language other than English.

 

Benford also encourages students to explore a music resource few use these days. “There is something to be gained by going to a record library where there is no financial risk if you don’t like something,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t realize that, despite the seemingly infinite amount of music available on iTunes, there is a lot on vinyl that never made it to CD.”

 

As rewarding as it is for these musicians to share their knowledge, it’s equally gratifying to witness its impact on the dancers. “I have noticed such a difference,” Solari says. And his dance department colleagues agree. “They tell me how differently the dancers are working as their knowledge of music has been raised,” he says. DT

 

Alyssa Schoeneman is pursuing a BFA in dance at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She recently completed a communications internship at the American Dance Festival.

 

Photo copyright iStockphoto.com

Dance Teachers Trending
"Music is magical," says Black. "It just transforms kids." Photo courtesy of Black

After 31 years of teaching, Kim Black has mastered how to reach young dancers. Between a studio and private school, she teaches 34 classes per week in Burlington, North Carolina: That's 238 kids from ages 2 to 6 years old. "You have to make them fall in love with dance," says Black. The music, she says, cues this engagement.

Keep reading...
Site Network

2019's movies featured some truly fantastic dancing, thanks to the hard work of many talented choreographers. But you won't see any of those brilliant artists recognized at the Academy Awards. And we're (still) not OK with that.

So we're taking matters into our own jazz hands.

On February 7—just before the Oscars ceremony—we'll present a Dance Spirit award for the best movie choreography of 2019. With your help, we've narrowed the field to seven choreographers, artists whose moves electrified some of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Kathryn Alter (left). Photo by Alexis Ziemski

In every class Kathryn Alter teaches, two things are immediately evident: how thoughtfully she chooses her words, and how much glee she gets from dancing the movement and style of modern choreographer José Limón. At the 2019 Limón summer workshop at Kent State University, Alter demonstrated a turning triplet with her arms fully outstretched, a smile stretching easily across her face. "It should be as if…" She paused to think of the perfect analogy that would help the dancers find the necessary circularity of the movement. "As if you live in a doughnut!" she finished, grinning broadly. The dancers gathered around her laughed—her smile and love for something as foundational as a triplet was contagious.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Melanie George (right). Photo by Grace Corapi, courtesy of George

Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.

New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in a scene from An American in Paris. Courtesy Fathom Events.

If you loved Christopher Wheeldon's An American in Paris on Broadway, you can now see the 1951 Oscar-winning movie it's based on in all its Technicolor glory. Fathom Events will present MGM's An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly and French ballerina Leslie Caron, and with music by George and Ira Gershwin, in select theaters nationwide January 19 and 22.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Photo by Rachel Papo

Alicia Graf Mack's journey to become director of The Juilliard School's Dance Division—the youngest person to hold the position, and the first woman of color—was anything but a straight line. Yes, she's danced with prestigious companies: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But Mack also has a BA in history from Columbia University and an MA in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis; she pursued both degrees during breaks in her performing career, taken to recover from injuries and autoimmune disease flare-ups.

As an undergrad, she briefly interned at JPMorgan Chase in marketing and philanthropic giving, and she later made arts administration central to her graduate work, assuming that she'd eventually take an administrative role with a dance organization.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Morrissey (left). Photo courtesy of Interlochen Center for the Arts

When Joseph Morrissey first took the helm of the dance division at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a boarding high school in Interlochen, Michigan, he found a fully established pre-professional program with space to grow. And his vision was big, with plans to stage the kind of ambitious repertory he'd experienced during his dance career. But the realities quickly set in. During his first year in 2015, the department was denied by the George Balanchine Trust to license any Balanchine ballets—the dancers were not quite ready.

This early disappointment didn't derail Morrissey. In just four years, he has not only raised Interlochen's training standards, he's staged ambitious full-length ballets and been granted the rights to works by Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille and, yes, Balanchine. Guest artists regularly visit, and he's initiated major plans to expand the dance department building. Morrissey is only 37, but it should come as no surprise that he's done so much so fast—his entire life's journey has prepared him to be an artistic leader.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Valerie Amiss with students. Photo by Tracie Van Auken, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet

Jared Nelson, artistic director of California Ballet, demonstrates a tight fifth position as he talks to his class about the importance of rotating from the hips. "Having a visual image helped me as a dancer, so I try to demonstrate as much as possible," he says. "But I am also very conscious of word choice. Every dancer is different, and you have to phrase things in a language they will understand."

Teachers should always be aware of how they communicate with their students, including how they choose language for different individuals, classes or situations. Using the right terminology in early stages of training will ensure that students learn the proper names of steps. This foundation is crucial, particularly when so much of the classical vocabulary has been substituted by nicknames and phrases. (Think "lame duck" or "step-up turn" in place of piqué en dehors.) But good use of language also means using imagery and positive reinforcement to ensure the right kind of messaging. What teachers say in the studio could make the difference between dancers who listen—and ones who really hear.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Dance Theatre of Harlem's Derek Brockington and Da'Von Doane in Claudia Schreier's Passage. Photo by Brian Callan, courtesy of DTH

Back to your routine after the holidays, but still looking for something to watch? Then this new PBS documentary titled Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants is for you. The hour-long film tracks the creation of two dance pieces: Claudia Schreier's Passage for Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Sir Richard Alston's Arrived featuring students of Norfolk's Governor's School for the Arts. Both works were co-commissioned by the American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and the Virginia Arts Festival last May, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of Africans to English North America and the history of slavery that followed.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Getty Images

Q: My tween is begging me to go to a faraway summer intensive, claiming "all my friends are going." How do I know if she's ready?

A: It can feel like a rite of passage for serious dancers to attend an intensive at a major ballet school. They dance all day and often explore the area's surroundings or attend performances on weekends. But living away from home, having a roommate and living the "dorm life" can be a challenge.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Kensington Macmillen in class at CPYB. Photo by Joel Thomas Photography, courtesy of CPYB

Last year, Kensington MacMillen auditioned for summer programs away from home for the first time. A longtime Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet student, MacMillen had spent previous summers at her home studio, but now she was ready to branch out. After auditioning for three programs, her first response was a rejection from Miami City Ballet.

"A bunch of people from here had gotten in, and I didn't," she says. "So then you just kind of panic." She was still waiting to hear from the other programs and worried that she'd have nowhere to go.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Physical therapist Meredith Butulis in action. Photo courtesy of Twin Cities Orthopedics

After a long tennis match or a basketball game, elite athletes often head straight to the locker room and hit the exercise bike. On first thought, this might seem to be overtraining, but in fact, they are pedaling as a way to cool down properly.

"All of our blood vessels get dilated and blood goes out to muscles when we are doing cardiovascular work," says Meredith Butulis, a physical therapist specializing in dance medicine. "The blood goes mostly to the leg muscles, and blood pooling there is a real phenomenon. If your blood doesn't get back to the heart and brain, you can pass out."

She goes on to explain there are two ways to recover from an intense workout: actively, using a low-intensity movement to gradually bring the heart rate down, or passively, with no activity at all. The latter requires little explanation—how many times have you seen a dancer do a run-through and follow it up by sitting down on the side of the studio in a static stretch? But for many reasons, including the real possibility of blood pooling that Butulis describes, a passive recovery is not the best choice for dancers.

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox