Dance Teacher Tips

Expand Your Students' Musical Literacy and They'll Grow as Dancers

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.

Stretching musical knowledge is about fully serving students and the field—meeting students' capacities and honoring the cultural multiplicity of our country and artform. Here's advice from teachers who are emphasizing musical literacy.

Start early

Joni Wilson at Tanner Dance in Salt Lake City teaches creative movement, ballet and dance theater to students ages 3 to 18. She starts immediately with educating her students' ears. The idea? To "inform the child's ability to cognitively and physically open themselves to artistic input," she says, and allow for intrinsic movement development. She plays music that ranges from waltzes to jazz and early American folk to African and polyrhythmic percussion.

While she has never experienced extreme resistance from her young dancers, they sometimes giggle at unknown sounds, like from a sousaphone or the ridgeback güiro. That's when, Wilson says, it's her job to "educate them enough to know what this is, and why it sounds like it does. So we study what the instrument looks like and discuss the skill it takes to play it." Her little dancers may start silly, but they become thoughtful and move to new instruments with piqued interest. By the time they're teens, students are able to investigate their artistry with confidence and command of music.

Mary Ann Harp has run Just to Dance Studio for 35 years in Carlinville, Illinois, and she cultivates musical sensibility at the beginner level by putting on alternate songs to fixed choreography. "I sometimes choreograph whole dances to one song and then switch to music of a different tempo and style," she says. "The students can observe that their energy is different. Even very young dancers can determine if the music makes them want to float or jump or twirl."

Shake up your own counting habits

In Hayward, across the bay from San Francisco, Angela Demmel, founder of Moreau Catholic High School Dance Program, starts students with familiar, sometimes even pop music. Slowly, she adds complex and irregular forms.

To reveal students' timing habits, Demmel will sometimes start a combination on count 8. "This is a simple tactic to get them listening, counting and feeling differently. Dancers often default to moving big only on the 1 and the 5," she says. "It's partly because instructors can have those biases. I always want to play with that. Starting on 8, or emphasizing a major movement on count 3, I can begin to uproot some rhythmic tendencies."

Demmel attached a catchy string of words to a formidable meter to tackle Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo à la Turk." She taught her dancers to chant: "I want I want I want choc-o-late, I want I want I want choc-o-late, straw-ber-ry, straw-ber-ry, straw-ber-ry." It broke down the mixed meter: 1212123, 1212123, 123123123. Emphasizing the syllables demystified the beat. It lightened up the students to the task, and when they eventually nailed it, Demmel noticed a physical shift. "They were no longer fighting. They finally eased into it," she says.

Trust students' problem-solving ability

George insists that you "cannot teach jazz without teaching musicality." She noticed a change in students after No Child Left Behind forced educators to teach to the standardized test. Students became terrified of being wrong. "But I believe in generative learning. I am a conduit for students' knowledge," she says. "A major part of their learning is figuring something out."

George gives preparatory listening assignments to coax students from immobility to interest in jazz tunes. Students choose three jazz artists, broken up by genre or instrument. They must listen closely to the music and then write what they imagine the corresponding movement would be. This gives them a personal window into a style that's foreign to them.

George teaches a layered isolation phrase to Bill Evans' "Night and Day." It opens with a polyrhythmic Latin percussion section and shifts into a swing. It's not the physical action of the steps that's hard; it's the listening. She'll play it multiple times until the students are truly inside of the song and "the groove."

George stresses that young people are more capable than we assume. "It's our responsibility to open the space to more sophisticated ways of thinking about rhythm and their bodies," she says

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Tribune

Finding age-appropriate hip-hop music can be a struggle. Choreographer Afaliah Tribune addresses this common dilemma for hip-hop teachers by making her own original tracks on GarageBand. "I love experimenting with live music, and my students think it's fun, too," says Tribune, who is an adjunct professor of dance at New York University. "There are so many ways we can open up our work when we experiment with sound."

Keep reading...
Karen Hildebrand (center) with 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and members of Infinite Flow. Photo by Joe Toreno

Every year in our summer issue, we honor four dance educators for their outstanding contributions to the field. Recipients have included studio owners, professors, program directors, K–12 teachers and more, whose specialties run the gamut of dance genres.

We need your help to identify this year's best in the profession. Do you have a colleague or mentor who deserves to be recognized as a leader and role model?

Send your nomination by March 1, 2020. You can e-mail us at with the following details:

Keep reading...
Sponsored by Akada Software
Photo by Jenny Studios, courtesy of Utah Dance Artists

Running a dance school used to involve a seemingly endless stream of paperwork. But thanks to the advent of software tailored specifically for dance studios' needs, those hours formerly spent pushing papers can now be put to better use.

"Nobody opens a dance studio because they want to do administrative work," says Brett Stuckey, who leads Akada Software's support team. "It's our job to get you out of the office and back into your classroom."

We talked to Stuckey about how a studio software program can streamline operations, so you can put your energy toward your students.

Keep reading...
Dance Teachers Trending
Barbara Bashaw in Thompson Hall of Columbia Teachers College. Photo by Kyle Froman

Barbara Bashaw has always been a pioneer. Since kicking off her career in education by building a dance program from the ground up at an elementary school in Brooklyn, she's gone on to become an inspiring force in teacher training. Now, as director of the new doctoral program in dance education at Columbia University's renowned Teachers College and as executive director of the even newer Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, she's in a position to effect change nationwide.

"The study of dance education is a young field," Bashaw says. "Music and visual arts are far ahead of us, in terms of the research that has been done, as well as the foothold they have in education. Anywhere education is being discussed, we want to put dance on the table—and that means developing researchers and championing research that will push public policy." In a climate where arts education feels both more endangered and more necessary than ever, Bashaw is ready to blaze a trail.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Photo courtesy of Harkness Center for Dance Injuries

When orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Rose founded the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital 30 years ago, the average salary for a dancer was about $8,000, he says.

"It was very hard for a dancer to get quality medical care," he remembers. What's more, he adds, "at the time, dance medicine was based on primarily anecdotal information rather than being based on studies." Seeing the incredible gaps, Rose set out to create a medical facility that was designed specifically to treat dancers and would provide care on a sliding scale.

Keep reading...
Dancer Health
Getty Images

It's time to talk seriously about safety in dance education. As the physical and psychological demands put on student dancers escalates—thanks to competitions, social media and ever-evolving choreography—there is a pressing need to consider how we can successfully safeguard young dancers.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Photo by Melissa Sherwood, courtesy of MGDC

Martha Graham Dance Company created The EVE Project to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of U.S. women's right to vote. The female-focused initiative includes new works, as well as the company's classic repertoire highlighting Martha Graham's heroines and antiheroines. In April, the company is showing the newly reconstructed Circe, Graham's 1963 interpretation of the Greek myth, at New York City Center. Dancing the role of Circe is company member So Young An. Here, she shares thoughts on The EVE Project and how she's approaching her role in Circe, the 57-year-old work that invites audiences to consider pressing conversations about womanhood.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Josephine Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential and inspiring black dancers who paved the way for future generations.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I'm having such a love-hate relationship with mirrors right now. They can be distracting, as well as cause emotional distress for my students. At the same time, they're a really useful tool. I know some teachers remove theirs altogether. Is this something you recommend?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips

Susan Pilarre has been closely tied to the School of American Ballet for nearly her entire life.

From her first class there at age 11 through her 16-year career with its affiliated company, New York City Ballet, Pilarre learned directly from the great choreographer George Balanchine, absorbing the details of his unique style. Sensing her innate understanding of his principles, Balanchine encouraged her to teach; she joined SAB's permanent faculty in 1986. Since then, she has become recognized as an authority on Balanchine's teachings, instilling SAB and NYCB's distinctive speed, clarity and energy into generations of dancers.

Here, Pilarre shares how the specifics that Balanchine insisted upon in class contribute to the strength, beauty and musicality that define his style—and dispels common misconceptions.

Keep reading...

To celebrate Valentine's Day in the most dance-centric way possible, we sat down with five powerhouse dance-teaching couples to talk about their love stories. What do they admire about each other? What are their couple goals and their teaching philosophies, and how do they make their relationships work, especially when they work together? Get ready to swoon!

Keep reading...
For Parents
Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of BAE

Watching through the studio windows—or even from the sidelines in a Mommy and Me class—can surely make parents wonder what exactly our little tykes are getting out of weekly ballet lessons. After all, they're repeating the same things class after class. Are they bored? Are they progressing? Why are they doing that again?

Keep reading...


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox