How to Help Your Students Refine Their Musicality

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Ask a hundred people what musicality is, and you're likely to get a hundred different answers. "Musicality is where an artist's personality shines brightest," says Smuin Contemporary Ballet member Ben Needham-Wood. For American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt, "it's what distinguishes one dancer from another. It helps me express myself more vividly and emotionally."

Teachers encourage it, directors seek it out and dancers who possess it bring choreography to life in compelling ways. But what exactly is musicality, and how can dancers get more of it?

Putting Musicality Into Words

David Morse, wearing a blue sleeveless T-shirt, is shown from the waist up making gestures near his face with his hands.

David Morse rehearses one of his ballets at Cininnati Ballet.

Jenifer Denham, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Musicality could be loosely described as a dancer's unique emotional and intellectual relationship to a piece of music, as expressed in their execution of choreography. "I connect musicality to rhythm, phrasing, tonality and mood—all these elements that allow the body to inhabit music from the inside out," says Atlanta Ballet choreographer in residence Claudia Schreier.

Comparing two dancers in the same role can help make it clearer, says David Morse, a Cincinnati Ballet soloist, choreographer and class accompanist. He cites Royal Ballet principals Natalia Osipova and Marianela Nuñez in the Black Swan variation as a good example. "Natalia has this punch behind everything," he says. "When she goes from Point A to Point B, there's power on the front end and then a suspend. With Marianela, there is an airiness in arriving at the next position, more like a sustain across the beat. They could not be more different, in large part due to those small increases and decreases in speed."

Inside a brick-walled dance studio, choreographer Claudia Schrier wears dance clothes and points upward to demonstrate what she wants to a room of dancers.

Claudia Schreier rehearses her ballet Passage with Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Rachel Neville, Courtesy Schreier

Most of those choices are made in rehearsal, but sometimes they reflect a dancer's spontaneity. Miami City Ballet principal soloist Lauren Fadeley remembers feeling caught off guard when MCB's orchestra played unexpectedly slowly during Balanchine's La Valse. "But our rehearsal pianist came up to me afterward and said, 'That was one of the most musical performances of that ballet I've ever seen,'" says Fadeley. "You have to listen to the music and just dance. And enjoy it—that's what will really shine through."

These examples demonstrate a deeply personal element that each dancer can find within themselves. "The dancers we look up to are the ones who bring their true selves to every step through their musicality," says Schreier. "What we really get drawn to is that freedom. And that comes from exploring their relationship to the music and falling in love with it in their own way."

The Building Blocks

Wearing white skirted costumes, Ben Needham-Wood crosses his arms and lifts Terez Dean by the shoulders as she extends her left leg straight in front of her and tucks her right leg underneath her.

Ben Needham-Wood and Terez Dean in Amy Seiwert's Renaissance

Chris Hardy, Courtesy Smuin Ballet

Paradoxically, dancers reach that level of musical freedom through deliberate, dedicated practice. "It has to start from barre," says Brandt, who describes herself as "rigid" about doing combinations at the ballet master's prescribed tempos because "it trains your body to handle the demands of a faster dégagé than you're used to, or a slower adagio, when you get onstage." Having so much command over her musicality, she says, "makes me feel like I can get lost in what I'm doing—like I can be an embodiment of the music, versus the music being a separate entity." On the other hand, deliberately playing with the rhythms and patterns at barre can lead to equally important insights, says Brandt.

A basic understanding of music can be an inroad into greater self-expression. Fadeley, for instance, grew up playing piano and flute. Her ability to read music and quickly grasp time signatures has been critical to mastering the Balanchine oeuvre. "You can have a Stravinsky score that is so hard to count—there's a 13 and a 9 and an 11," she says, referring to the complex time signatures found in many Balanchine works. "Even in the 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' in The Nutcracker, there's a part where we would count a 12 or a 13 after counting 8s."

Take advantage of free online resources, like, Signals Music Studio's YouTube demos and's section on reading music, to familiarize yourself with time signatures, concepts like tempo and phrasing, and forms like sonata and minuet. Along with entry points into the score a choreographer has chosen, that understanding can provide anchors for your interpretation of their choreography. "You might have your counts on 1 and 2 and 3," says Needham-Wood, "but how you play with all those little 'ands' is how your musicality comes out."

As empowering as those building blocks are, the most compelling artists infuse their musical knowledge and technical mastery with something innate and, yes, undefinable. "When musicality is really in your body, you're not thinking about it. It just happens because you are letting yourself move," says Schreier.

Be Your Own Maestro

Chase Swatosh, in lack tights and a white T-shirt, tosses Lauren Fadeley into a grand sissone. She wears a black leotard, pink tights and pointe shoes.

Lauren Fadeley and Chase Swatosh in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

Dancing at home is ideal for exploring your own sense of musicality and artistic voice, because you can turn off the Zoom camera and take some risks, free of any feedback but your own sense of what feels authentic. "This is not about proving anything to anyone. This is about taking an opportunity to discover what you're able to do," says Needham-Wood.

Ready to get started? These exercises can help you discover insights and artistry that you'll bring back to the studio and the stage.

Reorchestrate the barre: Barre is a great place to experiment with your musicality, says Brandt. "Play with your phrasing, play with your accent. Hold your fifth position a millisecond longer than you would have. Really differentiate your tendus that are accent out from tendus that are accent in. We should all be doing that anyway, so that by the time we arrive at rehearsal or a performance, we have musicality in our bodies."

Push the boundaries: "Make up a piece of choreography, and dance it to the same music three times," says Schreier. "Try to do it exactly on the music, then just behind the music, and then just ahead. How does that change your physicality? How does it change your relationship to the music? Which one feels best for you? What can you pull out of the silences?"

Bust a new move: "If you only expose yourself to one approach to musicality, you're limiting your potential to express yourself," says Needham-Wood, who also teaches hip hop. Try tap, Broadway, or popping and locking. "Ballet is often about the melody, while contemporary brings in more percussive sound, and hip hop has a sense of weight to it. The more you allow yourself to get outside of your comfort zone, the more your comfort zone will grow."

Experiment with time signatures: A time signature is a notation used in Western music to indicate the number of rhythmic beats in a measure of music—the ones most familiar to dancers are 4/4 (think of the steady 1-2-3-4 of tendus en croix) and 3/4, which is waltz time. Composers use time signatures to create effects in their music, from strident tension to a cascading sense of joy—if you're dancing to agitated music by Stravinsky, for example, you might encounter 3/32, 4/16, 11/4, while in a pop ballet set to the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" you'll find 11/8, 4/4 and 7/8.

A great way to build a sense of time signatures is to experience them for yourself. ABT principal conductor Charles Barker suggests listening to the nationalistic dances in Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, and hearing the time signatures of the mazurka, polonaise and waltz. "Listen to it, then move to it and feel how all the phrases are not all the same tempo." Try the third movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 3, which is in 3/8 time, or the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, in 5/4. "Tchaikovsky has lots of music in 5/4. Play with it! He was playing with it, so we should as well."

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
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As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?

The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."

Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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