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Hip-Hop Teacher Leslie Scott Finds Choosing Music With a Positive Message Essential

Photo courtesy of Scott

When a curious group of young dancers asked Leslie Scott what the lyrics to Nicki Minaj's sexually explicit rap song "Anaconda" meant, Scott was mortified. "Have you seen the video? It's basically the lyrics come to life. One of the 7-year-olds told me it scared her," she says.


Enlightening moments like this are why Scott founded The Youth Protection Advocates in Dance, which is committed to evolving the integrity of dance education. A major component of the organization's certification program focuses on choosing age-appropriate music.

A 2015 YPAD study of 143 dancers ages 7 to 13 found that 87 percent of kids who heard a song in class watched the music video online. Of that group, only 6 percent asked for permission. "If I choose a song that's sexually explicit or violent," says Scott, "that's me as an educator co-signing the song's message." As a teacher, she finds it essential to pick music free of gender and cultural stereotypes, female objectification and misogyny.

Whether teaching at a Pulse convention or setting choreography at a studio, Scott wants the movement to have a relationship with the lyrics. "I want to be able to spit the lyrics while I teach," she says. She's aware the kids are hearing the same song over and over again. "The kids are also saying the words with me," she adds—another reason blasting explicit music isn't conducive to her process, or her classroom.

Mainstream hip hop has the "good beats," says Scott, but it's often not child-friendly. This doesn't mean teachers have to limit their choreography. Finding "clean" music might require more creativity and mixing your own music, a skill Scott has developed, but it frees teachers from worrying about a debatable song choice.

When a song seems questionable, Scott imagines a child or teenager reciting the words to a group of people. "I ask myself: 'How does that child feel reading the lyrics, and how's the audience responding?' If the song doesn't pass this test, I don't use it," says Scott.

Here are four suggestions Scott uses for class:

Artist: Je'kob
Album: First EP of three-part series Faith, Hope, Love
Song: "Love Is All"

"I have choreographed to this track for competition, used it for warm-up and for class combos. It crosses over into all levels, because it has such a diverse composition between the rap, singing, bassline and high hats, and some fun effects on the lyrics that give so many musicality choices for more advanced creations. It also has an uplifting steady beat that is great for beginning levels."


Artist: Mikeschair

Album: Mikeschair
Song: "Keep Changing The World"

"The strings, bassline and lyrics of this track provide a variety of syncopation and musicality choices with sections that rise and fall with authentic feeling. I have used this track for social-justice concepts and also to perform in several outreach events. I do find the message is for a more mature demographic, since it speaks of suffering and homelessness, which may be scary for younger dancers to hear about."


Artist: Chozyn
Song: "Gurl Code"

"This track is more of a pop/jazz funk vibe with a side of beast mode! I'm really drawn to the song's message of female empowerment. When I used it, I did edit it to highlight the most relatable sections of the verses for the female teenagers I was setting a competition piece on, and I had the hook come on right at the beginning as a more high-energy intro to the track."


Artist: Flame
Album: Our World: Redeemed
Song: "Go Buck"

"I have used this song off and on for years and never get sick of it. It's a perfect example of a hip-hop song with a positive message that was created by a Christian artist, so it also includes deeply religious messaging in some of the verses. Due to this fact, I would not feel comfortable teaching a combo to it in a secular environment without editing it."

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Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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