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How Music Inspires Daniel Duell and Patricia Blair

Duell teaching at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of Ballet Chicago

The music comes first for Patricia Blair and Daniel Duell, the couple who co-direct Ballet Chicago. "We get inspired first and foremost by the music that we are listening to, looking at it analytically and structurally," Duell says about their choreographic process. "In our choreography, we always feel a need to provide a thematic shape—a beginning, a development and a conclusion, the way a piece of music goes."


They both have music in their past: Duell was a classical flutist long before his 15 years dancing with New York City Ballet, and Blair frequently staged Balanchine's music-centric ballets throughout her own performing career with Eglevsky Ballet and on Broadway. At Ballet Chicago, they are committed to live accompaniment for all technique classes. “Mr. B preferred live accompaniment, because part of musical education is the experience of listening to music that's created live," explains Duell. “I think that gives an appreciation of music in young dancers from an early age."

When a live pianist isn't available, Blair and Duell turn to tracks recorded by former School of American Ballet accompanists. As Duell says, “Class CDs can memorialize the very beautiful classwork of someone who plays live for you. There really is a ton of wonderful class music on CD these days."

Blair teaching warm-up class for Ballet Chicago's Studio Company. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of Ballet Chicago

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

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Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

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