Music for Class: A Range of Rhythms

Her classes are influenced by styles from classical ballet to West African; her students range in age from elementary to graduate school; and in her spare time, she creates instructional videos for tots and study abroad programs for university students. When it comes to teaching, Deborah Damast clearly has all the bases covered.

Currently, Damast is artistic advisor of dance education at New York University’s Steinhardt School and artistic director of the school’s resident company Kaleidoscope Dancers. Over the last four years, she has spearheaded an annual study abroad trip to Uganda to teach local children and learn indigenous dance forms. Despite her commitment to the university, she continues to teach young students at the Little Red School House in NYC, and she recently co-created the creative movement video series, Move ‘n Groove Kids.

Damast’s contemporary modern classes are brimming with energy and spunk, and students often approach her afterward to marvel at her music choices and ask for suggestions. “Well-thought-out music for dance class provides an opportunity to enhance the emotional experience of the student,” she says. “Using a variety of genres, rhythms and instrumentations expands the range of dynamic choices in the class content.” Here Damast shares some of her diverse selections with DT. DT

Artist: Philip Hamilton
Album/Song: Maya, “Flat Foot Freddy”
“Philip Hamilton is a NYC musician who used to play for my classes. He incorporates drums and vocalization, and his dynamic range of sound makes his music accessible for all types of movement. This song is great for small jumps or quick shifts, because it has a nice spring to it.”

Artist: Oliver Mtukudzi
Album/Song: Tuku Music, “Todii”
“Oliver Mtukudzi is from Zimbabwe, and his music is very soulful and lyrical. I use it a lot for plié combinations. It has a simplicity that allows you to work between the notes. There’s something very hopeful and profound about this music.”

Artist: Andy Monroe
Album: Joyful Noise
“Dancing to Andy’s music is like riding the crest of a wave. He plays piano and uses his voice in an incredible range of rhythms and melodies. He’s one of the favorite accompanists in NYC for the Paul Taylor School and the José Limón Institute, among others. His music is beautiful and supportive for modern dance class.”

Artist: Zap Mama
Album/Song: Adventures in Afropea, “Abadou”
“Zap Mama is an a capella group, and some of their music uses vocalization techniques that are polyrhythmic and diverse. The Abadou piece has a circular movement to it and is good for anything in a strong three rhythm.”

Artist: Angelique Kidjo
Album/Songs:  Putumayo Kids Presents: African Playground, “Battu” and Fifa, “Fifa”
“‘Battu’ employs a lot of percussion and combines Western and African instruments that result in a high-energy sound that’s good for propelling you across the floor and for intricate footwork. ‘Fifa’ is a more lyrical adagio piece that’s good for slow, sustained stretch combinations.”

Artist: Pink Martini
Album: Sympathique
“Pink Martini has a really fun range of songs that are good for going across the floor, for big jumps and for big combinations. They have a rich-sounding big-band feeling. It’s definitely worthwhile to check this album out and see all of the diversity you can find on it.”

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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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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