Music for Class: Embracing Emotion

Jim Viera's music for modern class

"When I ask my young students what they’re dancing about, they often come up with stories about a love affair gone wrong or something completely out of their realm of possibility,” says Jim Viera, founder and director of pre-professional teen dance program Boston Youth Moves. “But then I talk to them about real-life, emotional experiences they’ve had. Once they wrap their minds around the difference between inventing a story and using a personal one, they really embrace the movement.”

Boston Youth Moves, housed at The Jeannette Neill Dance Studio in Boston, MA, is the program Viera wishes he’d had as a young student. It preserves classical traditions and trains dancers who can step into any kind of dance situation—whether modern, musical theater, jazz or tap—with ease. Viera, who once danced with Jazzdance: The Danny Buraczeski Dance Company and the Marcus Schulkind Dance Company, teaches Horton-based modern and traditional jazz to BYM students, and he also gives Horton technique classes at the Boston Conservatory.

His song choices for modern class vary from abstract rhythms to smooth jazz. “I probably have a fuller iPod than anyone I know,” he says. But no matter the musical genre, he focuses on getting students to inform their dancing with true emotion. With the right music and motivation, he says, students are more than willing to dance from the heart.

Artist: Dead Can Dance

Album: Wake

Wake is a compilation of 20 years of Dead Can Dance music, and it’s my favorite album for modern class. I love that they draw their inspiration from many different cultures, and that the music has a very clear but complex rhythm, interesting instrumentation and beautiful vocals. The lyrics are a combination of different languages or just nonsense, so you don’t get trapped into thinking, ‘This song is about this, so this is how I’m going to express myself.’ It’s beautiful.”

Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet

Album: Time Further Out

“This is traditional jazz music, so it has complex rhythms and a great weight to it. The music is saturated with real instruments, as opposed to being electronic. This album uses unusual time signatures like 5/4, 7/4 or 9/8, so the dancers have to really listen instead of just dancing to counts. In Horton class, I want my students to stop trying to fit everything into a 4/4 time, and to become aware of getting from one step to the next in a smooth, graceful way.”

Artist: Sigur Rós

Album: ( )

“Sigur Rós is an Icelandic group, so their lyrics are not in English, but they’re not really in Icelandic either. It’s a language of their own invention. It creates a mood, and, since there’s no real story in the songs, it opens students up to informing the music with their own personal point of view. It’s also very spacious, so it’s the perfect choice when I feel like giving the dancers the opportunity to interpret the phrasing of the music.”

Artist: Shemekia Copeland

Album: Talking to Strangers

“Copeland’s music is dynamic. It’s a slow blues and it lends itself to a very powerful, emotionally charged interpretation. I especially like the song “Don’t Whisper.” Blues always opens the ability to use movement that’s more dramatic and personal. It’s popular to really hit shapes and lines in today’s Horton classes instead of having the lyrical qualities that Lester Horton originally intended. Blues and jazz music gets dancers to soften their movement and extend their lines.”

Artist: Michael Bublé

Album: Michael Bublé

“Young people are always listening to very processed music, so I try to introduce them to real instrumentation through swing music like Michael Bublé. Many of my students aren’t familiar with the world of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but Bublé takes traditional standards and adds a more contemporary feel. It lets these kids get out of what they’re listening to on their iPods and shows them that there’s another world of music out there. This album has a rendition of ‘Fever’ that’s a little more playful than Peggy Lee’s original version. It has stop-time and fun accents that inspire students to actually listen to the music and stop counting.”

Photo by Liza Voll

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