Music for Class: Setting the Barre for Ballet

Judy Rice has been teaching ballet at the University of Michigan for 20 years. That’s more than a decade longer than the two other ballet teachers on faculty, but Rice chooses to have her colleagues teach advanced classes while she focuses on levels 1 and 2. “I think it’s important for me to set the students up,” she explains. “My class is all about the mechanics. Everybody has habits. I just happen to be obsessive about finding them and fixing them.”

A graduate of the National Ballet School of Canada, Rice performed with the Joffrey Ballet, The National Tap Dance Company of Canada and American Ballet Comedy. She has taught nationwide at DMA, DEA, the Joffrey Ballet, Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, Co. Dance and the Dance Teacher Summit.

When it comes to music, Rice has taken things into her own hands and produced 11 albums for ballet. And she likes to mix things up in class, creating combinations to everything from classical to rock to hip hop. “The bottom line is, it’s not a matter of who the artist is or what the tune is,” she says. “But does it speak to you? If you’re inspired, your students are going to be inspired.” DT

Series: Behind Barres

Artist: Judy Rice and Paul Lewis

“I co-created Behind Barres with pianist Paul Lewis and producer Rob Martens, because anything that I used prior to my music didn’t have long enough tracks. I’d spend all of my time running back and forth to the CD player. The design of these albums is user-friendly without any repeat in tunes. And Paul Lewis is truly one of the most masterful ballet pianists in the world.”

Album: Ballet and Opera Classics for Kids

Artist: David Howard and Adam Pernell

“The key to good recorded music is that it should have real live passion in it. Adam Pernell used to be a pianist at the Joffrey Ballet, and you can hear his passion in this album. You don’t feel like you’re working with a CD, but with a live pianist.”

Artist: Queen

Song: “Somebody to Love”

“I was sitting on the subway one day flipping through my iPod. My dog had died, I had made a major move to New York and I was a little lonely. This song came on, and I started to cry. It just spoke to me. That’s when I started making dances for class to music that was relevant in my life. And I love using rock and roll.”

Artist: The Fray

Song: “Never Say Never”

“I don’t think I’m hip, so I have a 12-year-old girl and a friend of mine who’s 26 who I use as my meters. I found this tune and I went to the two of them and said, ‘What do you think about this piece of music?’ I wanted to use it for a teen group ages 11–13 on a convention tour. They both said yes to this song, so I used it, and the kids loved it.”

Artist: Jay-Z, featuring Alicia Keys

Song: “Empire State of Mind”

“I choreographed a little ballet variation to ‘Symphony in C.’ Then, I changed the music a couple of times, keeping the routine exactly the same. One of the final songs was ‘Empire State of Mind,’ which is a rap song. I had other teachers watch the change in the way the students executed the movement and their excitement level. It was dramatic. Many of them loved ‘Empire State of Mind,’ and very few of them reacted the same way to the classical music. It was an exercise to show teachers a way to inspire their students. Yes, it’s important that kids listen to classical music and be inspired by it, but in this day and age we’ve got to be a little more flexible.”

Photo courtesy of Co. Dance

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