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

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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