Music for Class: Tunes for Tots

Many of Suzi Tortora’s students literally dance before they can walk. In her dance/movement psychotherapy practice, Dancing Dialogue: Healing & Expressive Arts Center, she teaches students as young as 3 months old. Tortora’s wellness classes start with babies bouncing in their mothers’ laps and continue until up to 10 years old. Students are split into classes by development level rather than specific age and, after age 4, they attend without their parents and focus on improvisational dance. “I like to help children get in touch with their emotions,” Tortora says, “and I see my classes as creative dance self-expression.”


Tortora is a New York–based, certified dance therapist specializing in pediatrics, and she holds a master’s degree from NYU and a doctorate with a specialization in infancy/early childhood development, psychology and education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She acts as senior dance/movement therapist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, lectures internationally and is the author of The Dancing Dialogue: Using the Communicative Power of Movement with Young Children (2005).


“In my classes, I use music quite a lot to change the atmosphere in the room,” she says. “If I feel like the energy could become chaotic, I just switch the music instead of having to say ‘stop’ or ‘slow down.’ I use these songs as a way to subtly direct, helping the children get in touch with their bodies.” DT


Artist: The Clayfoot Strutters

Album: Going Elsewhere

“The Clayfoot Strutters’ songs can have a really strong beat or a more melodic rhythm. There’s a nice variation to what I can do just from this one album. I’m interested in exposing kids to good music, so I don’t actually play many children’s songs. I like to introduce them to music like this that has a lot of texture to it.”



Artist: Roger Davidson

Album/Song: Mango Tango, “Scallywag’s Tango”

“This contagious tango song has a really lovely beat. Even my 16-month-olds can’t sit still when they hear it, and their parents always want to know who this CD is by. It has an organic rhythm that captures the sense of little babies bouncing.”


Album: Cirque du Soleil—Saltimbanco

Songs: “Kumbalawé” and “Norweg”

“Kumbalawé” is a very welcoming song that I often use at the start of class as families are coming in. It sets a lovely tone and fills the room with a relaxed but flowing atmosphere.

‘Norweg’ starts with a percussive pulse and then adds melodic vocals that overlay the rhythm. I use this with older children who can be dancing at the same time, and some will work toward the rhythm and some toward the melody. In this way, choreography starts to develop within the children as they listen to all the layers of the music.”


Artist: Wild Asparagus

Album/Song: Wherever You Go, “Wherever You Go When You Sleep”

“This song is mesmerizing. It immediately starts to calm students down, but the waltz rhythm still keeps them moving. When I put it on, children start to slow down and pretend that they’re sleeping or make sleepy dances. They love to float around the room with beautiful flowing scarves as if they’re on clouds.”



Artist: Peanut Butter and Jelly: Tom Knight and Elizabeth McMahon

Album/Song: Peanut Butter and Jelly’s Greatest Hits, “Alligator Jump”

“Peanut Butter and Jelly teaches the children wonderful genres of music, like reggae and waltz, with lyrics that resonate with them. In “Alligator Jump,” the alligator jumps, slides and turns around. Students can jump or slide in any way they want. It allows them to create their own choreography based on the narrative.”



Artist: Gabrielle Roth

Album: Totem

“These songs tell a story, especially relating to jungle sounds. Five-year-olds in particular really like to get involved in imagery related to animals. Roth uses interesting layers of rhythm and sounds, like a bird cawing in the background, so kids can imagine that they’re going through a rainforest or a jungle.”



Photo by Caroline Kaye, courtesy of Suzi Tortora

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