Teaching Tips

Here's What Teachers Need to Know to​ Make Live Music Successful for Dance Class, According to Musicians

Longtime accompanist Olga Bazilevskaya knows firsthand that when it comes to music, dancers and musicians speak different languages. "Early on in my her career, a teacher asked me to play a six and I was very confused," says Bazilevskaya. "Did she want a 6/8, six counts or a six-bar phrase?" Six-bar phrases don't really exist in classical ballet, Bazilevskaya thought to herself. To a musician, a "polynaise" is the term that Bazilevskaya would've understood best. "If it's not explained or specific," says Bazilevskaya, "it can be confusing to a musician."

When Bazilevskaya first started out playing for ballet classes, she realized quickly that every teacher has their own style and preferences for class, as well as how they communicate what they want. In an effort to fill the, at times, precarious gap between dance teachers and accompanists, Bazilevskaya will lead a Ballet Accompanist Training Intensive March 11–May 6 at Steps on Broadway in New York City.

For teachers not used to working with an accompanist, here are some more helpful hints to make the relationship work for everyone.


Ask any musician who has worked with dancers what the biggest hurdle is for an accompanist, and they are likely to say communication. Dance teachers may know instinctively what they want for a combination or piece of choreography, but translating that so an accompanist will immediately comprehend it, especially if you don't have musical training, can be a challenge. Even in the age of iTunes, dance professionals recognize that working with live music can be rewarding and even exhilarating both for the dancers and the musicians. Yet it can be daunting to put in a musical request to an accompanist when you don't necessarily speak the same language.

“The teacher gives the feeling of the exercise, the accents, the tempos, when he or she demonstrates," says Carl Landa, who's accompanied dance full-time since 1996. “I try to let the students hear that in a spontaneous musical environment."

As a faculty member and accompanist at Skidmore College, Landa not only plays for modern classes, but also composes scores for students, faculty and guest choreographers. He started playing for dance by accident in college, when a teacher who had seen him in concert convinced him to fill in for a missing pianist. “She went '5-6-7-8,' and as soon as I played, I could see the music lifted what they were doing to a whole new place."

Patrick Gallagher plays for a boys class at Ballet Tech in NYC. Photo by Kyle Froman

Worry less about vocabulary and more about rhythmic intent.

“For me the most important thing is the rhythmic clarity and communicating what tempo you want," says Patrick Gallagher, a classically trained pianist and accompanist at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Ballet Tech and Mark Morris Dance Group and Dance Center. “It's easiest when the teacher can show the rhythmic intent of a step, either by singing it or demonstrating."

Gallagher, who collaborated with New York City–based teacher Matthew Powell on a DVD/CD production about classical ballet called Find Your Fifth, notes that teachers can sometimes feel apprehensive about using the correct musical terms.

“Make it simple. Is it a triple or a duple meter? That's the crux of things," he says. “I know teachers are often self-conscious about this, but I describe it as deciding if you want an exercise to have a generous triple or a slightly more urgent duple feeling. Once a musician knows that, then there's a lot of wisdom and experience they can rely on. Instead of getting into counts or meters, I like to ask what is the pulse? Does it feel swing-y, or do you want it to feel more square or rigid? For instance, in grand battement, some people like a duple meter, while others like the swing of a triple meter."

Beyond giving the count

Specific imagery can be helpful for an accompanist who is trying to set the mood along with establishing a rhythm and tempo. “'I want something dark and sparse,' for example," says Landa. “I love it when a teacher gives me a metaphor, like 'running through a field of daisies.'"

Gallagher adds, “And if you don't like something, it's important to identify why you don't like it, of course in a respectful way, always understanding that the musician is scrambling to come up with an alternative. We need to know why you didn't like it, so we don't make the same mistake again."

San Francisco–based composer and musician Albert Mathias has worked for 20 years with postmodern dancer and choreographer Kathleen Hermesdorf. They met in 1995 in the well-known San Francisco dance collective Contraband and have evolved together as they developed their classes. Mathias explains that, although the relationship of teacher and accompanist is often based on the teacher leading by requesting certain rhythms and counting off a combination, he and Hermesdorf created a more collaborative method in which he creates music that continues throughout the class, with no pauses, relieving her of the responsibility of dictating counts.

More than “that person in the corner"

Knowing what a teacher likes to hear—I really enjoy opera—or doesn't like—no drums, please—enables Mathias, whose musical setup is usually a combination of a laptop drumkat and Zendrum, to create a sound environment that fits what the teacher is trying to achieve.

“I know what Kathleen likes, and I try to inspire her," he says. “It's more important in a way to inspire the teacher than the students, because when she is inspired, the rest of the room will follow."

From Mathias' point of view, the accompanist can shape how effective the teacher is in the classroom. Experienced accompanists are also keen observers with one eye on the teacher for cues and the other on the students. Because they don't have to focus on any particular individual student, they can often have a very objective sense of the overall wash of energy in the room, as Mathias puts it.

“We both have the common focus of trying to make what's happening in the room better, and the more the accompanist understands what a teacher is trying to do, the more focused it becomes," says Mathias.

For that to work, though, it's key to allow the accompanist to be more than “that person in the corner."

“The teacher must respect that there is live music being created and not talk over or give a 'play-by-play' during the exercise," says Landa. “Some teachers get used to treating a CD as music to constantly talk over. When the music is live, how can the dancers possibly internalize the sound when the teacher talks? The dancer gets out on the stage to perform and has no idea how to internalize it when the teacher is not talking."

Click here for more info about Olga Bazilevskay's workshop at Steps on Broadway.


News
Courtesy Russell

Gregg Russell, an Emmy-nominated choreographer known for his passionate and energetic teaching, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 22, at the age of 48.

While perhaps most revered as a master tap instructor and performer, Russell also frequently taught hip-hop and musical theater classes, showcasing a versatility that secured him a successful career onstage and in film and television, both nationally and abroad.


His resumé reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Russell worked with celebrities such as Bette Midler and Gene Kelly; coached pop icon Michael Jackson and Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane; danced in the classic films Clueless and Newsies; performed on "Dancing with the Stars" and the Latin Grammy Awards; choreographed for Sprite and Carvel Ice Cream; appeared with music icons Reba McEntire and Jason Mraz; and graced stages from coast to coast, including Los Angeles' House of Blues and New York City's Madison Square Garden.

But it was as an educator that Russell arguably found his calling. His infectious humor, welcoming aura and inspirational pedagogy made him a favorite at studios, conventions and festivals across the U.S. and in such countries as Australia, France, Honduras and Guatemala. Even students with a predilection for classical styles who weren't always enthused about studying a percussive form would leave Russell's classes grinning from ear to ear.

"Gregg understood from a young age how to teach tap and hip hop with innovation, energy and confidence," says longtime dance educator and producer Rhee Gold, who frequently hired Russell for conferences and workshops. "He gave so much in every class. There was nothing I ever did that I didn't think Gregg would be perfect for."

Growing up in Wooster, Ohio, Russell was an avid tap dancer and long-distance runner who eventually told his mother, a dance teacher, that he wanted to exclusively pursue dance. She introduced him to master teachers Judy Ann Bassing, Debbi Dee and Henry LeTang, whom he credited as his three greatest influences.

"I was instantly smitten, though competitive with him," says longtime friend and fellow choreographer Shea Sullivan, a protégé of LeTang. "Over the years we developed a mutual respect and admiration for each other. He touched so many lives. This is a great loss."

After graduating from Wooster High School, Russell was a scholarship student at Edge Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles, where he lived for many years. He founded a company, Tap Sounds Underground, taught at California Dance Theatre and even returned to Edge as an instructor, all while maintaining a busy travel schedule.

A beloved member of the tap community, Russell not only spoke highly of his contemporaries, but earned his place among them as a celebrated performing artist and teacher. With friend Ryan Lohoff, with whom he appeared on CBS's "Live to Dance," he co-directed Tap Into The Network, a touring tap intensive founded in 2008.

"His humor, giant smile and energy in his eyes are the things I will remember most," says Lohoff. "He inspired audiences and multiple generations of dancers. I am grateful for our time together."

Russell was on the faculty of numerous dance conventions, such as Co. Dance and, more recently, Artists Simply Human. He was known as a "teacher's teacher," having discovered at the young age of 18 that he enjoyed passing on his knowledge to other dance educators. He wrote tap teaching tips for Dance Studio Life magazine and led classes for fellow instructors whenever he was on tour.

In 2018, he opened a dance studio, 3D Dance, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he had been living most recently.

Russell leaves behind a wife, Tessa, and a 5-year-old daughter, Lucy.


"His success was his family and his daughter," says Gold. "They changed his entire being. He was a happy man."

GoFundMe campaigns to support Russell's family can be found here and here.

Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Blackstone

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Betty Jones in The Moor's Pavane, shot for Dance Magazine's "Dancers You Should Know" series in 1955. Zachary Freyman, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow

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Betty May Jones was born on June 11, 1926 in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and moved with her family to the Albany, New York, area, where she began taking dance classes. Just after she turned 15 in 1941, she began serious ballet study at Jacob's Pillow, which was under the direction of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova for the season. Over the next three summers as a scholarship student, Jones expanded her range and became an integral part of Jacob's Pillow. Among her duties was working in the kitchen, where her speedy efficiency earned her the nickname of "Lightning."

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