Dance Teachers Trending

3 Choreographers Share How to Choose Music That Enhances the Work

"Music chooses me," says Jennifer Weber, founder of the all-female hip-hop group Decadancetheatre. Photo courtesy of Decadancetheatre

Music turns choreographers on. They listen all the time, looking for inspiration. From Bach to rap, there are more than enough choices to satisfy even the most particular. But it's not simply a matter of choosing what they like. When selecting music for movement they have to find something that complements and enhances the work. Music and dance should correspond perfectly. As Balanchine most famously said, “Dance is music made visible." And, “See the music, hear the dance."

Choreographers meet this challenge in a variety of ways. DT spoke with three popular concert dancemakers who've coincidentally tended toward music from the past rather than the current Top 40. Learning how—and why—they choose music makes it easier to understand how they develop their work.


Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes loves old music, favoring tunes from before the '90s for her troupe Monica Bill Barnes & Company. “I like the sense of nostalgia that it evokes," she says. She grew up with her grandparents' record collection and lived with that older music for a long time, developing a close relationship with it. She sees her job as transforming it into something new. To accomplish this, she tries out a selection of music in the studio, seeing what works with the dancers. “There's a lot of trial and error," she says. “The choreography can't reiterate the sound; there has to be a reason to put them together. The dance should help get out the rhythmic patterns. Sometimes I don't decide on the music until a week before a performance. It has to fit as well as the costuming."

She uses live recordings so that her audiences can hear the reactions of another audience to the music. “They act on one another," she says, “and the work becomes a sum of many parts, the music's history embedded in the dance." She recently reworked Suddenly Summer Somewhere for summer festivals in Tarrytown and Chatham, New York. As music, she used recordings of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1963. “They were so funny, so cool, with perfect timing. I study their performances endlessly," she says. She's currently experimenting with Janis Joplin and Puccini operas.

Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Monica Bill Barnes

David Parker, founder of The Bang Group, is a huge fan of vaudeville, musical theater and Hollywood musicals. Trained as a tap dancer, he brings joie de vivre and humor to his pieces. “I think I have a natural sense of rhythm," he says. “It's part of my nervous system. I can naturally organize around time and rhythm." He sometimes looks to '70s and '80s popular music for inspiration, tunes he recalls from his teen years. He chooses dancers who can assimilate the music, taking it into their bodies. Having worked with Amber Sloan, Nic Petry, and his co-director, Jeffrey Kazin, now for many years, he hardly needs to explain what he wants.

Though his pieces are humorous, they aren't easy, being based on cerebral musical structures with latent associations. They function on three levels at once. The rhythmic level must be fulfilled first, but the movements used to create the rhythms are often loaded with meaning. They may include kissing and slapping sounds, percussive embraces and rebuffs that are also affecting on a psychological or emotional level. Thirdly, they involve large body movements, which are atypical of percussive dance forms, making the physical level very demanding as well.

David Parker (far right) and The Bang Group courtesy of The Bang Group

Parker chooses music only after he has developed a substantial amount of movement material. This gives him time to find the work's intrinsic musicality. “I want the dance and music to bounce off each other like Tracy and Hepburn," he says, “sparring partners and lovers both, to strike sparks as well as jibe." Occasionally the choice of music isn't up to him. In 2008, Robin Staff, director of DanceNOW NYC, asked him to create an all-dance version of the old Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun for her Modern [Dance] Musicals series at Joe's Pub in New York. He called it ShowDown. He listened to a lot of recordings, eventually finding that the score recorded by Judy Garland and Howard Keel for the MGM movie version was the most congenial to dancing. “It's a good challenge when I'm given the music," he says. “I learned a lot from choreographing to this piece."

“Music chooses me," says Jennifer Weber, founder of the all-female hip-hop group Decadancetheatre. “I might hear it on a podcast, at a club, a show or at a friend's house, and I immediately have a vision. It has to tell a story." Ultimately, the music must fulfill a lot of requirements. It must be emotional, full of variety and cinematic. She often works with DJs and she likes improvisation. “A dialogue has to develop between the dancers and the music," she says. “It creates a kind of tension that's very exciting."

Although hip-hop music makes up most of her repertory, Weber also uses classical pieces to see what happens when she breaks tradition. One element that defines hip-hop dance is how strongly the movement matches the specific beat of the song. And in hip-hop music, the beat is often very predictable—accenting on the downbeat—and therefore the audience can anticipate where dancers are going to hit an accent even before they move. Although she likes connecting the performers and the audience in this way, she wanted to see what happened when she used a different kind of music. She choreographed to Stravinsky's Firebird in 2004 and to the “Summer" concerto from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons in 2012.

“Since there are no lyrics in the Vivaldi, words weren't there to impose meaning," she says. “I don't like the movement and lyrics to say the same thing anyway. It's redundant. I'll often choreograph a fight to a love song. The juxtaposition makes you see things differently. I don't want to tell audiences what a piece is about; I want them to read their own feelings into them."

She chose The Four Seasons because the music gave her a lot of visual ideas to play with. “We started with the 'Summer' concerto," she says, “and talked a lot about how summer feels, where the sun was onstage and the energy of that last party of the summer when you let everything go before the weather gets cold again." As they started putting hip-hop moves to the classical score, they began noticing a strong connection. The way that they danced allowed them to amplify certain sounds and hidden rhythms that the audience might not have noticed right away.

“We tried to stay true to the sounds we heard," she says, “and use our bodies as translators of the music, interpreting the almost 300-year-old score into the language of today. The dancers loved the challenge. We found the music inspiring, because we were never able to say the usual counts 5, 6, 7, 8. Instead, we had to really listen in a new way and develop our own vocabulary for each section."

“The music drives the work," Weber says. “It keeps us fresh. The more we listen, the more we find in it and the better we dance. It's the heartbeat of what we do."

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Courtesy Just for Kix

As a teacher or studio owner, customer service is a major part of the job. It's easy to dread the difficult sides of it, like being questioned or criticized by an unhappy parent. "In the early years, parent issues could have been the one thing that got me to give up teaching," says Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a teacher and studio owner with over 43 years of experience. "Hang in there—it does get easier."

We asked Clough her top tips for dealing with difficult parents:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network

When the news broke that Prince George, currently third in line for the British throne, would be continuing ballet classes as part of his school curriculum this year, we were as excited as anyone. (OK, maybe more excited.)

This was not, it seems, a sentiment shared by "Good Morning America" host Lara Spencer.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo via Claudia Dean World on YouTube

Most parents start off pretty clueless when it comes to doing their dancer's hair. If you don't want your students coming in with elastic-wrapped bird's nests on their heads, you may want to give them some guidance. But who has time to teach each individual parent how to do their child's hair? Not you! So, we have a solution: YouTube hair tutorials.

These three classical hairdo vids are exactly what your dancers need to look fabulous and ready to work every time they step in your studio.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Via @madisongoodman_ on Instagram

Nationals season is behind us, but we just aren't quite over it yet. We've been thinking a lot about the freakishly talented winners of these competitions, and want to know a bit more about the people who got them to where they are. So, we asked three current national title holders to tell us the most powerful piece of advice their dance teacher ever gave them. What they have to say will melt your heart.

Way to go, dance teachers! Your'e doing amazing things for the rising generation!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Enrollment is an issue that plagues brand-new and veteran studio owners alike. Without a steady stream of revenue from new students coming through your doors, your studio won't survive—no matter how crisp your dancers' technique is or how well-produced your recitals are.

Enrollment—in biz speak, customer acquisition and retention—depends on your business' investment in marketing. How effectively you get the word out about your studio will directly influence the number of people who register. Successful businesses typically use certain tried-and-true marketing strategies to recruit and retain clients or customers. These four studio owners' tricks for kicking enrollment into high gear are modeled after classic marketing techniques.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox