Striking the Right Chord

How to best work with a live accompanist

Accompanist Della Enns in class at Cincinnati Ballet

In this age of iPods and CD players, it can be easy to forget about the joys of working with an accompanist. Having a live musician in class offers a chance to enhance students’ musicality—and for teacher and accompanist to create a true partnership.

But not all teachers know how to take advantage of that opportunity; they forget that accompanists can be more than just background music. Just as a dancer has to put her faith into her partner, teachers and accompanists must trust that the other is committed to creating an exhilarating classroom experience. The following advice can help you avoid common pitfalls and build a creative, fulfilling environment for your students.

Staying in Tune

Communication and respect are the key ingredients to a productive teacher-accompanist relationship. “One day, my drummer, whom I used to introduce to the kids as Mr. Grant, pulled me aside and told me he preferred to be called Brother Sean,” says Andrea Markus, who teaches African-based modern dance at New York University. “I was glad that he felt comfortable enough to tell me that.” The simple change made both of them feel more at ease in class.

Be sure to let the accompanist know what you need, too. “Many teachers are reluctant to communicate because they are not used to working with accompanists,” says Della Enns, an accompanist with the Cincinnati Ballet for the last 13 years. “Don’t be afraid to tell us what you like and don’t like.”

Otis Gray, an accompanist with Dallas Ballet Center in Dallas, Texas, and the Chamberlain School of Performing Arts in Plano, TX, adds that teachers sometimes need to be patient with accompanists.

“There is really no place for musicians to train for playing in dance class,” Gray says.

Sometimes teachers are insecure about working with accompanists because teachers’ musical knowledge is limited. Enns suggests that, if possible, teachers take an introductory music theory course at a local community college. Knowing some music basics can help both your relationship with your accompanist and your teaching in general, since music is the root of most dance. But if you’re unsure about how many measures are in a phrase or what tempo you want, accompanists recommend singing out loud before beginning an exercise. “Singing is the best way for teachers to communicate music when they are unsure about what they want,” says Jay Harragin, music coordinator for the New World School of the Arts in Miami.

Building Students’ Musicality

One of the greatest benefits of working with live accompanists is that they can help young dancers hone their musical skills. But teachers should be sure not to stand in the way of that process.

“Counting out loud during an exercise, while usually intended to increase clarity and energy, is actually destructive in several ways,” says Robert Benford, associate professor and music director for the Rutgers University dance department in New Jersey. “It represents a missed opportunity to increase the dancers’ abilities to perceive challenging rhythms in music and respond to them deeply. Also, when the instructor is clapping, she’s really functioning as the prime accompanist, with the musician reduced to the role of supporting the instructor’s voice with background music.”

Benford suggests that there be at least one exercise where the instrumental music and the movement are allowed to flourish with no comments added from the instructor. “In these moments, you can let the music carry the dancers away, and vice versa,” Benford says. During the center adagio, for example, hold all your comments and corrections until the end of the exercise, allowing the students to get lost in the music.

“Today, music seems to be all about simple, heavy beats,” Harragin says. “It’s easy for people to lose their sense of lyricism.” That’s a trend teachers can sometimes unintentionally perpetuate.

“Frequently, teachers ask me for uncomplicated, repetitive meters and tempos,” Benford says. “That prevents dance students from fully engaging in the subject of rhythm.” Instead, work with your accompanist to draw out the more nuanced sides of your students’ budding musicality, by occasionally requesting tempo and style changes that force students to adapt their movement to what they are hearing.

“When you’re planning your class, make sure you include the accompanist in the plan,” Markus says. Once a true bond between teacher and accompanist is formed, the dynamics of the class change. “When the musician and the teacher are both enjoying what they are doing, the kids really pick up on that energy and it shows on their faces and in their movement,” Markus says.

“If everything goes right,” Harrigan says, “you can have a wonderful experience that can move everyone in the class to a higher artistic level.” DT

 

Katie Morris is a freelance writer and dance teacher based in Dallas.

Photo: Accompanist Della Enns in class at Cincinnati Ballet. (courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet)

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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