Teaching artist Kelby Brown prefers simple piano accompaniment with long sustaining chords. He finds this helps dancers to concentrate and fill in the space with the steps. "I need fewer notes, less music," he says. It's an approach he learned from his teachers at the School of American Ballet, like Stanley Williams, and from his longtime beloved accompanist, Alla. "Her music in Stanley's class was meditative and transforming to me," says Brown, who recalls she used music as a metronome that provided a steady beat and simple chords without imposing too much. "The dancer needs to figure out the music and how to dance within a phrase," he says.
Finding age-appropriate hip-hop music can be a struggle. Choreographer Afaliah Tribune addresses this common dilemma for hip-hop teachers by making her own original tracks on GarageBand. "I love experimenting with live music, and my students think it's fun, too," says Tribune, who is an adjunct professor of dance at New York University. "There are so many ways we can open up our work when we experiment with sound."
Teachers from coast to coast are pushing students to move outside the constraints of popular music. There is a consensus that the earlier you introduce varied musical forms, the more adept and adaptable a dancer's musicality will be.
New York–based jazz scholar and teacher Melanie George notices that many students' relationships to music can be reductive: They may think exclusively about lyrics or accents. But jazz, for example, is about swinging: an embodied comprehension of instrumentation that only comes with musical acuity. "Students are ready for this specificity, even if we aren't giving it to them," she says. When her students understand that there is a technique to listening, it becomes less about going forward, and more about going deeper into the sound and into their bodies.
While training with Abby Lee Miller in Pittsburgh, Rachel Kreiling underestimated the studio's requirement of enrolling in every class. The versatile curriculum (tap, ballet, hip hop, modern, acro, lyrical and jazz) paired with Miller's unconventional teaching style, since showcased on "Dance Moms," greatly impacted Kreiling's own style and relationship to music. "Abby would play the music and choreograph within the phrasing, but rarely to actual counts," she says. This resulted in a huge positive learning component. "I had to learn musicality myself," says Kreiling, who left the studio at age 18 after graduating, more than a decade before the Lifetime network show aired. "And studying every style became instrumental in my attachment to music," she adds. "I'm always seeking out new genres and diverse songs." After a performing career that included a Broadway-style revue at Tokyo Disney, Revolution (a tap tour with Mike Schulster), and dancing with Alison Chase/Performance and in a Rasta Thomas contemporary ballet, Kreiling began assisting Suzi Taylor at Steps on Broadway in New York City. In 2007, Kreiling, who describes her class as extremely athletic and technical, became full-time NYCDA faculty.
The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."
While Teddy Forance admits that performing with commercial artists like Lady Gaga and Madonna, and in front of 30,000 people, is exhilarating, he is personally drawn to more abstract music when he choreographs. It's a preference that sometimes confounds his contemporaries. "Some of my friends will ask, 'How do you choreograph to music that sounds like silverware fighting?'" he says. "I just tell them one sound at a time," he says.
"Popular music has an overall energy that lends itself to the street-jazz style," says Derek Mitchell. But over the last eight years or so, the choreographer, who also teaches contemporary, jazz funk and musical theater, has noticed a lack of great musicality and interesting lyrics. As a result, Mitchell's music searches often gravitate toward the classic hits from artists like Prince and Janet Jackson. "Rarely do I hear a new song that makes me go, 'Oh, I want to dance to that!'"
This is a charged question that I have heard debated my entire career as a dancer, teacher and director. So why would I pose such a contentious question? Because good dance teaching is at the heart of the RAD and a core value we need to be able to define. I hope this will also promote healthy discussion between all of you who teach every day.