Music with Latin flair

Ashlé Dawson’s versatility has created plenty of opportunities, including a spot in the top four on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 1 and a contract with Cirque du Soleil. Some of her favorite dance moments, though, were spent socializing. “When I moved to L.A., I went salsa dancing sometimes seven nights a week,” she says. “I would come home and fall asleep with my heels on. The music was infectious.” Those self-taught, dawn-breaking lessons led to tours with major Puerto Rican reggaeton singers abroad.

In her Latin fusion class at Broadway Dance Center and the Ailey Extension, Dawson blends all her specialties: commercial jazz, whacking, house, hip hop and Latin. Whether students are looking to loosen up or get a good workout, Dawson says one of the class’ learning curves is dancing in heels. For those working in commercial dance or auditioning for In the Heights, heels require a whole different technique. “You have to learn how to manipulate your muscles,” she says. “Then you can pull up through the inner arch instead of what is usually taught in technique, over the ball of the foot.” DT

WARMING UP

“I use ‘La Melodia’ for warm-up and isolations. He’s from Panama and has a happy, summery vibe—a great way to start off class. For sit-ups, ‘El Teke Teke’ is a motivating, in-your-face song, but lighthearted enough for people to laugh and have a good time.”

Artist: Joey Montana

Song: “La Melodia”

Artist: Crazy Design and Carlitos Wey

Song: “El Teke Teke”

SOCIAL SOUNDS

“Even though most people listening to these songs haven’t heard them, they tap into a club vibe, so the sound is familiar. They’re good for any portion of class—warm-up, isolations and choreography, too.”

Artist: Wisin & Yandel

Album: Líderes

Artist: El Shick

Song: “Prendelo”

FAMILIAR LATIN TRACKS

“‘Stand By Me’ is a Spanish cover of the original. It’s fun because we can break down the words together. I use it for bachata. Don Omar is one of my favorite artists. He has a commercial sound that you can do anything to: rumba, salsa or samba.”

Artist: Prince Royce

Song: “Stand By Me”

Artist: Don Omar and Lucenzo

Song: “Danza Kuduro”

Photo by Franklin Liranzo, courtesy of Ashlé Dawson

Music for contemporary dance and improvisation

Even during his studies at the prestigious School of American Ballet, Alex Ketley knew his ultimate goal was to become a choreographer. So after just four years of dancing with the San Francisco Ballet, he abandoned performance to follow that initial creative spark. “There’s something very romantic about being saturated in your own artistic process,” he says. “It was dreamy and fun. I was completely unstable financially. I had no idea what I was doing. It felt so open and crazy.”

That in-the-moment feeling is what he’s trying to impart to his students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, where dancers learn current contemporary repertoire and try their hands at choreographing. Aside from ballet, Ketley teaches a class called Hot Mess, which is all about getting students to open up, act crazy, be vulnerable and let go of their technique. “I might ask them to growl like a dinosaur that has spasms in its body, while acting like a cheerleader. And it’s proved to be a tool to get into their playful sides,” he says. “So much of dance training is about the control of the body. But it’s really valuable to feel out of control. And everyone has to drop the idea of pleasing me, because there’s no way to do it well.” DT

Artist: Tommy Four Seven

Song: “Armed 3”

“I play a lot of really aggressive electronica in the beginning of rehearsals, partially because I want dancers to root down into their bodies and get out of their heads. The aggression and momentum in this music gives the studio a sense that we’re going to have fun, and that dancing doesn’t always have to be pleasant. It can feel messy and lost and still be radiant.”

Artist: Philip Jeck

Song: “Veil”

“This track has a lot of weight to it. And it makes me feel that all the movement we do is important. Each small decision and choice has significance. Movement has the most gravity when it’s invested.”

 

 

Artist: Gregory Alan Isakov

Song: “Master & a Hound”

“I’m interested in the full span of emotions in dancers. Something about this track makes room for fragments of emotion that we can attach to when exploring movement.”

 

 

Artist: Lil Wayne and Cory Gunz

Song: “6 Foot 7 Foot”

“I’m a big fan of hip hop because I’m obsessed with rhythm. Rappers are unique architects of how our perception of time can be squashed, drawn out, shattered and restructured. And hip hop always gets the room bouncing.”

 

Artist: TV on the Radio

Song: “Wolf Like Me”

“I grew up skateboarding and listening to punk music, so I feel nostalgic toward that culture, and sometimes, I want to bring that into the studio. It feels important to acknowledge the freedoms of childhood against the seriousness that dance practice can have.”

 

Photo by Andrea Basile, courtesy of Alex Ketley

Music for contemporary ballet

Armitage Gone! Dance director Karole Armitage at work

Nicknamed the “punk ballerina,” Karole Armitage, artistic director of Armitage Gone! Dance, makes work rooted in the ballet vocabulary, accented with modern’s grounded, off-kilter sensibilities. It’s a taste she developed from her contrasting performance career with the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. “I’ve always been interested in taking the classical form into new dimensions,” she says, “using the intellectual ideas of modern dance and the refinement and virtuosity of ballet, and thinking about the geometry of dance beyond horizontal and linear lines.”

Armitage, who has also created work on companies including The Washington Ballet, Paris Opéra Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, maps out much of her choreography before she steps foot into her company’s rehearsal space in Jersey City, New Jersey. “I try to give it a great deal of thought before I get in the studio, and I will have a pretty good sense of structure and vocab,” she says. Still, much of it is flipped upside down once it is put onto the dancers’ bodies. “The energy the dancers bring to the choreography makes me see it in a different way. They help reinvent it. Embroider it. Create themes and variations. Turn solos into duets,” she says. “Suddenly, everything I began with gets thrown out the window.” DT

Artist: Bobby Watson

Album: Quiet As It’s Kept

“He turns music into a prism—you’re hearing it up close and from far away, right, left and bottom. It’s an inspiring way to look at music as a choreographer and really opens the way I think about using space.”

 

 

Composer: Roberto De Simone

Album: Made in Naples

“This 14th-century music mixes Arabic, Roman and Norman influences. It’s so full of guts and life. I love listening to that because it unleashes a primal side that’s raw, visceral and deeply human.”

 

 

Composer: Béla Bartók

Work: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta

“Bartók made music in a way unlike anyone else has. It’s so dramatic, yet so pure. He builds to such extreme crescendos. It’s useful to understand how, as a choreographer, you can push drama and tension.”

 

 

Artist: Kanye West

Album: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“Kanye is just delicious. I don’t really listen to it for the words, but for the music and rhythms. It’s so inventive because of its drive, which gives you so much energy.”

 

 

Artist: Fela Kuti

Album: Chop ’N’ Quench

“I love African pop music because there’s so much extraordinary work in it. The way the melody and rhythms work together sort of takes you to a transcendent place where you can just let go.”

 

 

Photo by Kyle Froman

Photo by Jeremy Davis, courtesy of Al Blackstone

Shifting between hard-hitting jazz and gooey contemporary movement, borrowing modern dance's bare feet and layering character portrayals as bold as those found on Broadway, Al Blackstone's choreography samples several techniques. “I always like to tell the story that my mom, dad and sister were truly my teachers because they surrounded me with the different styles of the dance world," says Blackstone, who literally grew up at his mother's Denise Daniele Dance Studio, then attached to their house in New Jersey. “My mother would take me to see a Broadway show, my dad taught me ballroom and my sister was training at Ailey."

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Music for modern and contemporary choreography

Zoe Scofield

After training at Walnut Hill School for the Arts and working with several modern dance choreographers, Zoe Scofield called it quits. “I had so much Balanchine training in my body, but I didn’t feel like a ballet dancer anymore. And on the other hand, I couldn’t find a modern dance style that felt right,” she says. Soon after, at an arts festival in Seattle, she met Juniper Shuey, who convinced her to venture back into the field as a choreographer. “It sounds cheesy, but we saw each other across the room and it was like, click,” says Scofield.

Today, the husband-and-wife team creates modern dance works choreographed by Scofield, with visual installations by both. Their seven-year collaboration zoe/juniper has been fruitful—they’ve toured nationally, and Seattle’s On the Boards will produce their work next spring. But Scofield admits that there were initial difficulties when working with her spouse. “Separating the personal from the artistic is very intense,” says Scofield. “I had to learn that when he doesn’t agree with an idea, it’s not a criticism of who I am personally. And because the work is very emotionally and mentally involved, that’s very difficult to do.” The positives? “We know each other so well and constantly inspire one another. We have solidified a commitment to each other’s artistic lives.” DT

 

Artist: The Blood Brothers

Album: Crimes

“Morgan Henderson, who was in The Blood Brothers, writes a lot of our music. I like his layering of different textures and ideas. And he changes them up a lot. You have a good idea of what’s going to happen, and then he flips it, which is an interesting way to think about choreographing, too.”

 

Artist: PJ Harvey

Album: White Chalk

“I love music with complex rhythms and arrangements, because my choreography always has its own internal musicality. She makes it fun to play with timing. There’s also a primal quality to her work that I’m really drawn to.”

 

Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach

Album: Glenn Gould Plays Bach: The Goldberg Variations

“The sparseness in this is so rare—there’s so much room inside of the piece. It kind of creates its own world that the listener can live in, and I think that’s why it has survived for so long.”

 

 

Artist: Greg Haines

Piece: “Marc’s Descent”

“This sounds so epic, and there’s such a swelling and welling in it that moves me. He pushes the idea of how long you can allow music or dance to build, which is something I’m working on in my choreography.”

 

 

Artist: Die Antwoord

Album: $O$

“This is a South African band. They’re very raw and a little odd, which I like. A lot of their songs have a strong underlying tempo that I can play on top of to make my own intricate timing."

 

 

Photo by Juniper Shuey, courtesy of Zoe Scofield

Music for rhythm tap

When Mike Minery’s students enter Wednesday tap class at For Dancers Only in Little Falls, New Jersey, they already know what technique drills are coming. “Soon after I first started teaching, I realized I was just coming up with combinations. I wasn’t really teaching technique,” says Minery. “Now I’ve made an exercise for every step we use in a combination. We do them each week and add on when the students get more advanced.” The tailored phrases allow the dancers to continue polishing their most basic skills while advancing their tap vocabulary.

As a teacher with JUMP, Minery gets a solid gauge of tappers’ technical pitfalls. His biggest gripe is musicality, finding that students often speed through combinations, equating pace with skill level. “Tap gives you an adrenaline that makes you want to rush. But slow down, play with the melody and pick out the accents,” he says. “That’s the most unique way to stand out.” DT

Artist: Oscar Peterson

Album: A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra

“He’s phenomenal and phrases his solos so well. It’s more for myself—when I’m in the studio improvising and choreographing—but also for exercises in class.”

 

 

Artist: Bruno Mars

Album: Unorthodox Jukebox

“Tap can be fun and cool. It doesn’t have to fit the stereotype that it’s old-timey stuff. ‘Natalie’ and ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ are my favorites on Mars’ new CD. There’s a funk or Motown feel to the album that goes well with tap. There are some bad words, but I always edit them out.”

 

Artist: Batida do Corpo

Album: Body Percussion

“I recently did a group piece to this. I use a lot of world music to vary it up. This is rhythmically really interesting. The bonus track ‘Amazonas’ features Fatboy Slim.”

 

 

Artist: Jason Mraz

Song: “You and I Both”

“Jason Mraz is my favorite artist. ‘You and I Both’ is great for a duet between a guy and a girl. (I’ve performed it with my girlfriend.) It’s very quick and percussive with a lot of counterrhythms and partial rhythms.”

 

 

Artist: Dee Dee Bridgewater

Album: Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver

“She’s kind of a modern day Ella Fitzgerald and probably the best jazz vocalist right now. I’ve used this for solos for girls. She has great phrasing and a nice edge. She scats a lot, so you can take her rhythms and match the choreography.”

 

Artist: Josh Vietti

Song: “Green Light”

“I choreograph so much that I really try to run the gamut of every type of music—I don’t want to hit the same note over and over. This is like hip-hop violin. A lot of his stuff is very funky.”

 

 

Photo courtesy of JUMP

Music for ballet class

At first glance, Arturo Fernandez’s ballet class seems like any other. But by the end of barre, the dancers have explored their complete range of motion, transitioning between parallel and turnout. In center, he asks dancers to change their facing and begin to use more expressive, contemporary port de bras. “Ballet always seems to be about the legs, but it’s important to use your whole body,” says Fernandez, ballet master at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, who teaches at the LINES Dance Center and warms up the company on tour. “Sometimes people forget that. Even the company does.”

Though Fernandez is classically trained, he spent over a decade performing with San Francisco modern dance troupe ODC. That experience helped him identify what some bunheads lack—an articulation of certain body parts and a sense of spontaneity. “In modern, I found that I was using a lot of muscles that I didn’t ever use in classical ballet, as well as the brain,” he says. “I try to marry ballet and modern because I want my dancers to have the freedom to improvise and experiment, even in technique class.” DT

Ballet Basics

Artist: Lynn Stanford

Album: Music for a Ballet Class

Artist: Robert Long

Album: Ballet Etudes: Music for Classroom Use and Private Study

“These aren’t always very interesting, but they really set dancers up for a solid class. They’re basic, but grounding.”

Rhythm and Timing

Artist: Rudy Apffel

Album: Music for Ballet Class, Vol. 3

Artist: Daniel Boudewyns

Album: Beautiful Music for Ballet Class, Vol. 1

“These CDs are traditional but give you a great sense of rhythm. Many of the tracks are long enough so that you can do both sides of the combination without stopping. Rudy has some up-tempo stuff that really gives you a sense of rhythm. Daniel has some great grand battement songs—you can really feel the downbeat.”

Creative Freedom

Artist: Ellina Akimova

Album: Music for Ballet Class IV

Artist: Aly Tejas

Album: Music from Within: a Tribute to Martha Mahr

“Ellina’s CD gives me a wonderful feeling when I create combinations—there is so much space inside the music and more freedom for the dancers to play. Aly’s tracks are really short, but so beautiful and heartfelt. It’s great to use before a performance because the songs bring out a lot of emotion from the beginning.”

Photo courtesy of Arturo Fernandez

Music for street jazz dance

Rhapsody James and her company R.E.D.

Rhapsody James has choreographed for some of the music industry’s top artists: Beyoncé, the Jonas Brothers and The Pussycat Dolls, to name a few. And though she’s thankful for these successes, she admits that the work wasn’t always what she had dreamed it would be. “I wanted those gigs. I was chasing them. But once I got there, I found that those jobs aren’t as fulfilling because of the restrictions,” says James, who wasn’t always given choreographic freedom while working under production directors. “They were always, ‘She can’t dance,’ or ‘I don’t like the concept.’ I get that it’s a business, but there were too many cooks in the kitchen.”

While teaching at Broadway Dance Center and Monsters of HipHop, James has been working with her company R.E.D. (Rhapsody En Dance), a project she had put on hiatus until recently because she didn’t yet understand how her work fit into the concert scene. “When I was growing up, hip hop was hip hop and jazz was jazz,” she says. “Today, people always ask me, ‘What’s your style?’ I finally understand that I shouldn’t try to be a certain type of choreographer. I mean, I’m Rhapsody. There’s really no label for it.” DT

Artist: Jessie Ware

Song: “Running”

“This is the first song I play during my warm-up. It has the undertone of a house groove but is slow enough to still be feel-good. Every time I play this, people just start doing head rolls. There’s something about it that makes you focus.”

 

Artist: Rihanna

Song: “Diamonds”

“This is one of my top-five favorite songs right now. I feel like Rihanna really took a risk with this song. It has a new sound that draws up emotion when you dance. And I love the words.”

 

 

Artist: Lapalux

Song: “Strangling You With the Cord”

“This shows my crazy love for musicality. It has a lot of interesting beats that force me to create awkward timing or move in a less structured way. It has a hip-hop base fused with electronic music. And it’s a little darker than a lot of songs I use regularly.”

 

Artist: Sevyn Streeter

Song: “I Like It”

“I’m choreographing for this artist right now. I’m such an ’80s/’90s kid and this has that feel. Plus, she can sing her butt off! Her voice is so incredible that it keeps me on the up-and-up—it gives me hope for the future of popular music.”

 

Artist: Friendly Fires

Song: “Show Me Lights”

“This has that Euro ’80s thing going on—the perfect blend between a funky sound mixed with pop. When I hear it, I can only think of hip-hop street jazz. It’s perfect for the style.”

 

 

Photo courtesy of Rhapsody James

 

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