Technique: Marty Kudelka

How I teach hip hop

Marty Kudelka and student Alyssa Cintron

Versatile and slick footwork paired with smooth upper-body strength defines the movement style of commercial choreographer Marty Kudelka, which he says is a fusion of many dance forms. His dynamic yet unforced manner is visible in Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” music video, in which dancers punctuate rhythms with their torsos and arms as they float through space—their feet skimming the floor’s surface. Kudelka’s direct and clear movement style might best be described as unaffected and translates to his class combinations as well.

“Simple is better,” he says, as he prepares to teach a master class at the Ailey Studios in New York City as part of the Monsters of HipHop convention tour. “Choreography does not have to be brain surgery.” What makes a combination brilliant, he says, is the honesty behind the phrase. He is not impressed by how many movements students can fit into a short amount of time, “I’d rather see quality over quantity.”

Although Kudelka doesn’t teach a warm-up, he’s adamant that a student enter his class prepared to dance and with a solid technical foundation. “The ideal dancer has training and a funky side,” he says. “You need to know where your center is and understand how to move strongly from your core,” in order to perform his combinations with his signature smooth and relaxed demeanor. Although his choreography is very shape-oriented, Kudelka emphasizes that being able to control elements of a movement is key—like hitting it sharply as opposed to calmly halting the flow. And while cool, sharp and relaxed are centerpieces of Kudelka’s movement vocabulary, it’s the musical specificity that sets his classes apart.

“Any combination I teach will always be to a specific song,” Kudelka says. Before creating a combination, he listens to the track numerous times, studying the piece. “I listen to each instrument, trying to find stray sounds. I want to know the music better than the producer. Then, I stand up and start to freestyle.” This method not only adds texture to his work choreographically, it also encourages students to be attentive to detail.

Here, Kudelka and student Alyssa Cintron demonstrate eight counts of a combination set to “Addicted,” by Ne-Yo.

Originally from Dallas, Texas, Marty Kudelka has choreographed for artists including Janet Jackson, Pink, and *NSYNC. He co-choreographed Janet Jackson’s “All for You” world tour, and he was principal choreographer and director of Justin Timberlake’s “Future Sex/Love Sounds” tour. His choreography for Timberlake’s music video “My Love” won the 2007 MTV Video Music Award for best choreography. Recently, Kudelka traveled to India to choreograph the 2010 Bollywood film, Chance Pe Dance. A master teacher on the Monsters of HipHop convention tour, Kudelka also teaches at Millennium Dance Complex and the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio, both in Los Angeles, California.

Alyssa Cintron, 17, from Fall River, Massachusetts, has studied with Kudelka for the past three years.


Photo by Ramon Estevanell at the Ailey Studios

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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