Theory & Practice: Help Students Hear, Understand and Show the Music in Their Dancing

Michelle Barber with students at Broadway Dance CenterNot all dancers are musically inclined—some even have trouble keeping a steady beat throughout a combination. Without a basic understanding of music, these students will struggle to dance in an ensemble or with a partner or use phrasing and dynamics. But with your guidance, they can learn to develop musicality. Here, three educators share their strategies for helping students find the beat, recognize musical forms and better reflect in their dancing what they hear.

Choose Your Music Wisely

Students can learn about musical structure in class if the music you use has a good technical framework—appropriate tempo, time signature, preparation and finishing music and phrasing that matches the construction of each exercise. “Music that doesn’t finish at the same time as the exercise is not going to provide students with a kinesthetic understanding,” says Carol Roderick, assistant professor at Colorado State University and faculty at The Harid Conservatory in Florida. “When a class is well-designed, the music will inform their dancing and help them initiate, sustain and resolve movement.”

Sam Weber, a tap instructor at ODC and City Dance Studios in San Francisco, often varies the music so that dancers do the same exercise in different musical contexts. “They learn about musical form when the structure is the same, but the tunes are different,” he says. “If the chorus is 32 bars and the pattern is A-A-B-A, the form holds, regardless of what the tune is. Dancers learn to hear that.” Using different music will also keep students more engaged and prevent them from tuning out.

If Possible, Have a Musician Play for Class

“Live music vibrates on a different frequency in the body than recorded music. It carries much more than tempo and phrasing; it carries our memory,” says Roderick. “If I can’t remember something, I put on the music and jump up and do it.” Live accompaniment will help produce the right response in the musculature of the students, versus recordings that sound canned and predictable. “If I have a pianist in the room,” she says, “I can be as precise and flexible as I’d like, in terms of how I approach the music.”

If you can’t afford a regular accompanist, there are other ways to craft appropriate and inspiring music for your classes. Compile a wish list of selections and hire someone to record a CD for you. Pay a pianist to come just once or twice a week, and rotate classes so that all students benefit from the experience. Or create a line item in your budget for a pianist who will record music for each class level over the course of a year.

Carol Roderick of Harid ConservatoryThe Importance of Counting—and Not Counting

“Be very simple and make sure students know exactly what the counts are in strict time,” says Weber. Sometimes he uses a metronome to enforce a steady tempo. He suggests asking students to count how many bars of music they’ve just danced, or clap a particular note in the middle of a phrase. “Make a combination and count it,” he says. “Give a grand allégro that’s in a 3/4—a waltz—and talk about how every strong movement occurs on a one because that’s the strong beat. If you don’t explain it, people might not understand.”

Michelle Barber, instructor at Broadway Dance Center, gives musical cues, sometimes counts or lyrics, and dances it first, along with the students. But she changes her strategy if she sees that some dancers are still rushing or falling behind. “In that case I try not to count for them,” she says. “If they get stuck on the counts, they’re not listening to the music and trying to pick up the subtleties that I want them to hear.”

If students still have a hard time dancing to the music, there might be a cognitive issue to consider. Make sure they’re paying attention and that they can hear and see well. “When I have a student who can’t do it, I give them a visual. I stand in front of them and snap my fingers to see if that makes a difference,” says Roderick. “Kids who are not naturally expressive when it comes to music can learn to understand what’s happening in the exercise. Call their attention to it until it’s right, if it takes a week or a year. It will happen.” DT

Julie Diana retired from Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014. She and her husband Zachary Hench now direct Juneau Dance Theatre in Alaska.

Extra Credit

Encourage students to try these activities outside of class.

Play an instrument. “When dancers pick up an instrument or sit at the piano, they’re doing what they ask of their bodies in class,” says Carol Roderick of The Harid Conservatory.

Take tap classes. “Tap is good because when you start to rush, you hear the sounds that are out of sync with the music,” says tap teacher Sam Weber. “We’re adding a percussion line to the score.”

Choreograph. “When you choreograph, you have to listen to the music,” says Michelle Barber of Broadway Dance Center. “I encourage improvisation because the students have to make sense of what they hear.”

Photos from top: by Tiffany Rae Photography, courtesy of Barber; courtesy of Roderick

Don’t miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.