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

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