In Macarena Gandarillas' jazz class at California State University, Fullerton, a sign in the studio reads, "Never underestimate the power of determination." This simple mantra embodies what has made this self-described "danceaholic" such an impactful teacher.
When Gandarillas came to Los Angeles at age 6 with her family from Santiago, Chile, the language barrier was beyond overwhelming—until her mom enrolled her in ballet classes. Gandarillas found an instant love. "There were no Spanish-speaking kids at my school," she says. "But with dance I could communicate with my body. I'd finally found my voice."
When choosing music for tap, Jason Samuels Smith encourages teachers to start with classic jazz music. Improvisation, call and response, and syncopated rhythms embedded in the genre and its history, in general, help students to understand the structure of tap, which is different than other styles of dance. "Tap dancers have the responsibility to be more than just a visual artist," he says. "They're an instrument and a sound."
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."
Photo by spinkickpictures.com, courtesy of Mitchell
"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!'"
Schermoly with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Photo by Jeremy Brick
Despite her traditional ballet training in South Africa, Andrea Giselle Schermoly has always had a wide range of music tastes and sensibilities. "There's always been this other drumbeat in my heart," says Schermoly, who's a three-time Outstanding Choreographer winner at the Youth America Grand Prix. That "other drumbeat" has become an integral layer to her creative process.
Following a series of career-ending injuries while dancing with Nederlands Dans Theater, Schermoly found a new stride choreographing competitive ballet pieces for students at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet in Los Angeles. Since then, she's been commissioned by ballet companies all over the world, exploring all styles of music for her work. "My pieces for New York City Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet were primarily classical," she says, "but I used Jefferson Airplane and a very quirky rock opera for Santa Barbara Dance Theater and a Bob Dylan piece for BalletMet."
When Matt Steffanina needs music inspiration for his class at Millennium Dance Complex or for a dance tutorial video, he asks his nearly 3 million Instagram followers. "I'll read through the comments of my post, listen to suggestions and pick whatever I'm vibing with that day," he says.
Tired of the go-to dark and emotionally charged songs popular within contemporary dance, Marinda Davis has recently been choreographing to Broadway musicals and Frank Sinatra classics. "I'm afraid contemporary could easily become a fad, not a long-lasting genre, if we're not careful," she says. "We have to explore other types of music, versus doing what everyone else keeps doing."
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe
Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."