Finding age-appropriate hip-hop music can be a struggle. Choreographer Afaliah Tribune addresses this common dilemma for hip-hop teachers by making her own original tracks on GarageBand. "I love experimenting with live music, and my students think it's fun, too," says Tribune, who is an adjunct professor of dance at New York University. "There are so many ways we can open up our work when we experiment with sound."
Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project
For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.
While training with Abby Lee Miller in Pittsburgh, Rachel Kreiling underestimated the studio's requirement of enrolling in every class. The versatile curriculum (tap, ballet, hip hop, modern, acro, lyrical and jazz) paired with Miller's unconventional teaching style, since showcased on "Dance Moms," greatly impacted Kreiling's own style and relationship to music. "Abby would play the music and choreograph within the phrasing, but rarely to actual counts," she says. This resulted in a huge positive learning component. "I had to learn musicality myself," says Kreiling, who left the studio at age 18 after graduating, more than a decade before the Lifetime network show aired. "And studying every style became instrumental in my attachment to music," she adds. "I'm always seeking out new genres and diverse songs." After a performing career that included a Broadway-style revue at Tokyo Disney, Revolution (a tap tourwith Mike Schulster), and dancing with Alison Chase/Performance and in a Rasta Thomas contemporary ballet, Kreiling began assisting Suzi Taylor at Steps on Broadway in New York City. In 2007, Kreiling, who describes her class as extremely athletic and technical, became full-time NYCDA faculty.
Dusty Button prefers music with a range. "There needs to be a beginning, a climax and a strong ending. Like a movie," she says. The award-winning dancer, who joined American Ballet Theatre's second company, ABT II, at 18, has always been drawn to lyric-free tracks filled with dynamic phrasing, rhythms and composition. "Whether it's the violin, piano or cello, instrumental music gives me more inspiration. I want the dancers and the audience to feel something new," she adds.
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!'"