Teaching Tips
Kelby Brown in class. Photo by Chris Coates, courtesy of Brown

Teaching artist Kelby Brown prefers simple piano accompaniment with long sustaining chords. He finds this helps dancers to concentrate and fill in the space with the steps. "I need fewer notes, less music," he says. It's an approach he learned from his teachers at the School of American Ballet, like Stanley Williams, and from his longtime beloved accompanist, Alla. "Her music in Stanley's class was meditative and transforming to me," says Brown, who recalls she used music as a metronome that provided a steady beat and simple chords without imposing too much. "The dancer needs to figure out the music and how to dance within a phrase," he says.

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Stacie Webster at Turn It Up. Photo courtesy of Webster

While contemporary jazz teacher Stacie Webster keeps her choreography rooted in traditional jazz, she likes to incorporate soulful music in the studio. "I gravitate toward deep house music because it's a mixture of house, jazz, funk and soul," says Webster, who has taught for the Broadway Dance Center Children and Teens program since 2007. "It creates a good energy and everyone can relate to it, even kids." In addition to the energetic rhythms that keep the class moving and the vocals that add a storytelling element, the genre also helps students to find their authentic voices. "Even when kids are great technical dancers, they lack a certain maturity. I try to pick music they can connect with," she says.

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Photo courtesy of Tribune

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."

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Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project


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Photo courtesy of Kreiling

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 tour with 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.

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Photo by Mitchell Button, courtesy of the artist

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.

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Photo courtesy of Gandarillas

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."

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Photo by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

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."

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