Teaching Tips
Denise Wall with her assistant, Kieran Macdonald. Photo courtesy NUVO

An assistant is a teacher's secret weapon. They're an extension of the instructor's teaching style, a positive role model for students, and a key to maintaining class structure and order.

But the role requires much more than just being a great dancer. An effective assistant must be highly responsible and creative, possess organizational and leadership qualities, and be able to take disciplinary action if necessary.

"The assistant needs to be someone who's not selfish," says Denise Wall, co-owner of Denise Wall's Dance Energy in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "They need to be someone who pays attention and enjoys helping people."

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Music
Evolve Photography, courtesy Buckley

With the exception of heavy metal, Grace Buckley has choreographed to almost every genre of music—from pop to country, soulful indie rock to R&B.

Buckley, who's been a New York City Dance Alliance faculty member since 2012, describes her tastes as a "mixed bag," with one caveat: She prefers lyrics.

When she first started teaching at her hometown studio in Westchester County, New York, this instinct seemed unfounded and simplistic.

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Music
Mary Mallaney/USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, 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.

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Music
Courtesy Alsop

For choreographer and teacher James Alsop to choose a piece of music for class, it has to make her groove.

"You're sitting down and your body can't help but to move," she says. A heel tap or a subtle sway of the hips—any organic movement that manifests from her gut—is the sign of a stellar, dance-worthy song.

This visceral reaction to music can be unpredictable, says Alsop, who's choreographed for artists like J. Lo and Beyoncé, for the Netflix series "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Soundtrack," and for The Devil Wears Prada, set to open on Broadway in 2021. "It can happen with Kimbra or something real hood. It just depends on what moves me. Right now, it's Afrobeats," she says.

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Music
Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

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Music
Courtesy Goodwin

For Jaimie Goodwin, finding new music is like a scavenger hunt. Using Spotify's Discover Weekly feature (which recommends new music based on her preferences), she will spend a day listening to playlists, exploring new artists and waiting for inspiration to strike.

"I'll play a ton of songs until one absolutely moves me and I have to rewind," she says. This sweet spot, says Goodwin, who's a faculty member for REVEL Dance Convention and Titans of Dance, tends to be underground artists with raw, gritty vocals and strong bass lines. "I'm usually drawn to authentic music that makes me feel something," she says.


The "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 3 top 10 finalist, known for her flawless extensions and control, learned to hear music differently from her childhood dance partner, Travis Wall, who began choreographing her solos when she was 13. "He introduced me to hearing more than just the vocals," she says, and helped her to begin noticing the phrases and accents between the lyrics.

This expanded Goodwin's musical interpretation, resulting in her feeling a deeper connection to the movement. She infused a new layer of passion into her artistry, one that she incorporates into her work as a teacher and choreographer. "Even though I'm a technician, steps can become sterile and boring unless you add emotion," she says. "Music with the right dynamics can help bring that out in dancers of all ages."

Goodwin knows picking music can be frustrating, at times even feeling like a catch-22. "It's easy to navigate toward popular songs that move you," she says, adding that the choreography process is 10 times harder if you don't love the music. But she urges teachers to avoid reusing overplayed songs.

"As a judge, I'm sick of hearing 'You Say' by Lauren Daigle, and I love that song," admits Goodwin. Her advice? Explore your favorite genres and artists with tools that personalize and curate playlists like Fans Also Like on Spotify and For You on Apple Music. Or consider a throwback tune: Early albums by Jewel and Ani DiFranco, artists Goodwin now considers old enough to use, have a rawness that she has trouble finding in more contemporary music. Recently, she choreographed a solo to Jewel and her student didn't know who the artist was. "I was shocked," says Goodwin, "but the song was fresh for her."

Goodwin told us why she loves some of her go-to songs—and made us a playlist chock-full of teaching gems.

Trevor Hall's "You Can't Rush Your Healing"

"I listen to this song when I need to calm down. It's great for a warm up or a cool down."

Rozzi's "Bad Together"

"This song has fire to it that I love moving to."

Mantaraybryn's "Stand Tall the Four of Us"

"I listen to this more for myself. It's vibey and uplifting. I've always wanted to use this for a piece, I just haven't had the right group yet."

Gatton's "When Scars Become Art"

"It has this relaxed vibe with beautiful, acoustic vocals."

Dermot Kennedy's album Without Fear

"I listen to him on repeat but I don't choreograph to him because everyone does. His music just moves me!"

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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Teachers Trending
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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