Music: it inspires us and (literally) moves us. It often, though not always, shapes the concepts and qualities of the dance art that we create and present. Musicality is an element of dance that’s key to artistry, and – sometimes – even our fundamental enjoyment – of dance. Music isn’t a requirement of dance as an art form (a lot of wonderful postmodern dance work has a score of silence, for example) – but it can contribute to process and product in unparalleled ways.

For all of that to materialize, however, dancers need to have a strong sense of musicality: an ability to dance in ways that meet the music at hand, resulting in a deeper illustration of concept, atmosphere, or simply the beauty of the movement.

As such, many choreographers, casting directors, and producers look for dance artists with a mature sense of musicality. One could even argue that it’s an essential skill for a stable, sustainable career as a dance artist. Never fear – it’s a skill that can be worked on, just as we work on our tendus and pirouettes. To get you started, here are four approaches for doing just that!

Find musicality first

Improvise before layering in choreography.

Sheila Barker, NYC-based jazz teaching artist (Broadway Dance Center, Marymount Manhattan University), has her students improvise to music before she teaches choreography – the same music to which she’s set that choreography. To her, that helps students find the “heartbeat” of the song – the same “heartbeat” that’s in the movement that she’s about to give them. This approach also helps students to find “freedom” in their body, the kind of freedom that’s essential for authentic musicality and overall dance artistry, Barker believes.

She finds that students are so anxious about dance technique and learning the choreography that they get disconnected from the music and the truth of the movement: that “heartbeat” she wants them to find. Improvising allows them to experience the music, and how it feels to move to it – with its tonal, rhythmic, and emotional layers – before she adds the physical and mental challenge of learning choreography.

"Limits and structures can help us avoid falling into the same ruts of how and what we create." - Mindy Jackson

Barker has found that, at times, students can feel awkward when asked to improvise – looking at each other and step-touching to whatever rhythm they hear. “I want to see more than step-touching,” she says with a laugh. “What’s your movement? That’s what I want to see.” In those cases, she’ll jump in and improvise with her students. Her example opens a door for them, a door to moving as their own authentic selves. Usually, before long, they’re improvising in the ways that she’s looking for.

This is what Nicole Ohr, NYC-based tap teaching artist, calls taking “one bite at a time” when learning – a great dance tip! From choreography to musicality to various qualities of the movement, there are many different bites to take. One at a time, they can be digested and enjoyed a lot more easily

Elements of dance

Try out movement with different types of music, as well as different ways of understanding the musicality at hand – explore!

Mindy Jackson, contemporary teaching artist (STEPS on Broadway), consciously offers her students different styles of music and ways of relating to music week to week. For example, one week they danced to a funky and syncopated James Morrison song, and the next a more mellow Mumford and Sons song (where the music was also more background than driving the movement). Jackson will also have students dance the same choreography to a different song – pushing them to see how certain movement relates to (or diverges from) two different sets of rhythms, tones, and aural atmospheres.

Barker does a sort of inverse of that: varying up isolation movement phrases in her warm-up to the (mainly, sometimes with new songs here and there) same music. “Sometimes we’ll just play!” she says joyfully. She emphasizes how she starts guiding her students to tap into their musicality right from the start of class, in isolations, through progressions (“across-the-floor”) into the combination (and improvising to the music before learning it!).

Jackson will also push students to explore different ways of relating to music, whatever it might be. She’ll ask questions such as “what if you danced the way this person is singing?”, “what’s the dynamic and emotional quality of this music?”. Sometimes she’ll sing-song music to help students hear different layers and rhythms.

She doesn’t typically give her students counts, so when she does, she does so for a reason, she reminds them. Giving counts is something that she’s pushed herself to do a bit more, she explains, because she knows that “different students learn in different ways.” Jackson will also sometimes have her students “throw away certain counts” of the choreography, and then “find what happens in the body.” From there, students can come back to the set counts having discovered something valuable.

Overall, Jackson pushes artists to “not do the same thing” as their peers – or even themselves – when it comes to musicality (or any other aspect of dance artistry). Limits and structures can help us avoid falling into the same ruts of how and what we create, she notes. Whatever you do, “be aware and intentional,” she advises.

The rhythm, beats, and textures in the song and story of our dance journey can grow into something truly magical.

Before artists can even get to those sorts of structures and processes, however, they do have to develop the dance element of musicality – of bringing music and movement together in pleasing, intriguing ways. We all learn how to do that differently. Ohr has found that “certain students don’t have a math brain, and can have trouble with counts” – so a strictly counts-based approach to learning rhythms and movement phrases might not resonate with all students.

She notes some other ways students learn rhythms and phrases: by teachers scatting, through syllables of basic words, by seeing rhythms drawn out, by saying steps in rhythmic syllables as you do them. Ohr recommends including many of these approaches when teaching musicality, and therein taking a multi-sensory approach.

Different mixes and matches of such techniques could be more or less effective for a particular group of students. “There’s no one way to teach musicality,” she affirms. In her own teaching, she’ll literally draw out basic musical bars on mirrors or – on Zoom – in whiteboard mode. Once students have a basic understanding of rhythm through such techniques, teachers can guide them into the further nuances – such as shading and accents – that truly build dynamic musicality.

Dance beyond dance technique

Get out of your head and into your body (and soul!).

The biggest impediment to fluid musicality that Ohr sees is “misplaced focus – on the steps and the mechanics of steps versus the musicality itself.” She believes that “in tap – but in all dance, really – if you get over-focused on technical details, you might lose the beautiful transitions and fluidity that is musicality.”

How can one shift focus to a more artistically fruitful place? For one, Ohr’s mentor Barbara Duffy tells her students to listen to the music rather than their own tapping. Though that can seem contradictory, it can actually help tappers stay in the timing and flow of their own rhythm.

That can translate outside of tap to feeling the rhythm and rhythmic textures of the music, rather than being tunnel-vision focused on the technical aspects of your dancing or how well you do (or don’t) execute the given choreography. With true connection with music, in all of its layers and nuances, a natural attunement can arise in your dancing – an attunement that can make you a stronger dancer.

Jackson describes this attunement as “riding the wave” of music and movement. From there, the storytelling and visceral force of dance can bloom. That storytelling can emerge in any dance style; “you don’t have to be in a musical theater class to tell a story,” Jackson reminds us.

Barker notes that of course dance training has an intellectual aspect, and pedagogy can (and often does) go there – but ultimately, it needs to go beyond that. It needs to get deeply into the body and the soul to reach the emotional and visceral resonance that, at its best, makes dance dance. As another way to get students out of their heads and into their bodies, she’ll have students run choreography facing away from the mirror.

Drilling choreography, in the sense of music running, taking a moment to catch breath, and then running it again – and again and again – also helps students truly get movement patterns and pathways into their bodies, she notes. The more it’s in our bodies, the more our brains – with the anxieties and self-doubts that they can bring – can help, but not run the show of our dancing.

Celebrate little victories and discoveries

They can add up!...and breathe!

Barker also believes that sometimes, students really need to take it back to basics before they can level up to complex musicality and choreography – as basic as breathing smoothly and fully. If a student is struggling to find a rhythm or a movement pattern, she’ll first simply ask students to breathe with her. That “helps them get out of their head and find the natural rhythm in their being, and back into their being itself,” she explains.

From there, students are grounded enough for her to lead them into more complex layers of her class content. Students can then start to find “little victories,” as Ohr defines them – with respect to musicality, such as how a big reach could align with a downbeat in a meaningful way. Solidify those, let them add up over subsequent runs of certain choreography, and celebrate them, Ohr suggests.

“There’s no one way to teach musicality" - Nicole Ohr

Jackson, for her part, notes how certain lyrics or musical phrasings can “hit you in the gut.” When working with certain music, dancers can see what they can discover within themselves when they move with such musical moments, those that they feel down to their bones. They can then integrate such moments as those “little victories” – which can truly add up.

Ohr also notes that those “little victories” are part of the process of learning, creating, and growing as an artist – not something to be underappreciated. “Some students get discouraged so easily. They all too often emphasize product over process. It’s important to enjoy the journey and each step along the way,” she says.

“Come back to your motivation, intention, and desire to learn,” she adds. That, in the long run, is how to become a stronger dancer. The rhythm, beats, and textures in the song and story of our dance journey can grow into something truly magical. But they also have a magic of their own. Let’s enjoy both.

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