Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz in Dances at a Gathering. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB

Today's Most Musical Dancers Share Their Secrets

All dancers work hard to hone technical skills and master thrilling moves. Musical dancers, however, offer something more. Their daring play with rhythm and their completely present reactions to the score make for bold performances that are mesmerizing to watch.

But how can performers learn to let music drive the dance? We asked some of today's most musical dancers how they do it.

Study the Score

Even if you can't read a musical score, study the melodies and harmonies, measures and notes. Houston Ballet principal Karina González says that "actively listening" helps her to understand the piece's mood and tenor, particularly if it's a contemporary score with a complicated rhythm. "I constantly listen to the music—driving to work, working out, during a 5-minute break or right before rehearsal while going over the choreography in my head," she says. "Then, when I am dancing I know the music so well that I do not have to think about it. It's in my bones."

When in Doubt, Count Every Note

"Although Balanchine is about as musical as it gets, his black and white ballets invariably demand counting," says Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Noelani Pantastico. "I have no choice but to count because the Stravinsky challenges my ears. I have to listen religiously and constantly go over the counting so I can be comfortable enough to dance freely."

Know the Steps Inside and Out

If you want to play with timing, the movement has to first become ingrained in your muscle memory. "When you become so familiar with the choreography that you get ignited onstage, you can hold a move longer, or make it faster elsewhere, then you can play with the music," says Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Rachael McLaren.

Think of the Score as a Partner

Musicality is a kind of pas de deux, or game-playing, that helps to create the mood of the piece. Challenge yourself to find the space between the notes. McLaren points to Ailey icon Judith Jamison: "She knew how to use the back of the beat, with her groundedness, and depth, like in Cry. It makes for an incredible theatrical experience when the dancer experiments that way."

Stay Present

Musical dancers respond to what they're hearing moment to moment. Of course, this is easiest when you have live music. "Because the tempi can drift from night to night, you are obliged to listen even more attentively," says Lucien Postlewaite, who is rejoining Pacific Northwest Ballet from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo this fall. Regardless, staying aware of the music can focus your mind onstage, and keep your dancing connected to what's happening in the moment.

Ask About the Choreographer's Approach

Understanding the choreographer's intent will inform how you play with timing. For example, New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck points out how Jerome Robbins "wanted the movement to look easy, almost marked," she says, "and also for you to work both with and off the music." But don't be afraid to make your own mark. "Musicality is the play between adherence to structure and freedom in interpretation," says National Ballet of Canada's Skylar Campbell.

Learn an Instrument

Although you don't need to be a musician to be musical, the more exposure you get to music, the more it will develop your ear. McLaren trained in classical piano. For Postlewaite, it was the violin; for Campbell, the drums instilled in him a strong sense of rhythm.

Let the Music Lead

Musicality also can help with technique. For Peck, a good pirouette or fouetté is the result of listening to the music, rather than calculating it. "Turning is much more musical than technical," she says. "I do my best turns when the music carries me through, whether I'm going to do two, or four."

Visualize It

Imagine wrapping your body in the music. Let it take over, and see how the notes move you. "By immersing myself within the music," says Campbell, "I can find the subtleties in phrasing within the steps I'm given."

Find a Way to Fall in Love

"The hardest ballet for me to dance is one with music that I don't like," says Peck. "No matter how hard I try, the dance does not make sense." Even if a score doesn't immediately grab you, find your own way in—whatever helps you connect.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021