Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group

The Dos and Don'ts of Becoming a More Musical Dancer

You know compelling musicality when you see it. But how do you cultivate it? It's not as elusive as it might seem. Musicality, like any facet of dance, can be developed and honed over time—with dedicated, detailed practice. At its most fundamental, it's "respect for the music, that this is your partner," says Kate Linsley, academy principal of the School of Nashville Ballet.


"Musicality is an interpretation of a score that catches the eye," says Linsley. "Yes, it's executing things on the right note and with the right accent, but if a dancer feels what the music is and shows how their body interprets that, that's the first thing you notice."

For Rhapsody James, street jazz teacher at Broadway Dance Center in New York City, it's about a dancer's ability to dissect a rhythm. But she also appreciates unexpected interpretations. "A dancer who can manipulate the music—that's what I look for," she says.

Do: Listen to the music—over and over again.

"Before I even choreograph, I'm listening to the song as much as I can," says James. "I want to absorb every piece of the music and vocals, so I can translate it." That doesn't mean you should just play the music in the background. "Don't put it on when you're doing the dishes," says Aaron Loux, a dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group. "Sit down, and let the music be your focus. Try to open your sense of awareness to sound."

Aaron Loux in black shorts and a grey jacket, open to the front, with no shirt underneath. He has one foot in coupe back and is on releve, and has one arm hidden behind his back, the other above his head. He lean slightly to the side. He dances against a yellow and black background.

Aaron Loux

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group

Don't: Let your own history with the music influence you.

"If I'm doing a song in class that everybody knows, I can feel the room go, 'Oh, that's my song,' " says James. "People start dancing the way they want to and stop listening to what I'm telling them to do." Exercise restraint instead. Otherwise, you might rush, or just fall to a flatline beat that you want to hear, she says.

Do: Find a role model.

"Find someone in class who you think has wonderful musicality and rhythm," says Loux. "Go across the floor with them, dance with them—make it a project to take on their timing."

Don't: ​Over-rely on the counts. 

"Sometimes you need to do it," says Loux, "but the music doesn't exist in the counts." In MMDG, the company often sings the melody to figure out how a movement phrase fits. "Once you can sing it, you're much closer to being able to do it," says Loux. Linsley agrees: "You might hear something as a 10-count phrase, and someone else hears 8 and 2," she says. "Finding your internal song helps you to interpret."

Linsley teaching class at what looks like an audition. She demonstrates degage front at the barre, with a room full of teenage girls in red leotards and one teenage boy.

Kate Linsley

Karyn Photography, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

Do: ​Research the score.

"Do the intellectual work," says Linsley. "Who's the composer? In Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, which are classical ballets, the accent is down, and feels heavier. But Who Cares? is a neoclassical work, so the accent is up." What's the time signature of the music? Does it have a specific musical form—a waltz, polka, rondo, sonata, minuet?

Don't: Forget about the in-between moments. 

Ignoring the space between counts could lead to a monotonous quality in your dancing, says Linsley. "You have to understand that the plié or allongé or your breath or the movement of your eyes all help to fill out the music."

Do: Practice dancing in silence. 

"If you don't have music to drive you, how can you dance?" says Loux. Finding out what your inherent sense of phrasing is, absent of any influence, might allow you to access rhythm in a new way, he says.

Aaron Loux in a long grey jacket that sweeps around him as we see him from the side. he is in a low arabesque, his opposite arm and focus extended up. He dances against a yellow background

Aaron Loux

Richard Termine, Courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group

Don't: Think about musicality last.

"People have the impression that musicality is something you can add on later," says Loux, "and I think it's the opposite. You have to start by listening to the music and attending to the rhythm and work it out from there."

Do: ​Tap into the musicality of fellow performers. 

When you're performing in an ensemble, get in sync with how others are interpreting the music. "You have to physically look around," says Loux. "See the space you're in. You can't just look at the audience and hope you're doing it right—and that everyone else is, too."

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Brandt in Giselle. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Skylar Brandt's Taste in Music Is as Delightful as Her Dancing

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's dancing is clean, precise and streamlined. It's surprising, then, to learn that her taste in music is "all over the place," she says. (Even more surprising is that Brandt, who has an Instagram following of over 80k, is "in the dark ages" when it comes to her music, and was buying individual songs on iTunes up until a year ago, when her family intervened with an Apple Music plan.)

Though what she's listening to at any given time can vary dramatically, the through-line for Brandt is nostalgia: songs that take her back, whether to childhood, a favorite movie or a piece she's recently performed. Brandt told us about her eclectic taste, and made us a playlist that will keep you guessing:

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

NYCDA Is Redefining the Convention Scene Through Life-Changing Opportunities

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

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Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

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