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."
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."
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.
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."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
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:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
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