Dancer Voices
Hala Shah in a workshop performance of Calling: a dance with faith. Photo by Idris Ademola, Courtesy Shah.

Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?

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What are faculty members looking for?

Lawrence Rhodes teaching class at Julliard. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Julliard.


A lot of pressure comes with dancing at an audition in a bare room alone—especially when it’s in front of panelists who decide how you will spend the next four years of your training. Boiling down years of technique and artistry into a few minutes of movement, the solo round can be the most nerve-racking portion of the college audition process. But smart dancers use the solo to their advantage, taking the opportunity to highlight their strengths and individuality.

The Components

The guidelines for audition solos are purposely vague to encourage diversity: Most schools welcome dances in any style, with time limits of up to two minutes. Regardless of whether dancers choose to perform a ballet, modern or contemporary piece, Juilliard School dance division director Lawrence Rhodes says he’s looking for the “wide variety of gifts the dancer might have and at their overall ability to move.”

Because faculty members have already watched prospective students in technique classes by the time they show their solos, dancers shouldn’t focus on tricks, but strong and distinctive qualities of their natural movement style. One way to feature individuality, suggests Sean Curran, chair of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is to dance a self-choreographed work. “I feel like I learn more about the dancer when they made what they are showing.”

Performing It

It’s vital for dancers to remember that at auditions, faculty members value potential over perfection. For Jo Rowan, chair of Oklahoma City University’s dance department, virtuosic technique is not a prerequisite for acceptance into the program. “We are really looking for personality and the ability to perform,” she says. Curran agrees: “It is the potential for a different kind of virtuosity that I am interested in. Can this dancer become a poet and be subtle? Are they capable of authenticity? How are they unique?”

The solo portion also allows faculty members to see how dancers deal with pressure. No matter what happens, the show must go on. “Mistakes are welcome,” says Rhodes. “They can be interesting and informative.” Alexandra Hutt, now in her second year at Juilliard, suggests approaching the experience as if it were a live performance. “That allowed me to let go and have a blast in the audition, and ultimately I believe that has something to do with why I got in.”

Show Your Strengths

It’s natural for dancers to feel nervous about solos, but this portion of the audition gives them a chance to show their best dancing while downplaying their weaknesses. And they can play with musicality and style in ways that can’t be revealed during a simple ballet combination.

There isn’t a magic formula for a successful audition—no dancer can know exactly what faculty members are thinking. The key to Hutt’s success was her combined physical and mental self-assurance. By the time she walked into the audition she had spent seven months rehearsing her solo and had already performed it twice. “It was completely etched into my muscle memory,” says Hutt. “I showed up, and trusted myself and all the work I had done that year, knowing that everything else was pretty much out of my hands.”

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Commissioning work from a composer

Choreographers often think of their tools as space, time, shape and motion. But as choreographer Stephen Petronio puts it, music rules: “You can shut your eyes, but you have to put your fingers in your ears to stop listening.” He regularly commissions composers whose work he admires—like Laurie Anderson and Rufus Wainwright. “The more different brains work on something, the more exciting it is,” he says.

For any choreographer, commissioning music can open your mind to new artistic possibilities. But no two composers work the same way and each collaborative relationship is unique. It’s essential to understand how to find the right composer for the project and approach the process.

Choosing a Composer

In today’s digital age, we benefit from the abundance of music at our fingertips. There’s no harm in blindly contacting a composer, but Petronio thinks it’s wiser, especially in the early stages of your career, to work with artists you know. “Start with people you can screw up in front of,” he jests. Cultivate a network of collaborators by attending local music concerts, festivals and social events.

When you approach a composer, discuss any connections the dance has to his or her music, the venue it will be performed in and how the project will be mutually beneficial. In addition to diversifying the audience and increasing exposure for both parties, collaborating could open up other funding opportunities, says Scott Winship, director of grantmaking programs at New Music USA, which provides grants to support the creation and performance of new music.

Collaborative Process

Composers rarely enjoy working on a project when the choreographer dictates every detail of the music. “Always give the composer the freedom to move. You can’t work in a box,” says Andy Teirstein, a composer who has worked with Petronio, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Buglisi Dance Theatre, among others. Successful collaborations encourage the music to develop as part of the choreographic process. “You have to be willing to wrestle around with it. Let go of control, but don’t let go of your vision,” says Petronio.

Communication is crucial. It helps to know some basic music terminology and to discuss the expressive aspects of the work, such as color, temperature and emotional dynamics, suggests Teirstein. While composing music for Locomotor, Mike Volpe/Clams Casino used words from Petronio’s choreographic notebook to generate sounds. Feed the composer’s creative needs and stay open to how your ideas take root in the music.

Also invite the composer to rehearsals. Watching dancers enact your ideas is often the simplest way for composers to translate your musical motives. The music may change, so avoid becoming attached to a specific draft. Teirstein finds it useful to create four or five short music samples and have the choreographer choose one to develop. Try new music during rehearsal before rushing to judgment. “As a dancer you hear differently when you’re moving to music than you do just sitting and imagining,” says Teirstein.

Terms of Agreement

Have a written contract signed by both parties before a single note is written. Once when Petronio commissioned a composer to create 20 minutes of music for a new piece, the composer initially created a score that Petronio describes as “perfect the way it was.” But it was only eight minutes long. What could have been a collaborative nightmare was easily resolved by referring to the contract.

According to Winship, there are three main types of agreements. The collaborative agreement may establish a timeline for the project and specifies the artists’ responsibilities and details pertaining to the score, such as length and instrumentation. The commissioning agreement spells out when the composer will deliver the work and the terms and breakdown of payment, “which can be split up into multiple payments based on different developmental stages of the piece,” says Winship. Composer fees do not necessarily include expenses like hiring live musicians, contracting a sound engineer and renting a recording studio. Lastly, the licensing agreement addresses copyright issues: Is the composer associated with a publishing house that collects royalties? Do you have permission to use the music only for live performance, or can you use it for promotional purposes, like a video on your website?

Reap the Benefits

Working with a composer is an opportunity to step beyond your comfort zone and traverse new choreographic territory. “I collaborate to shake myself up, to bleed the boundaries of what I’m doing and to have fun with people,” says Petronio. “Otherwise life is very lonely in the theater.”


Free Resources

For more guidelines, read “Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide” and “Music for Dance: Composer-Choreographer Collaboration” at


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An international festival celebrates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.



A Dance the Dream event in Houston. Photo by Russell Hancock, Courtesy Dance the Dream.


While addressing thousands of Americans at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. went off script and improvised a passage of the speech that became momentous in civil rights activism: “I Have a Dream.” To celebrate its 50th anniversary, filmmaker Richard Karz has produced The Dream@50, a yearlong inter­national festival of art contests and musical performances by artists like Usher. It also features Dance the Dream flash mobs, led by choreographers such as Jenna Lee, of English National Ballet, and Mourad Merzouki, of Compagnie Käfig. The festival, which has taken place in more than 30 cities, from Beirut to Boston, culminates in Los Angeles and Seattle this month. Karz says the flash mob is central to his mission. “We are doing these events in public settings, surrounded by daily life, to illustrate that this is about breaking down racial divisions,” he says. “But it’s also about breaking down boundaries between art and dance and real life.”

L.A. Dance Project member Julia Eichten will lead L.A.’s flash mob, danced to Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” and an arrangement of H.B. Barnum’s “Heaven Help Us All.” It will be performed by over 100 local dance professionals and students, and since Eichten pre-released a video of the dance through YouTube and social media, she says it is expected to gather an audience of 5,000 to 10,000 people “who will get to dance right alongside the professionals and students.” Eichten hopes the choreography will speak to the city’s cultural diversity. “L.A. has such a wide spectrum of nationalities, so we really want to celebrate that through dance and music,” she says. “Togetherness is what Dr. King was an advocate for, despite different views or even violence. I would like to think that through this project we can help create a little harmony for us all to share in.”

Amy O’Neal is choreographing Seattle’s flash mob. For remaining celebration dates, see


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