30 July 2019 12:40

Music and Dance

The RAD’s Artistic Director, Gerard Charles, examines the relationship between dance and musicality.

Music and Dance are one of the world’s greatest partnerships – born out of human expression they are both essential and ephemeral, and when they work well together the effect is transformative. In dance, we talk a lot of how we value musicality as a desirable attribute, but defining it has stimulated some discussion:

Richard Noriss and Uyo Hiromoto at Genée 2015. Photo by Elliott Franks.

  • Is it as simple as a strict adherence to the beat, starting and stopping with the music and maybe hitting the occasional high note during the course of the piece?
  • Does it go deeper, so that we match the phrasing of the dance to that of the music?
  • Are we influenced by the feeling of the music so that it colours our interpretation of the movement?
  • Do we reflect the breath in the music in our movements?
  • Does the dancer act as another instrument of the orchestra, in sync with the music around them but playing a complimentary melody, even riffing on the theme like a jazz musician?

Live music

Live music is not predictable and so encourages the dancer to listen to what they are hearing, to be aware of the quality of the composition, to let the music inform their movements – literally to feel the music and to react accordingly.

For the teacher, an accompanist is a valuable ally who can tailor the music to suit the enchaînements; select the appropriate piece for teaching; and play for as long as is needed while varying the melody to keep the spirit alive. As much as an accompanist holding a strict, prescribed tempo or watching the dancers may have their place, we need to encourage the interplay between musician, teacher and dancer.

Not every teacher has the means to benefit from live music, but there are still opportunities to encourage musical awareness and to support teaching goals. Although the immediacy of interaction with a live musician may be lost, a wider range of instrumentation and coloration available can be a positive, giving the dancer a different range of sounds to hear and respond to.

Not everyone, however, responds to, or hears, music in the same way. Some may need counts to understand phrasing, but many respond to melodies, or underlying rhythms, and even see the shape of the phrasing of the entire piece.

Keeping it fresh

Although many dance syllabi have specific set music, it is short-sighted to only use this music for lessons. To keep a student mentally engaged and to promote the important mind body connection, find music of a similar tempo that will encourage dancers to listen to what they are hearing and to respond to it:

  • Break away from your usual music selections; instead of using your prescribed polonaise, try one from a different grade.
  • For training exercises, find music with different rhythms that will enhance the skill you are trying to achieve. See how a different accent in the music motivates the dancers to use their muscles differently, smooths a movement out, or gives a chance to support the all-important breath that sustains our dancing.
  • We are not limited by music that is written for our specific genre. If a composition suits the needs of the movement, use it. If students do not connect with the music you would normally choose, find a piece that has something in common your needs and what they can relate to.
  • Stop time is another simple way of developing musical awareness. With random breaks in the music a dancer must be aware of what they are dancing to and hold on to that rhythm within themselves. This can be achieved with both a live musician or simply by turning the volume down and up on a recording.
  • No matter what your source of music may be, set your exercises to the music, not just to counts with the music as an added element to contend with afterwards.
  • While students may need prompts and encouragement while an exercise is being performed, try to avoid letting the teacher’s voice become a barrier to the students’ chance to hear and respond to the music – be it live or recorded.
  • Keep an active dialogue about dance’s most influential partner, discuss what we all hear, and solicit musical ideas from your students.


Younger classes are often the most musically diverse, and we discuss ‘what the music sounds like’, ‘how it makes you feel’, or ‘what colour does it sound like?’ Rather than discard this practice in maturity, we should reinforce it and see how this awareness can support developing quality of movement, sustaining challenging moments and supporting technical aspirations. Young children are incredibly interpretive and free with music, so be careful that this innate talent isn’t taught out.

How we embed music in our classes, and how we talk about it, is important. If used successfully music will help us to sustain movement quality, to inspire and motivate us physically, to focus, to breathe, and to achieve technical goals.