Choreographing to Music or Without? Which is Better?

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Photo Provided by Dance Teacher Summit

As a Conference Manager of a Dance Teacher event, I am constantly looking at trends of other events, reading blogs/Facebook posts, and gathering one-on-one feedback that gives me insight on what dance teachers need to continue to improve their educational outlook.  One of the conversations that I keep seeing are requests on song suggestions.

It is an interesting concept to start with music before developing the choreography/movement phrasing.  Of course there are benefits to both creating with music and creating without. So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons as well as what is really important in the choreographic process.

  1. Story line – If you have a theme for your recital or performances, having dedicated songs that have the story line built in could help in the creative process of setting the scene for your audience.  If you do not have a set theme, it could pigeon hole you to choreograph to the words of the music instead of developing unique and cohesive phrasing that fits with what your dancers are capable of doing.
  2. Phrasing – One of the greatest things I loved about going to college for dance was my composition classes.  In class, we developed our own choreography as well as learned how to develop work that could expand into more than just a small movement phrase or even longer than a 2-3 minute piece.  We learned about inversions, speed changes, repetition…etc.  Each step/phrasing doesn’t need to be different or a trick or connected to a word.  It needs to be intertwined to what already has been created.  Ask yourself what are your building blocks in the choreography?  This will help you to develop the work without music.
  3. Emotion – What is the emotional connection?   Music has the power to invoke feeling, but the real question is can the choreography stand on it’s own, or is every piece of emotion in the music?  When you are choreographing a piece, record and watch it in silence.  You will be surprised to see what affect a piece of music can do to your phrasing.  A song can help blossom your work to a new level, or it can carry your piece and be the only thing the audience remembers. Remember this!
  4. Dancer Connection/Artistry – Coaching and directing is an important part of teaching choreography to your dancers.  It is vital that they feel connected to the piece.  As discussed previously, music can draw emotions out of people.  A song can help dancers relate, remind them of a personal experience, or inspire them.  Can your choreography do that?  Have you explained the meaning of the piece to your dancers?  Have a discussion about this.  If you have choreographed to specific music, the music can be a guide for the dancers.  If you are just working with phrasing, explain the story to them.  Ask them how they can connect.  This in turn will drive a personal connection to the piece for your dancers and help them to invest in your vision.

Music verse no music?  At the end of the day it can be either.  It just depends on your approach.  How you choreograph as an individual.  It is about the four items above – story line, phrasing, emotion, and artistry.  Connecting your dancers is vital to the process.  Every movement, piece of music, facial expression, and dancer should be invested in the best interest of the performance of the work.

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Artists – The Debacle of Respect

Apple is one of the most innovative companies in the world.  Constantly creating the next new thing that everyone has to have.  So, when the announcement of Apple Music was to be launched I was a little surprised that they were so late in the game of streaming, which has undoubtedly continued to grow.  The thought of paying $10 a month to a streaming service and having unlimited access to thousands of songs is appealing, but in my opinion streaming is more of a discovery service than an actual income stream for artists.  The more I look at streaming, I use it to listen to new music to see if I like it.  If I like, I buy it.  So, should music artist really look at it as a revenue stream, or an audience building tool?

An article by Billboard Magazine discussed how in the first three months of its free streaming trial it would not pay artists for their music that was streamed (this is no longer the case).  The business aspect of this was ‘I’m not making money so why should I give you money?’  Needless to say, it created a big upheaval in the music world and Taylor Swift took it upon herself to be the voice of the artists.  She made a statement on her Tumblr – “This is not about me.  This about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for their success.  This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought royalties would get them out of debt.  This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, but will not get paid for a quarter of a years worth of plays on his or her songs.”  Do you think this was all unselfish?  I think everyone, including the superstars in the industry had a right to be mad, but I still stand by my point that it shouldn’t be apart of the revenue budget, more like bonus income.  My question is was this whole thing a publicity stunt by Apple?  A company that is worth billions of dollars worried about paying artists for three months without a source of income from ONE revenue stream when they have numerous other ways to bring in money?

We all look at artists and think that it is a glamour field of money, fortune, and fame, but in reality it is a life struggle that these people had the courage to pursue a career that they loved rather than a career that makes bank.  Artists like Justin Timberlake and Taylor Swift are a small percentage that hit it big in the industry.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that in 2014 musicians/ singers made a median range of $23.50 per hour.  Now add in the cost of studio rentals, producers, songwriters, record labels, executives, managers, manufacturing, equipment, and touring and that is not a whole lot of money.  Every revenue stream counts for any artists.

The one thing that frustrates me about this whole debacle and pretty much any artist issue is that musicians are not the only artists out their trying to survive.  Dancers are in just as much struggle as the musician.  They have similar expenses such as studio rentals, tour costs, costumes, shoes, music licensing, management and development teams.  Also, there is only a select group in the public that has a passion for dance, and there isn’t as many revenue streams that can be tapped like the music industry.  Unlike the music industry where there is streaming, buying albums and individual songs.  Many dancers have to rely on a company for income (salary/ stipend for rehearsals and performances), or an agent getting them a temporary job on film, TV, a music tour, or Broadway.  There is also a ticking time bomb when you can no longer perform because your body just can’t.  Many dancers are involved in other revenue avenues like company contract work, select seasons on Broadway, sponsorship opportunities, teaching, and book writing on their endeavors in the industry.  Just like the music industry, there are dancers that are superstars and have made millions of dollars like Derek Hough or Mikhail Baryshnikov, but it took them years to get there.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median salary a dancer makes is $13.41/ hour or if you are a choreographer $21.28/ hour.   That is less than a musician/ singer.  Many dancers and choreographers are not on an annual salary because they work based on a contract and are only paid for certain aspects of their job such as rehearsals or performances.   Granted, many orchestra musicians are in the same predicament.  The amount of free projects that dancers get involved in is based on trying to network and meet new artists that could potentially hirer them. Isn’t that the same in the music industry?  You send out samples of your music to try and draw an audience, gather a fan base, and gain feedback from people you respect and admire.  I have personally lost count on how many free projects I have done like choreographing a piece for a fundraising event or driving three hours for a rehearsal for weeks on end and then performing it once or twice at a few festivals.  None of these opportunities I got paid.  Some were friends of mine, while others were endeavors that I fully supported like at risk youth and the arts.  Granted I had other sources of income like teaching ballet and working on the administrative side of the arts industry.

I think we all have to ask ourselves some hard questions – why are we creating art?  Why are we creating music?  Why do you dance or choreograph?  Would I feel this way if this was a hobby and not my livelihood?  I think that the general public looks at art as it is owed to them.  I see it constantly working on the administrative side of the business.  Your taxes dollars do not pay the nonprofit employee’s salary, nor does your tax dollars pay to take care of the art work or support the programming that happens in a dance company or art institution.  People have this thought process that the arts are a right not a privilege.  We are privileged that artists feel strongly about their work that they want to share it with us.  I look at artists as superheroes.  They are brave.  Laying everything they have out in the open for the public to be loved and criticized at the same time.  Apple took a risk.  Was it wrong – yes.  Should we respect artists for their work – absolutely.  The next time you hear someone on the subway stop and listen.  If you enjoy it use your Tumblr or Twitter and promote it.  Don’t steal work that belongs to others.  I think if artists want the industry to respect the art and the artist, it needs to start with the public respecting the art first.

“All I’m askin is for just a little respect…”