A Blythe Coach

Developing Rhythm & Musicality for Dance

In her introduction to the book Hip Hop Speaks to Children: a celebration of poetry with a beat*, Nikki Giovanni explains the genesis of rhythm in language, music, and ultimately hip hop: “When humans were beginning to develop our own language, separate from the growls and howls, separate from the buzz and the birdsongs, we used rhythms: a sound and a silence. With no silence, the sound is cacophonous. With no sound, the silence is a lonely owl flapping her wings against the midnight sun seeking a careless mouse.”

In my last installment of the blog, we explored Attitudes to Time from the perspectives of yogic philosophy, as a coaching concept and as an element of dance. Today we’re getting into more detail about rhythmic and musical expressions of the element of time in dance, which you can also enjoy in Podcast form here:


In the book Ballet Pedagogy, Rory Foster defines the relationship we call “musicality” like this: “Musicality in dance means that an integral relationship exists between music and movement. It can be simple and literal or, in the case of certain choreographic performances, sophisticated and abstract. By utilizing the subtlety of nuance in phrasing and counterpoint, this partnership offers many possibilities in movement qualities and textures. This applies not just to the creator (choreographer) but also to the dancer who executes and interprets the choreography.” (p.80)

Although not always performed with, or to, music, choosing to dance with music is a critical choreographic decision that fundamentally impacts our experience of the dance as dancers and how the audience experiences and interprets our composition as well. Being “on-time” and “musical” are key skills for dancers, but what does that mean, and how can we develop our relationship to and facility with music?

The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique describes how “In dance, the most experience one has with time is musical time: pulse, rhythm, syncopation, rest in place, diminuendo, accelerando, and so on. […] How fast, how slow, when to do the next movement, how long to wait, how long to continue. All of these sensed decisions, plus their combination with musical time, give performance and composition a compelling range of play.”  (p.171)

Stack of books and notes from my education and teaching, for researching this blog

I’m no expert: my musical education

First, let’s disavow ourselves of two ideas: one, that this, or any of my writings or teaching on the topic can be exhaustive, and second, that I am “expert” in the area of music.

My hope is that what I share here inspires people’s interest and encourages you to explore the concepts and bring greater awareness to listening and dancing to music.

I took, as I recall, less than a year of piano lessons as a kid (my teacher was nice, but I found practicing awful and of course, later I wished I had stuck it out long enough to become adept at reading music and plunking out a few tunes). I did perform in a bunch of musicals at the Aloha Theatre before going off to ballet school, where I was lucky to enjoy lots of live music for free and consort with musician friends at UNCSA.

At Whitman College, too, I continued to enjoy experiences listening to live music, expanded my musical tastes as I met new people and enjoyed concerts and collaborated with musicians in improvisation and performance. 

In Portland, I was fortunate to sing in a choir with the First Unitarian Church and also take my first sight-reading course, which was helpful, if a bit over my head, as well as continue to expand my musical experiences and tastes. 

During my MFA, I received specific training in Music Theory for Dancers and Dance Improvisation and Composition classes with an emphasis on music. Study of ballet and modern dance pedagogy as well as study Okinawan Dance, work with the Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble and exposure to other world dance and music forms, as well as collaborating with live accompanists as a teacher and performer and having musicians explain music and how best to work with them to me have all been most instructive.

That said, there is a LOT to know about music, and I have much yet to learn. I can only hope to point the way for further exploration. Luckily, it’s a joyful pursuit, and I am so grateful for how music enriches my daily life. 

The value of music in storytelling and daily life

Music helps me feel and process emotion. In fact, while in therapy during my divorce, my therapist encouraged me to use music for the healing tool that it is in my life. It moves me, provides catharsis and connection, and recalls memories. It builds anticipation and aids storytelling. I can sing the scores of ballets I have performed from start to finish! 

My daily life resembles a constant musical theatre production, punctuated with outbursts of song and dance. I use music to set the mood for yoga or work or dance brainstorming; I create ever-evolving playlists for the dance classes I teach and just for fun to suit every mood; I seek to hear new music and different styles, continue to learn its history and theory, and recently took up the harmonica to enhance my understanding of music.

I admire conductor and musician friends who have a deeper knowledge and intelligence in the area of music. But as with the other practices I engage with, it’s mostly about experiencing the process of learning and how my horizons of growth expand from there. Our appreciation and enjoyment of various artforms is enhanced by study.

Importance of Musicality for Dancers

As dancers, we are well-served by learning to hear and analyze music at a basic level, and to develop a close relationship to the music we dance with. Choreographers must have a bird’s-eye view of the music and dancing and also an intimate familiarity with and ability to interpret the fine details. As Katherine Teck states in Ear Training for the Body: A Dancer’s Guide to Music*, “The most obvious reasons for dancers to develop a keen awareness of specific musical events is so that they can recognize aural cues during onstage performances. To put it bluntly: If performers cannot quickly sense and remember what they should be doing in relation to the music, they will have a rough time making it in the dance world.” (p.3) 

Teck continues on to describe the difficulty and importance of musical calibration and responsiveness: “It is not something that can be measured precisely, like the angle of turnout or the height of a jump. But it is there to various degrees, or else is conspicuously lacking, in all dancing.” (Ear Training for the Body p.3-4) 

Further underscoring the potential complexity of interpreting music as dancers, Teck clarifies: “It is not enough for people to say, ‘Dance with the music,’ or, ‘You are not with the music.’ If you are supposed to be with the music, you might ask, ‘To which aspect am I relating? Is it the timing, the melody, the articulations, the patterns of the underlying accompaniment texture, the structure, the nuances, or the expressive nature? And how am I to be with it? Or what if my movement is supposed to be a contrast to the music?’” (Ear Training for the Body p.5)

There is so much to think about when it comes to musicality. So let’s start by discussing what dance teachers and choreographers do to understand the music they work with better. 

Rhythm & Musical Time

Although not all dance is performed with music, and they argue for a distinct definition of “dancer’s time,” Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais do concede that, “Generally the time that is taught and used in class is musical time, with all the strict disciplines of music such as beats and their organization in twos and threes, fast and slow. This is the major use of time in dance, and as a result should be mastered first. Most choreography is set to this organization of time.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.172)

Nikolais and Louis describe rhythm this way: “Long ago, musical tradition and the use of musical notation set a system of time analysis and writing, on which dance relied heavily. This became firmly embedded in dance because of the interrelationship between the two arts. […] In musical terms, rhythm implies the regular recurrence of an emphasis during a succession of pulses or beats.” (The Nikolais/Louis Dance Technique p.178)

The Western Classical Music Tradition

I want to be clear that we are talking here primarily about concert dance (ballet, modern dance, etc.) performed on the proscenium stage to music from the Western classical music tradition. Most of my discussion today on rhythm, meter, and the Tempo of music comes from this specific musical lineage. Since my primary training is in classical ballet and modern dance, this is the music I have worked with the most, and for today it’s where we will focus, but I would like in the future to talk more about world music, hip hop, and other fascinating musical and cultural topics. 

Fundamental Concepts of Musical Form & Structure

In Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching* Rory Foster outlines some music essentials for teachers of dance work with:  “It is not imperative for a ballet teacher to have formal training in music, but it is reasonable to assume that any understanding of music fundamentals, its form and structure, will broaden and enrich one’s teaching capabilities and effectiveness. Ballet is performed to music, and its kinesis and aesthetics work with many of the same components of music such as meter, tempo, rhythm, accent, phrasing, and dynamics.” (p.79)

Foster says of choreographers, “A choreographer chooses music that fits his concept or simply chooses to use a piece of music that inspires him to create movement that will interpret the score. The chosen music will often influence or even dictate how movements are constructed based on the various qualities and characteristics of the musical structure: rhythm, tempo, dynamics, mood, and melody. Linking and integrating the continuous musical and movement phrases establishes musicality in dance.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.81) We can see that awareness of musical structure is a very important skill for dancers to learn, so let’s dig into some of the basic concepts. 

Music Essentials from Ballet & Modern Dance Pedagogy 

The fundamental musical time distinctions dancers need to learn first include the concept of beat, meter, tempo, and phrasing. 

Beat & Meter

According to Foster, “The beat is the feeling of pulse in the music. Musical notes and silent rests are each given a beat, or partial beat, with a specified time value and organized into bars. The total number of whole beats within a bar is called the meter. Beats are normally grouped into the following: 2’s (duple meter–2/4), 3’s (triple meter–3/4), or 4’s (quadruple meter–4/4) with a certain beat being given the primary accent (usually the first beat) and sometimes secondary accents.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.82)

Meter, Tempo & Time Signatures in Music

As Foster explains, “Meter is the timing of music; it is the particular grouping together of beats. Tempo is the speed at which the music moves. Meter and tempo are an integral part of every ballet combination and exercise. It takes knowledge, experience, practice, and rhythmic sensitivity to know which meter and tempo will work best for each exercise. These elements, more than any other, will affect the dynamics and accurate technical execution of a ballet combination.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.79-80) In this way, teachers can help students better learn dance technique through their choice of music.

We can identify the meter and tempo of a piece of music by looking at how it is notated on sheet music. Foster explains: “Time signatures identify the meter. The time signature is stated at the beginning of the measure. Most recorded music for ballet class will specify the meter for each piece of music on the CD or its back cover and will often identify the rhythm, such as a waltz, polka, tango, adage, etc. The top number of a time signature denotes the number of beats in the measure. The bottom number denotes which note in each measure gets one full beat. The bottom number, however, is not something that we are immediately concerned with in working with class music. It does have relevance, though, once we become more sophisticated in using music.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.82)

Phrasing in Music and Dance

Foster explains the concept of musical phrasing as follows: “We express ideas through our speech and writing by combining words, forming phrases, and creating sentences. Sentences are linked together into paragraphs, which collectively communicate a story, concept, or emotion. It can be literal or abstract. Music and dance do that same thing through sound and visual expressions.” (Ballet Pedagogy p. 80) Now, I will say that when comparing music to language in this way, I have had musicians take issue, so while I think this metaphor can be helpful for dancers, it isn’t meant to precisely describe how form works in music.

That said, Foster continues to describe how phrasing is recorded as musical notes organized into bars or measures: “Musical notes having various time values are grouped together with a given rhythmical pattern and are divided into sections called bars or measures. A measure or groups of measures create a musical phrase. A complete musical movement or composition features sections consisting of many connected phrases. The defining characteristic of a phrase is the brief rest or sense of resolution at the end, which is called cadence. It is similar to the pauses we hear when someone speaks. Cadence enables us to hear phrasing easily.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.81) 

Identifying phrasing in movement

Phrasing may be easy to hear in musical compositions, but a little trickier to pick out in dance. As Foster explains, “A movement phrase, like a musical one, will have cadence–a pause, rest, or resolution–before beginning the next phrase. Movement phrases are not as easily identifiable as musical cadences because they are often visually quite subtle, with their execution dynamically internal. However, since they are integrated with the musical structure, they usually coincide with musical phrasing that is quite literal, particularly with studio teaching combinations.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.81)

In a studio or educational environment, we are trying to make these concepts very clear to help students become more aware of the music and how they are moving in relationship to it, so it is helpful if the phrasing is quite literal and simple to begin with. 

We can also think of movement phrasing in terms of how movement patterns occur in the body, as Peggy Hackney describes in Making Connections*: “Movement happens in phrases. The preparation and initiation determine the entire course of action for the phrase. Kinetic chains of muscular action are set up in the moment of the initiation which sequence and follow-through to complete the phrase.” (p.47) 

As dancers, I think these meaningful units of movement are interesting to look at from the perspective of both music and movement! 

Responding to Musical Form in Choreography

As choreographers we apply both definitions of phrasing, musical and physical, in our creations. As Foster describes: “When choreographing, we are creating movement phrases. Classical steps, stylized choreographic movements, and gestures are arranged with connecting steps to form combinations, or movement phrases that integrate in various ways with the music. And, as in music, many connecting phrases make up a complete dance.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.81)

Choreographer Twyla Tharp describes her work with music in her book The Creative Habit*: “Sometimes the spine of a piece comes from the music I’ve chosen. For example, I love to create dances in the form of theme and variations. In many ways, this genre is a perfect blueprint for organizing a dance: Each new variation is my cue to change dancers or groupings or steps. It makes my job a lot easier if the music tells me where to end one section and begin another. (Can you blame me for picking a form that gives me one less variable to worry about?) As a result, I have gladly tackled the behemoths of form: Brahms’s Handel Variations, and his Haydn Variations and Paganini Variations, too, and the most intimidating set of all, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.” (p.149)

Music Analysis for Dancers

Foster provides a helpful step-by-step description of how dancers can begin to analyze musical structure to improve their musicality in performance: “Dancers first listen for the pulses in music and assign a count to some or all of those beats. They then identify where the cadence is so that phrasing can be recognized. Accents are also identified as part of the dynamics, for example, a 3/4 waltz has the first beat accented–1 2 3/ 1 2 3; in most mazurkas the end of the second beat has the accent: 1 2 3/ 1 2 3. Dancers also listen for the mood of the music through its feelings of texture along with dynamics: lyrical, percussive, syncopated, crescendo, rubato, etc.” (Ballet Pedagogy p.82)

Coming soon

In the future I will discuss other forms of music outside the classical western tradition such as world music and the liberating tradition of hip hop, and more exercises and resources to develop your own musical sensitivity and dancing musicality, and we’ll practice rhythm through walking, jumping, and manipulating our focus soon.

What are your struggles and triumphs in working with music as a dancer, or in understanding it as a musician or audience member? Send me a message to let me know, or to join my email newsletter and receive my handout of “Music Basics for Dancers” for free!

Blythe Stephens, MFA Dance
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach: Dance Education & Coaching 
move through life with balance, grace, & power

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