Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them: Teachers and choreographers share songs and musical advice for contemporary dance
Contemporary. It means “existing now,” “of the moment.” Contemporary dance feels current not only as an experiment in new ways to move, but also because of the fresh, soulful, individualistic, and (sometimes) obscure music that carries the choreography. Our four “Cool and Contemporary” dancemakers, plus studio and dance company teachers and choreographers, let us pick their brains about music. Here’s what they had to say.
Choreographer/director; Emmy winner for Outstanding Choreography, 2009
I’m often inspired by a soundtrack in a film—the music that’s in the background. I like the instrumental music of Kevin Keller, who has composed for film, TV, and dance. And Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, composer of the film Unfaithful, is one of my favorites. [Diorio won an Emmy in 2009 for Adam and Eve, a contemporary modern piece he choreographed for So You Think You Can Dance to the track “Silence” from the Unfaithful soundtrack.]
I just saw the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, starring Ben Platt, and the music was unbelievably good: it’s about life and is rooted in truth. I love music that affects the whole body along with the mind, spirit, and soul.
Choreographer; co-founder of CLI Studios; co-founder of L.A.-based dance company Shaping Sound
For me, music is first and most important when it comes to choreography. When choosing music, I think of what the dancers naturally can connect to in it. I tend to enjoy songs with a lot of dynamic rise and fall with strong accents and clear energy. I’m on the search for new music on Spotify every day. Recently I’ve been listening to RY X, Fleurie, Majical Cloudz, Peter Lyons, Cambio Sun, and Son Lux. Here are some specific suggestions:
“Rain Dance (Marian Hill Remix)” by Whilk & Misky
“Where You Are” from the Moana soundtrack
“Only” by RY X
“Burning Son” by Gabriel Rios
“Breathe” by Fleurie
“New Dorp. New York” by SBTRKT
For a big opening number it can be useful to see what Disney movie is out—like Moana—and think about how your students could become each character.
For a large group, try the song “New Dorp. New York.” Have small groups walk as if they’re in the city; one phrase leads into the next with different numbers of dancers in each passing group. Clear shapes and strong accents will read well with this music.
Choreographer, Finding Neverland on Broadway, Celine Dion’s A New Day at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Delirium; three-time Emmy winner for Outstanding Choreography
I’m always open, always listening, and I have an ear for certain sounds and certain textures of voices or stories. All of a sudden I’ll hear something and I’ll Shazam it or I’ll put it in my music file. I love all music. I love classical, rock, hip-hop, acoustic. I also love old music. And I love Hollywood Rat Pack classics. When I directed the Rockettes’ show this past summer, we took those classics and redid them; we reworked all those iconic songs and made them relevant and cool and electronic and new and fresh.
Ultimately, though, music is such a personal choice. Whatever piece of music moves you and makes you dream and makes you feel alive—that’s the music that you choose.
Assistant director, Tremaine Performance Company; faculty, Tremaine Dance Conventions; freelance choreographer and master class teacher
For my own work, the music always comes first. When choosing music, I have to picture something when I hear it. If I’m moving to it and I get the chills, then I trust that something’s there to work with. If it’s not a popular song, one that’s been too mainstreamed, that makes me even more excited. Fresh music means fresh ideas.
Top 6 finalist, So You Think You Can Dance; founder/artistic director, contemporary/hip-hop company Unique Soulz; faculty, Oceanside [NY] Dance Center, School of Creative and Performing Arts
“Holding a Heart” by Toby Lightman
“All We Do” by Oh Wonder
“Six Feet Under” by Billie Eilish
“Unsteady” by X Ambassadors
“Never Knock” by Kevin Garrett
“Promise” by Ben Howard
“Like Real People Do” by Hozier
“Work Song” by Hozier
“I Gave It All” by Aquilo
“Brittle Bones” by Richard Walters
“The Next Time I See You” by Richard Walters
“North” by Sleeping at Last
“Hear Your Heart” by James Bay
“How Are You Supposed to Know” by Don Brownrigg
“Wake Me Up” (acoustic) by Aloe Blacc
“Love Like This” (acoustic) by Kodaline
“Show Me Love” by Sagi Rei
“Belong” by Joshua Radin
“Not Over You” by Gavin McGraw as covered by Max Schneider
“Losing Your Memory” by Ryan Star
“Discoloration” by Dawn Golden
“All I Want” by Dawn Golden
“Still Life” by Dawn Golden
“Last Train” by Dawn Golden
“Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap
Artistic director/founder, Bryce Dance Company, Brooklyn, NY; teaching artist for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Arts in Education and Community Programs, and Lincoln Center Education
I often use “Resta con me” by Ludovico Einaudi for warm-ups, specifically plié sequences. I love the melody, and it gives students the opportunity to connect their breath and stretch their movement through the music.
“Water Drums 1” by Baka Forest People of Southeast Cameroon has a clear and uplifting rhythm that makes it one of my favorites for tendu sequences. I also use it for moving across the floor with leg swings and battement combinations. It’s different than what students are used to hearing—it’s “water drumming,” people slapping their hands on water.
I’ve used “Appalachia Waltz” [by Mark O’Connor and] featuring Yo-Yo Ma frequently for center allegro combinations. For me, this particular song suggests different movement qualities as it progresses, and cello is one of my favorite instruments to work with.
Another cello piece, “Walking Man” by Zoe Keating, works well for center combinations and across-the-floor work. I love the layers in this song and the consistency of the underlying rhythm.
Faculty, Spotlight Dance Studio, Taunton, MA; adjunct dance faculty, Salve Regina University, Newport, RI; operations manager/guest instructor, Urbanity Dance, Boston
Variety is key when selecting music for contemporary class or choreography. For class warm-up, across the floor, improv exercises, and combinations, I use both feel-good and instrumental music; I lean toward feel-good songs for competition choreography.
My go-to feel-good songs are “Cavalier” by James Vincent McMorrow, “Flow” by Raphael Lake and Thomas Collins, and “People Help the People” by Birdy. “Cavalier,” with its hauntingly beautiful melody, is my all-time favorite for contemporary. My college students often request it.
Three pieces of instrumental music with strong and powerful melodies that I use often are “Cirrus” by Bonobo, “We Move Lightly” by Dustin O’Halloran, and “This Place Was a Shelter” by Ólafur Arnalds, a favorite of my studio students.
For class combinations and contemporary choreography I also like to use upbeat electronic music, which provides musical support for the isolations and hits of contemporary jazz movement. Two of my favorites are “Anything’s Possible (Sweater Beats Remix)” by Kastle featuring Lotti, and “Afterhours” by TroyBoi featuring Diplo and Nina Sky.
For a concert dance piece I choreographed for the Salve Regina University Extensions Dance Company, I created musical accompaniment that used sections from both “Papa” and “Run Away” from the Stranger Things soundtrack by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and “Are U There?” by Mura Masa. The three songs complemented each other and gave the piece an eerie feel.
Faculty, Dance Fusion, Tyrone, PA
I am a strong believer in using instrumental music for contemporary movement. “Disintegration” by Giles Lamb provides many layers that a choreographer can use to build movement, play with tempo, or create a tone.
“Toothwheels” by Múm includes moments of active stillness, variations in instruments, and vocals. I love that this song aids the choreographic process by providing a nice array of textures. The music helps drive the dance and is interesting as well.
“Takk . . .” by Sigur Rós is one big, slow, fantastic crescendo. And that’s it. It’s genius for movement because it allows for a wide range of movement and emotions. A choreographer can set whatever movement tempos she would like, and the performers can take the audience on whatever journey they choose. It’s also appropriate for dancers of all abilities.
Rehearsal director/principal dancer, Kairos Dance Theater; faculty, Koltun Ballet Boston, Wilmington [MA] Dance Academy, Miss Maria’s School of Dance in Watertown, MA
Most of the music I use in class is the style of music I prefer. My personal playlists function as audible lesson plans—each song triggers a new exercise. The music selections I use give me energy, and I believe that when I dance with more energy, my students do as well.
I prefer to use genres such as alternative and indie music in class because, more often than not, the students have not heard these selections before. Occasionally I will use popular music, but if the students are unfamiliar with the music they will not be tempted to sing along and will stay focused on the movement.
Alt-j is a fun, upbeat band. Students are intrigued by the band’s classic rock vibe, and the music’s energy draws them into the movement. “Left Hand Free” is good for across the floor exercises, while “Breezeblocks” works well for a combination.
The Civil Wars has a gorgeous vocal sound, and students connect to the music’s emotionality. For a warm-up exercise, try “Dust to Dust.” For improv, I use “Poison & Wine.”
Contemporary is often the genre of sad dances. I like to mix in fun, cheerful songs to show students that contemporary can be many things. Some upbeat, happy songs with a lyrical nature include “She Lit a Fire” by Lord Huron (for across the floor), “Lost in My Mind” by The Head and the Heart (for across the floor), “Angela” by The Lumineers (for combinations), and “Bloom” by The Paper Kites (for a warm-up exercise).
For a recital/competition dance, I have used “All We Do” by Oh Wonder. It’s accessible, allowing students to dive into the music’s emotionality, but with tricky timing that presents a nice challenge for student dancers.