Developing Musicality

I remember my first self-taught lesson in musicality as if it were yesterday: I was 12 years old and preparing for the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. Each night before bed I would pop in a tape of Tchaikovsky’s score and visualize my choreography. My ears became so familiar with the subtleties of the music that I could recognize the different instruments and hum every note. In rehearsals, I started to play with the phrasing. And once I was onstage, I never worried about forgetting the steps—I let the music guide my every move.


Now, 16 years into my professional career, I sometimes revert to this exercise when I find myself struggling with a particular piece. I continue to focus on developing my musicality because it is essential: It enables you to transform a step from a simple abstract movement into a visual reflection of rhythm and harmony. The way you choose to accent a certain phrase or shade another says something about who you are as an artist. It also encourages you to fully experience each moment, yet lose yourself at the same time.


So what can you do if you lack an innate sense of musicality? Margaret Tracey, associate director of Boston Ballet School, suggests that most of the work should happen in the studio. “Just like if you’re not a natural turner or natural jumper, it’s a skill you can develop,” she says. Tracey helps her students improve their musicality by giving a combination at a certain tempo with a certain kind of music, like a slow waltz, then—keeping the same combination—she speeds up the tempo and changes the meter to 6/8. “It’ll be a completely different emphasis,” she says, which stresses “an awareness of the connection between the music and the steps.” While some teachers might not play with tempi in this way, you can still practice this exercise after class by setting the combinations you learned that day to new music.


Edward Ellison, artistic director of Ellison Ballet, adds that much depends on the age and level of each dancer. “For younger students,” he says, “emphasis should be placed on basic elements, such as rhythm, keeping time, breath and character of the music, all according to the accompaniment given in class. As a student advances, pay more attention to playing with and stretching the phrasing, and expressing the subtle nuances.”


 If you find that you’re struggling with these objectives, watch other dancers to see how they hear the same piece of music. You can also use the inherent rhythm of certain steps, like a balancé, to give yourself a consistent frame of reference. Listen to a waltz, for example, and balancé until you feel like you mirror the beat: 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Then accent the 2 to see how it feels. Next, stretch out the 1, or syncopate the 3. The options are endless.


There are also many ways to enhance your musicality outside the studio. Tracey attributes her good ear to having studied music as a child. Ellison also promotes musical education. “Study an instrument, such as the piano,” he says. Ellison expresses concern over how many students seem to be uninterested in classical music. “Can you imagine a hip-hop dancer not being driven by hip-hop music, or a flamenco dancer unmoved by flamenco guitar?” he asks. “You’ve got to love classical music and feel a great desire to move your body to it. It’s essential to develop an intimate relationship with the very music that ballet is associated with.”


Cultivating this intimate relationship is as easy as listening to music around the clock, playing with syncopation and emphasis in class or picking up an instrument at home. As Balanchine once said, “Dance is music made visible.” He phrased it perfectly.

Julie Diana, a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Latest Posts


Gregory Batardon, Courtesy Prix de Lausanne

The 2021 Prix de Lausanne Prepares for a Year Like No Other

In an ordinary year, early February marks an exciting time in the ballet world: the return of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition. But this is no ordinary year, so this is no ordinary Prix. Due to the pandemic, the 2021 edition will run from January 31 to February 7, completely via video.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Photo by Ximena Brunette

Inside Washington Ballet Artist Ashley Murphy-Wilson's Dance Bag

Ashley Murphy-Wilson, an artist at The Washington Ballet, is all about making things personal. Well, personalized, that is. "My best purchase ever was a label maker," she says. "Everything I own is labeled. My phone charger is labeled. My roller is labeled. Everyone knows: If I leave something in the studio, I'm coming back for it—because my name is on it."

The TWB dancer adds a personal touch to almost everything in her dance bag, be it with her label maker, her "signature" leopard print legwarmers or her bedazzled (yes, we said bedazzled) booties. It's the mark of an experienced dancer; Murphy-Wilson, now in her sixth season at TWB after 13 years with Dance Theatre of Harlem, knows better than to let her belongings get lost to the dance studio "black hole" effect.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Charlene Gehm MacDougal as Lead Nursemaid in Petrushka. Photo by Herbert Migdoll

In Memoriam: Joffrey Dancer Charlene Gehm MacDougal, 69

Former lead dancer with The Joffrey Ballet, Charlene Gehm MacDougal died of ovarian cancer on January 10 at her home in New York City, age 69.

Gehm illuminated the inner life of each of the varied characters in her extensive repertoire. Whether she was the gracious hostess in George Balanchine's Cotillon, the riveting Lady Capulet in John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet, or in the tumult of William Forsythe's Love Songs, she drew the viewer's eye and heart to the essence of the role.

As Forsythe puts it: "Charlene was certainly one of the most elegant dancers I have had the privilege to work with. Her striking countenance flowed into her work and, joined with her wicked sense of humor and intelligence, created thoughtful, mesmerizing and memorable art."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks