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Dance Education Blog

NDEO's "Dance Education" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Why Dance Teachers Should Study Music

Most dance teachers have at least a basic understanding of music. They know how to find the beat, count measures of 8, and understand the difference between a march and waltz. Others go their entire career using their own sense of musicality: feeling the music as opposed to understanding the theory behind it. Still others may be knowledgeable about music as its own discipline, but may want a deeper understanding of how music and dance relate and how to best utilize their musical knowledge in the dance studio.

Perhaps you find yourself in one of these camps. If so, you may have also felt the frustration that can come along with not fully understanding music or the relationship between music and dance. Maybe you’ve found yourself stressed out while trying to explain rhythm, accents, and tempo to students who do not share your innate sense of musicality. Maybe you have a hard time choosing music for choreography, or are uncomfortable working with live musicians in class or performance. Maybe you’ve had a hard time helping your students develop musical expression in their dancing that goes beyond matching a movement to a count - or perhaps you are struggling just to help them dance to the beat!

The Benefits of Music Theory for Dance Teachers

If these frustrations resonate with you, you are not alone. Understanding music is an essential tool for a successful dance teacher, and yet, music theory is not always a primary component of teacher training programs or collegiate dance major tracks. But, studying music theory can have many benefits for dance educators. A deep understanding of music can help dance teachers:

  • Articulate the nuances of musicality, including the beat, pulse, meter, tempo, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing.
  • Communicate the musical subtleties needed to successfully embody the style of the dance genres they teach and choreography they create.
  • Become more confident in their selection of music for class and performance, including work with live accompaniment and original compositions.
  • Instill in their students the kind of musicality that distinguishes a novice dancer from a mature performer, helping them to stand out in auditions, concerts, and competitions.
  • Use their knowledge of how music is used across a wide range of dance styles help their students become more versatile dancers as they improve the specific techniques and performance qualities related to each dance genre.

What is music theory?

A group of dance students in a studio laying the floor twisting through their spines.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What exactly is music theory, anyway?” While there is no one definition of music theory, it can generally be described as the study of the fundamentals of music: how it works, what it is made of, and qualities that distinguish music from other sound. Music theory includes the study of harmony, melody, rhythm, tempo, key signatures, time signatures, intervals, scales, pitch, tone, timbre, texture, dynamics, notation, and much more. With so much to learn about, dance educators may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of learning music theory.

What if music theory feels overwhelming?

Jon Anderson, Associate Professor of Composition in the Department of Music at Wayne State University and Professor in NDEO’s Online Professional Development Institute, offers some advice to dance teachers who want to learn more about music theory but aren’t sure where to start. He recommends exploring three key areas:

  1. Music notation and how it relates to movement choices
  2. Musical form and how it relates to choreographic expression
  3. Shared vocabulary between music and dance and how it can facilitate collaboration between musicians and dancers

As Anderson elaborates,

"I personally find that three areas most helpful to know as dance educators relate to music literacy development. The first centers on demystifying and exploring one’s own familiarity with written musical notation by writing down musical ideas or rhythms for use either in class or as inspiration for a future music collaborator. The second focuses on discovering tools that expand one’s own understanding of our experience with music over time and its effect on the audience, particularly regarding choreographic choices and musical form. A third area focuses on developing our shared vocabulary to enrich communication between dancers and musicians. Taken together, these all lead to empowered knowledge embracing collaboration and partnership (particularly for those wishing to avoid the landmine of copyrighted music) whether in the studio or on the stage."

How can I learn more about music theory for dance teachers?

If you are curious about exploring these three aspects of music theory further, consider NDEO’s Online Professional Development Course OPDI 120: Music Theory and Applications for the Dance Teacher. In this course, led by Professor Jon Anderson, dance educators will develop an organic understanding of their relationship with music. The first half of the course helps participants better understand the relationship between music and dance, including the concepts of Beat, Pulse, Meter, Tempo, Dynamics, Articulation, and Phrasing. In the second half of the course, participants continue to examine the symbiotic relationships that exist between music and dance, finding meaningful ways to express those relationships in their teaching. Based on newly acquired musical knowledge and aided with a cadre of tools, participants will learn how to make effective music choices reflecting choreographic intent, build personal music libraries, and how to effectively communicate with live musicians in class and performance.

A photo of a dance dressed in all red in a side plank, performing in front of a two person band.

Music theory can be daunting for dance educators, but this course offers an ideal introduction to the topic, a refresher for those looking to brush up on their understanding of it, or a deep dive for those who are already quite knowledgeable about music.

As a past course participant described,

“I believe how the professor organized the course presented a clear idea regarding what was most important to know at the diverse stages of entry for each student. There was something for those who are just entering into music theory and for the advanced students. As a mid-range learner, the course gave me information and guidance to use in my classes immediately.”

If you are ready to increase your knowledge of musical theory to improve your teaching and choreography, enroll in OPDI 120: Music Theory and Applications for the Dance Teacher today.

As a past participant summed it up….

“This class was life-changing! It absolutely got me to think about music for dance in a much more informed way.”

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