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Drowsie Maggie. Try it raw.
Drowsie Maggie. Try it raw.

You’ll sometimes hear dancers and choreographers talk about music having ‘space’ for dance, or being ‘spacious’, and although it’s difficult to define, it’s something to do with allowing the dance to speak, giving it room to do what it does and let the audience see it, rather than enveloping it in musical fug.

‘Musical interest’ is often the enemy of good dance music, because it orients the audience to dramatic processes in the music, pulling their attention away from the visual. This is why so much ‘art music’ just doesn’t work for dance, at least not for class. It’s just too ‘musical’, in the sense that it’s overly interested in its own development.  Charles Rosen sums it up nicely in The Classical Style: 

The application of dramatic technique and structure to ‘absolute’ music was more than an intellectual experiment. It was the natural outcome of an age which saw the development of the symphonic concert as a public event. The symphony was forced to become a dramatic performance, and it accordingly developed not only something like a plot, with a climax and a denouement, but a unity of tone, character and action it had only partially reached before. (2005, p.155)

It’s a good thing in class to keep looking for ways that you can do less with music. The occasional use of tacets, playing quietly, pretending to be pizzicato strings, playing unisons, wide-spaced chords, playing off-beats, repetition with variation,  all of these things are ways of stepping backwards and letting the dance speak louder.

My favourite example is this: in a petit allegro or fast barre exercise, take a fiddle tune (Drowsie Maggie works particularly well), give a nice clear vamp as an introduction, and then take the left hand right away, and play just the melody, no accompaniment. Particularly in a jump, the sound of the dancers feet landings become part of the music, like an invisible bodhrán in the room.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist