On being a dance musician

As I cross over the 150 show mark this year (with three months still to go) and since I’ve had a couple of slow weeks I’ve been reflecting on how I’m still spending close to half my gigging time playing for dancers as I’ve been doing over the past decade or so. As I prep my Bach and the Muslim World project/recital, I’ve been exploring another world of dance (baroque) and how that the movements of a baroque suite are comprised of dance movements and how that relates to the dance movements of Turkish Fasıl, Arabic Waslah, and North African Nawbah. Before concert music became a thing, music most often served dance.

A free improv dance and music collaboration with Misha Feigin (guitar) and dancers, Ann Law, Lori Teague, Polly Curtis (not pictured), Meg Gibbs in Chattanooga, TN. November 7, 2016. Photo by Ernie Paik.

Granted, the proportion of the type of dancers I’ve worked with over the past year (Ballet and Modern dancers) is significantly different than that I’ve been playing for in years past (Folk, Swing, and Belly dancers), but I’m performing the same function. It’s a function that most early classical musicians would have understood as playing dance music was a much more significant income source for music before the 20th century.

In studio 1 of the Louisville Ballet rehearsing “Plain Jane” with Lacey Elliston and Alex Kingma. Choreography by Lucas Jervies; music by Tristen Parr. October 9, 2015. Still from rehearsal video.

It’s been nearly a year since I first started rehearsing with the Louisville Ballet on an outreach program which I toured with them in October (2015), March and April (2016). It was a wonderful piece called “Plain Jane” which was scored for solo cello (by the wonderful cellist/composer, Tristen Parr) with fixed media and two dancers (choreographed by Lucas Jervies). I ended up performing nearly 40 shows with a rotating cast of 6 dancers throughout the Greater Louisville and Eastern Kentucky.

Louisville Ballet choreographer/dancer, Ashley Thursby Kern collaborating with interactive video/cello project, Camera Lucida at Bernheim Arboretum and Forest. August 23, 2016. Still image from video.
Louisville Ballet choreographer/dancer, Ashley Thursby Kern collaborating with interactive video/cello project, Camera Lucida at Bernheim Arboretum and Forest. August 23, 2016. Still image from video.

Sometimes the dance events I do entail a healthy dose of technology. My interactive video, cello, and electronics project, Camera Lucida, has been active since 2012 and has worked with Ballet dancers, Modern Dancers, Performance Artists, Acro-dancers, as well as composers and musicians. By using video hardware and software, Roxell Karr (the other half of Camera Lucida) creates an interface for the video which exploits movement. The movement artist can, in effect, “play” the video in real time while moving. It’s a pretty gear intensive project as we both tend to use tons of effects, video and audio synthesizers, stompboxes, fixed media, loopers, and on occasion newly created instruments.

HOURGLASS by Robin Cox, and facilitated dance jam by Stephanie Nugent. Robin Cox – violin, Jon Silpayamanant – cello. Grove Haus in Indianapolis, IN. June 20, 2014. Photo by Melanie Hughes.

A couple years ago  started working with composer, Robin Cox, and dancer/choreographer, Stephanie Nugent, on HOURGLASS. HOURGLASS is an hour long composition scored for violin, cello, and fixed media and serves as the backdrop for a dance jam which is facilitated by Stephanie Nugent. I’ve performed the work several times with them and usually a couple dozen dancers or more; most recently at the American Music Therapy Association Regional Conference in Indianapolis. This is also a tech heavy project. The score we follow is in the monitors and is synced to a click track which we listen to on joggers’ headphones. Pages turn automatically since it’s cued to the click track. While the there is a video component, it’s mainly passive videos as well as a “digital hourglass” to show the passage of time for the piece.

It’s been phenomenally rewarding working with all the Ballet and Modern dancers this past year, and I’ve still done my fair share of Belly Dance and Folk Dance shows (and even a Burlesque show or two). I’m not so sure that most musicians perform for dancers and play in dance bands with as much frequency as I do, but I believe some of that is due to how disconnected dance culture (one the whole) is to live music culture. As I’ve also done some Folk Dancing myself in the past I have some understanding of how integral the music is to the feel and can’t even approach playing dance music without noticing parts of my body (unrelated to playing whatever instrument I happen to be playing) wanting to move to the music.

I imagine that if I had any say in a music curriculum, it would probably be a requirement that musicians work with dancers and probably even take some dance classes. I can’t overstate how much that can enhance and deepen an understanding of music.


Top image is from a performance I did with my interactive video/cello project, Camera Lucida, in collaboration with the Blue Moves Modern Dance Company in Nashville, TN. September 26, 2015.

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