It Moves You: The Impact of Music on Contemporary Dance

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Here at JamAddict we love to talk about music and music performance, but it’s not very often that we get to talk about other types of performance where music is crucial but not necessarily the star of the show. 

All of us know that music is extremely important to all kinds of media and entertainment. It’s important in movies, it’s important in television, and as we’re about to see, without music, contemporary dance just wouldn’t be a thing at all.

Or, at the absolute least, it would be something completely different compared to what we know as contemporary dance today.  

Would you like to see and feel just how vital music is to contemporary dance?

It’s pretty easy to do. If you find any video footage of people dancing, in any style, watch it for a few moments with the music and sound on, then mute the sound for about 15 seconds. 

Switching back and forth will give you a good idea of the massive differences between these two ways of experiencing a performance. 

If you want a special challenge, watch part of a dance routine without even sampling the accompanying music. Based solely on movement, try to guess the genre of music that everyone’s dancing along to. 

Even without music, contemporary dance is still emotionally affecting, and it can still be supremely beautiful, too. But dance is very much about responding to music and adding something to it with the help of choreographed movement. 

Professional dancer Joanne Liebenberg.

Maybe you can already tell, but there’s a lot to dig into here. Thankfully, we enlisted the help of contemporary dance pro Joanne Liebenberg, who has worked as a Lead Dancer, Lead Performer, and Featured Dancer all over the globe, earning awards for herself and for her home country of South Africa in international competitions. 

From tours with Royal Caribbean Productions to music videos and television programming to live theatre, Liebenberg has stretched her legs (apologies for the pun) in all kinds of performance settings and set herself apart as a highly-skilled performer. 

She’s going to fill in some of the gaps for us as we zoom in on how music and dance work together to create something truly moving. 

A natural response 

It shouldn’t be much of a secret by now that music has always had a very powerful effect on humans, basically since the very first percussive instruments were created by our ancient ancestors. 

But something you might not have considered before is how each person’s natural response to music is going to be slightly different. 

For example, if you grew up only going to school dances and the like, the way you move to any song you hear today is probably going to at least incorporate whatever simple moves you used way back then. 

Professional dancers on the other hand, and Liebenberg is a great example of this, already know about many different ways of moving. 

It’s kind of like having a really big vocabulary. The more you know about dance and the more experience you have with it, the more options you’ll have open to you when you’re naturally responding to music without thinking very hard about it. 

Liebenberg had this to say about what the process is like for her:   

“When I hear a song that really moves me, I can close my eyes and immediately start to choreograph and dance in my mind before physically dancing. There’s a feeling of movement there. I also feel the urge to dance and improvise to a song I love, no matter what comes out.” 

joanne liebenberg

In the same way that a professional musician will always pay attention to the technical side of a song at least a little bit, professional dancers and choreographers can’t help but translate music into the form of expression they know best. 

Having a long history with dance and extensive knowledge of different dance forms only makes that process of translation easier. Maybe this is why so many successful choreographers also had previous experience as dancers before they made the leap. 

Against specialization 

Next up is a pretty interesting parallel between dance and music professionals, and if we look at it hard enough, we’ll see that it also applies to a lot of the creative arts today and signifies a major shift in how creative professionals build their careers. 

In the past, specialization was more or less the go-to route for creative professionals. If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s very easy to apply to dance and music. 

A specialized musician, for example, would probably train on a single instrument for many years, all within a specific genre of music. So a classical clarinetist who only ever played in symphonic orchestras would definitely be a highly specialized musician. 

A specialized dancer would train in ballet and then continue to dance ballet, and only ballet, for as long as their body would allow them to. 

But that kind of extreme specialization is falling away for a couple of different reasons. For one, focusing on a single genre or style can be creatively limiting in a big way. It doesn’t offer the artist many opportunities to expand their reach. 

On a more practical level, specialization here in the modern day will only rarely lead to a steady and fruitful creative career. 

Contemporary composers can’t just stick to a single genre and hope that a bunch of hyper-relevant projects come their way. Similarly, professional dancers are much better off if they can cover a lot of creative ground. 

That’s certainly the approach Liebenberg has taken to styles of dance, not only because of those practical reasons we talked about but also because she sees the value in all dance forms and wants to experience them firsthand. 

“My style really depends on what the dance job or project entails, who I am choreographing for, what type of dance class it is, and what mood I’m in. Being such a versatile dancer, I am able to dance to many genres of music.”

We won’t try to predict the future here, but there’s a good chance that this kind of versatility will actually be much more useful and more common for creative professionals of any kind in the years to come. 

Aside from creative ambition, creatives can also gain exposure to different styles of a particular art form earlier in life thanks to the internet and open-minded instructors. 

In a way, it all speaks to that old saying, ‘The more you love music, the more music you love.’ 

Responding to music with choreography 

Let’s take a moment to dip into the nuts and bolts of how a dancer or choreographer responds to a specific piece of music so that they can add to it with dance.

Here’s the thing about this one: when choreography is done well, then, to the average audience member, it can feel like the choreography they’re seeing is somehow the only correct choreography for that specific piece of music. 

It can be hard to imagine the routine being different from what it already is because the music and the choreography blend so seamlessly. It’s the epitome of a skilled artist making something complex look easy. 

But actually, the choreography the audience sees represents just one possible take on that piece of music, just one person’s response. 

Liebenberg elaborated on this idea: 

“The response to the music depends on the interpretation of the music by the choreographer. If I am dancing their piece, I am expressing their interpretation of the music, which I will respond to and interpret in my own way through their choreography. If I’m dancing my own choreography, it is my own interpretation of the music.”

For dancers, viewers, and even musicians, this adds a really compelling element to live performance of contemporary dance. Even when a routine seems painstakingly rehearsed and carefully choreographed, there are still more layers that are harder to see. 

For dancers, there’s no one right way to respond to a piece of music. There’s always room for a different kind of creativity. 

Collectively crafting a performance 

Finally, let’s explore the times when music and dance work together in a very direct way via the collaboration of the performers. 

For example, Liebenberg told us about one of her recent contracts where she performed as a featured Dancer with Royal Caribbean Entertainment. 

“We performed every single show with a live orchestra, which created a whole new atmosphere in the theatre. The dancers, singers, and orchestra collaborated, creating a show of our own. It was incredibly special and I have so many new ideas I’m eager to try.”

This is the perfect example of music and dance working together since, well, dancers and musicians literally had to work together and collaborate to create something they could all be happy with. 

Performing alongside live music to begin with, as opposed to dancing to a recording, definitely adds its own flavor to a performance, but in this situation specifically,  that collaboration added to an overall sense of ownership. 

If there’s a lesson here to musicians and dancers alike, it’s that combined creativity that makes a performance something special. It’s how art becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Liebenberg expects to bring the same sense of collaboration to her upcoming contracts with Chace Dance Company in Orlando Florida as Dance Specialist and the Center of Performing Arts Methuen in Massachusetts as Dance Demonstrator.

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