Drumming and Dance


There is a little known tradition of non-jazz improvised music in America, made everyday by musicians who love to play for dance. You can find them across the country in studios, concert halls and universities, creating music on a daily basis to inspire choreographers, dance technique instructors, and professional or aspiring dancers. Most of these musicians are either keyboardists or percussionists, with some guitarists and lap top specialists as well. The best players in the field tend to be skilled on several instruments, with percussionists using the piano as a secondary resource, and the keyboardists doubling on a few selected drums. Many also play recorders or melodicas, and some sing as well.

As far as drumming for modern dance goes, there is a common misconception that this type of playing is a watered down version of African drumming. I have actually heard on more than one occasion that “you can just play anything for modern”. In truth, this kind of drumming relates to traditional African forms in a way that is similar to the relation of jazz piano with classical European piano: same instrument, same technique, different approach to making music.

An obvious difference exists at the outset. African diaspora drum forms tend toward an ensemble basis, with a number of interlocked and consistent parts accompanying a more varied master drum lead, or vocalists or other melodic instruments. In drumming for modern dance, the musician is virtually always playing alone. This means they must create a complete musical texture on their own. Simply playing one part of a traditional ensemble is not going to work any better than playing 18th century piano music. Modern dance has its own aesthetic and kinetic language, and the music must respond to it with precision and creativity.

I have spoken elsewhere in this website about why I enjoy playing for dance. The idea of the musician serving a useful function in a particular setting I feel is a good one. Playing for class is the most relaxed form of public performance possible. When I watch movement, I get good ideas for making music. I love this about it.

Different players use different sets of instruments. My choice has evolved to the following: marimba, tabla, boddhran, a pentatonic set of 4 congas and a djembe, and piano. I use various shakers and bells on my ankles. Hi hats also work great.

These instruments allow me to create a lot of variety in the class, both within a single class, and day after day.

When you play a class, there are several things to keep in mind.

1. In class, there is no audience. It’s just the music and the dance, the musician and the dancers. Your music therefore exists to help the dancers execute their phrases as well as possible. How this is done varies from class to class and from exercise to exercise. More highly skilled dancers can work with more subtle music. Beginners need something more straight ahead. A good analogy is either a conductor or a drummer in a group. The conductor of the elementary school orchestra will be mainly keeping clear time with his stick and giving really obvious cues to keep the group together. If it’s a highly skilled orchestra, the time with the stick is much more subtle, and the conductor’s gestures and body language are devoted to interpretation, articulation and phrasing. With drumming, if you are playing set in a garage band where the other musicians are easily confused, you will have to play a certain way. A drummer in a jazz group, where the other players are not relying on the drummer to keep their place, will be able to play in a very different manner.

2. Because you are playing for the dancers, and not an audience, your phrasing and accents should center on the moment of greatest effort, not the greatest visual result. A perfect example is the leap. The greatest visual moment is the apex of the leap, but that’s not when the dancers need you to play. They need a strong and deep accent to help them propel themselves off the ground, and even before as they prepare themselves for that action. So there is often a sense of anticipation involved.

3. Balance variety and repetition. You will wind up repeating yourself. It’s impossible not to, because you will be looking at the same movement from day to day that will logically elicit a similar musical response. However, it’s important not to simply play the same measure over and over, which is one of things that can happen when people “plug in” inappropriate folkloric forms minus most of the parts. Instead the drummer should think in terms of little songs that are constructed of various rhyming schemes. So a sense of phrasing is quite important, both in terms of duration, and in terms of accents to support movement execution.

At the other extreme, if there is no predictable audible structure in your playing, the dancers will be lost. Remember that when people are dancing to rhythm, they are basing what they are doing not just on what they hear but what they expect to hear, and they expect the music to continue in a dependable and consistent way. They don’t expect the pulse to disappear from the music. They have other things on their mind.

4. Take note of whether the class is doing something which is familiar to them, or new. If new, you should play simply and not too loud, allowing them to concentrate on learning the movement. Once they have it under their belts, you can stretch out more and play with more energy and more subtlety. However, my personal preference is not to allow the dance/music relationship to become completely contrasting or random. I like to keep a kinetic thread running throughout.

5. Remember that your class is at least 80 minutes long, and possibly more. If you just beat the hell out the djembe drum the whole time they won’t really hear you anymore after about 10 minutes. Use contrasting dynamics and a careful building up of volume and density to construct a clear arc from the beginning of the class to the end. The idea is to keep people alert and involved, not impress them with your speed and power.

6. Never allow yourself to play unmusically, even if it seems like that’s what the instructor wants.

7. If the instructor counts over your music, find a time in private to remind them politely that this interferes greatly with the student’s ability to hear the music, and therefore makes the technique class less valuable as training for dance performance.