One With The Music: Accompanying Dancers Part One

Have you ever wondered about the view from behind the piano keyboard?

How does someone become a dance accompanist? And how might a dance school welcome and make room for an accompanist in their studio?

Richard Maddock, an experienced dance accompanist will share his story in this two-part interview… Plus some helpful tips, what he feels is most important in the communication between teacher and pianist, and the tremendous respect for dancers which comes from 25 years of witnessing their training.

Richard is currently Head Accompanist at The Pia Bouman School of Creative Movement and Ballet, in Toronto, Canada. Richard’s full-length CDs for dance and creative movement have garnered enthusiastic praise from dancers worldwide, including me! I reviewed several of Richard’s CDs right here on Dance Advantage and have been pleased to set my ballet classes to his works since.

I have included videos featuring Richard’s accompaniment and compositions. Feel free to press play so that Richard can accompany your reading as well!

1st Adage

Watch this video on YouTube.

How did you get started as a dance accompanist?

My older brother had been playing for a ballet school for a few years, and he asked me one day if I would like to try and fill in for him as he was going away to university. Even though I was only fourteen years old at the time, I was able to sight read very well and thought that it was a wonderful opportunity to make money doing something I loved to do – play the piano!  I have been playing for ballet schools ever since.

Thinking back, did you discover anything about working with dancers/dance instructors that was at first a surprise or unexpected?

The very first ballet class I played for was a big surprise, because I had no idea what to expect or what would be expected of me by either the teacher or the dancers.  I walked into the studio and the first person I saw was the teacher (who seemed to me to be very old), holding a lit cigarette in one hand and a cane in the other!  She smoked her cigarette while she taught, and made sure to let the dancers know that she was quite able to use the cane if necessary!

Dancers were expected to have the perfect bun, professional outfits, to be at the studio half an hour early to do warm-ups on their own, and to be at the barre at the minute that their class was to start.  No one was allowed to talk unless they raised their hand and any questions had to be relevant to what they were doing.  If any of these rules were not followed, they were kicked out of the studio and were not allowed to come back in for that class.

The teacher was very kind to me and I remember feeling that it sort of came naturally to me to play for dancers.  I know that I was nervous, especially playing for the adult dancers.  I was very small and really looked young at the age of 14 and I think that the dancers thought that I was going to play horribly. Thankfully, all went well!

Do you work improvisationally in the classroom, from sheet music, from memory, all of the above?

The majority of studios where I have played follow the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus.  For these classes, from pre-primary all the way up to Solo Seal, I play the repertoire that is specified in the RAD syllabus.  During these classes (depending on the teacher and how close or far away they are from the exam date), “free work” is also a part of the class, so I watch and listen to the teacher setting the exercises and improvise accordingly.

I don’t have a repertoire of compositions that I have memorized to play when “free work” is called for.  I prefer to create in the moment, guided by what I see, by the energy of the dancers and the feeling in the room.  Quite often, I also play for “free classes” as well (for which there is no set syllabus), and these are the classes I prefer to accompany.

Battements Tendus Ballet Studio Inspirations Volume Three

Watch this video on YouTube.

The Dance Between Accompanist, Teacher, and Students

When working with a teacher for the first time, what do you like to try to communicate, establish, or glean before you begin class with him/her?

This is a hard question to answer, because for the last ten years or more, I have played mostly for the same teachers.  There is an understanding on both the part of the teacher and myself that they can focus on their class and trust that I will be giving what they need from me, musically speaking.

If a student teacher filling in for someone, I can usually see if they are nervous about working with an accompanist.  If this is the case, I take time before class to reassure the teacher that they have no need to worry and that they just need to focus on the dancers. Usually after the first few minutes of class, they realize that I am with them and doing all I can to help make the class go well. I see the teacher and I as two artists working together to create a successful class for the dancers.

As a teacher gives instructions before each exercise, what is it most important that he/she be clear about?

What is most important is that I see them marking the exercise for the dancers in the tempo that they want.  For free classes, it is also important to get a sense of the dynamics of the particular exercise.  Usually all that I need to see is the first 8 or 16 bars of an exercise and then (while the teacher continues to set the exercise) I wait for the melody to “appear.”  I think that every accompanist would most likely answer this question differently, though.

You’ve played in classes with young children. Are they ever distracted by your presence and do you or the teacher do anything to prepare the children?

Generally, I don’t think that young children are distracted by my presence, because I am there from the first day they start dancing.  If it is the very first class that the young dancers have ever taken, the teacher will gather all the children around the piano and we will be introduced to one another — and this is usually all that is necessary for them. I am careful to maintain a low profile in class, to be quiet and to avoid talking to the teacher or the students while the class is being conducted, unless absolutely necessary.  I want the focus to stay on the music and on the teacher!

If the children are used to another accompanist playing for their classes, and all of a sudden one day I am there playing for the class, then they are usually quite curious about me and ask what happened to the other pianist.  But again, an introduction is all that is usually required, and they quickly re-focus on the teacher and carry on dancing.

Run Like The Wind Music for Movement and Imaginations CD

Watch this video on YouTube.

In Part Two Richard gives his thoughts on the basic necessities for a studio that wishes to have a dance accompanist. Plus an inspiring description of his view from the piano bench.

Do you or have you considered using a live musician at your school to accompany dance?

Why or why not?

Body Image — Are You Looking For Perfection In Your Reflection?

Today’s guest post is from Tiffany Braniff, who you’ve “met” before when I covered her blog Dancing Branflakes. Though we didn’t go into it much in our interview, Tiffany has spoken quite openly on her blog about body issues, her experiences growing up, the influence others had on her body image, and her continuing struggles. I asked Tiffany if she would be willing to provide an article for Dance Advantage that might encourage and support young dancers who are struggling. I know you’ll take away something from this article whether you are a student, a parent, or a teacher.

What will I look like if…?

There is a website that allows you to see what you will look like if you lose or gain weight.  It is quite simple: you upload your picture and move a knob on a  scale up and down depending on what you want to see.  What will you look like if you lose those last 5 pounds?  Voila!  And what about if that scale goes up after a few weeks without exercise?  Your new, heavier look is right in front of you. It is smart marketing for a diet and exercise website but bad for the self-esteem.

I am ashamed to say that not only did I try this tool but I also obsessed over it for a while.  When I moved the scale down 5 pounds I looked the same.  When I moved it down another five pounds I found the same body but with a slightly larger head.  Even at a 20 pound weight loss the only thing that seemed to change was my outrageously large head and randomly skinny elbows.  This was not exactly the beautiful, new image I was hoping for.

My next step was to see what every person fears.  I moved the scale higher so that I “gained” five pounds.  Bad idea.  I moved it again to ten pounds and I became physically ill at how heavy I looked.  I could not handle seeing myself that large and quickly moved the scale back to my real weight.  I fear few things in life but gaining weight is at the top of my list.

I began to wonder why I looked the same when I “lost” weight yet when I gained a mere 5 pounds I suddenly became overweight and a horrific sight to be seen.  Was this how I would really look or was the website defective?  After much consideration I realized that maybe it was neither.  Maybe my fear of gaining weight prevented me from seeing reality.

Objects in mirror may be….

Psychologists call my episode with this website many things, namely body dysmorphic disorder and according to the Mayo Clinic of Health [link] it is also referred to as “imagined ugliness.”  A person may not have a firm grasp of reality due to a false perception that is already established in the mind.  Basically, this disorder prevents people from seeing who they really are.

As dancers we face our reflection so much that you would think we know what we look like. We spend hours every day in front of a mirror in nothing more than skin tight clothing and a skirt if we are lucky. But I have found that the opposite is true. Most of us have a distorted idea of our image.

There are dancers striving to lose a “last 5 pounds,“  that does not exist.  There are perfectly healthy dancers obsessing over thighs that touch or a stomach that rolls when sitting. They do all they can to lose weight but, much like the scale, nothing happens.  Some dancers then label themselves as fat out of frustration and desperation.  The fact is that they do not need to lose weight and that is why nothing happens.  The body reaches a point where it fights to hang on to everything it needs to be healthy.  At this point the truly desperate turn to unhealthy measures that inevitably shorten their dancing careers and drastically reduce their quality and quantity of life.

How do we improve our body image and prevent or combat “imagined ugliness“?

Let us take a few steps back and deal with the real issue at hand.  There is a hesitancy among some dancers to accept and love their bodies because they are not perfect.  From an early age we are taught that perfection is the goal and anything short of perfection is unacceptable and needs to be worked on.  I want to tell dancers everywhere that although this might be true about technique it is certainly not true about our bodies.

The fact is that your body, your great and marvelous gift, is what got you to where you are today in your dancing career.  Give it a high five and a pat on its back.  It deserves to be praised.  And loved.  And accepted.  Celebrating your body will not hurt your career but it may in fact help it.

Say 5 Positive Things
Mirror, mirror

Image by Jean-François Chénier via Flickr

A few months ago I began complimenting myself as a way to not dissolve into a puddle of tears as I lamented over my body during a particularly difficult rehearsal.  Any time I thought a negative thought about my body I forced myself to say five positive things.  I began this during tech week and it was much more difficult than I anticipated.  From costume fittings to criticisms from the directors I did my best to find five things I loved about my body any time I thought negatively about it.

This exercise was simultaneously humbling and helpful.  I began to appreciate things about my body that I never noticed before because I never took the time to look in the mirror in an honest way.  I realized that my attitude toward my body was already so negative that by the time I looked in a mirror I had prematurely made up my mind not to accept it.  I had essentially set myself up for failure.

Do I think my body is perfect because I have started to finally try to love it?  Absolutely not.  I clearly see my imperfections and everyday I work on my tight hips, not so hard belly, and slightly curved back.  But as I aim for perfection my body and I have an understanding that it will never be perfect and I have to accept that.  I also have to treat it well.  In return, my body has promised to take me to my fullest potential as a dancer and to help me reach my highest goals.

To those that care for dancers:

Not all dancers have negative body images but if you know any who do please help them.  Please show them that there is a difference between staying in shape and punishing themselves.  They need to know that there is a difference between being hard on themselves and beating themselves up. One is productive and shows dedication to the art form while the other is destructive and stems from self loathing.

To those who are struggling:

My plea to you is simple: love your body.  Do not let a negative body image take away from the joy that is dance.  You have gotten to where you are today not despite your body but because of it.  Treat it well and learn how to compliment it without hesitation.  I promise you that you will have a happier, better, and more fulfilling dancing career.

Tiffany Braniff

Tiffany Braniff is a dancer, teacher, and choreographer based in Sacramento, California.  She began her dance training at Pamela Hayes Classical Ballet Training in Sacramento.  She has also studied with Ruth Rosenberg, Loretta Livingstone, Tanya Lockyer, and Nolan T’Sani.  She received her B.A. in Dance with a composite emphasis in ballet and modern dance from Brigham Young University in 2007.  At BYU she studied under certified movement analysts the Laban and Bartenieff techniques.  She performed with both the ballet and modern dance companies at BYU and presented three of her choreographic works in concert.

Some highlights of her career have been working with the incredible Dr. Linda Goodrich, Nzinga Camera, and Tanya Lockyer.  This past summer she also had the wonderful opportunity to learn works by Anna Sokolov and Zvi Gotheiner under the direction of Repertory Dance Theater and Linda C. Smith.

She is currently in her fourth season as a company member of Dangerous Lorraines Dance Theater.  She is excited to perform at the San Francisco Fringe Festival with DLDT this coming Fall.  Tiffany is also on faculty at Northern California Dance Conservatory where she teaches ballet and contemporary dance.

Challenge you to say 5 positive things about your body or yourself on a daily basis!

Dr Katharine Phillips, a psychiatrist based at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, USA, estimates that as many as one in 50 people may have the disorder, most of them men and women in their 30s (from a BBC report in 2000).

Eating disorders affect up to 24 million people in America, anorexia is the 3rd most common chronic illness among adolescents, and many more individuals display disordered attitudes and behaviors toward eating. (Eating Disorders 101 Guide: A Summary of Issues, Statistics and Resources (doc), published September 2002, revised October 2003,

Sunday Snapshot: Foot Phrase

Foot Phrase

©Allanah C.

Foot Phrase is a section in the ballet A Pulse Stolen by Ted Seymour (see more in an interview and clips from A Pulse Stolen on YouTube), which had its world premiere on May 21, 2010. This section of the ballet is done in total darkness except for three sets of illuminated, moving feet. The two shown are the feet of Ashley J.( in sous-sus) and Brittany H. (in tendu derriere).

About the photographer: Allanah C. is a dance and college student currently living in Indianapolis, IN and spending the summer as an extra dancer for Gregory Hancock Dance Theatre. She started taking pictures of her friends at her home studio for fun and it has since developed into a hobby of sorts. Of capturing the shot, she says, “I love the challenge photographing dance presents because my subject is almost always in motion, even on my digital camera without a delay the picture can easily become blurred by the motion of the dancer or the lighting.”

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Sunday Snapshot: Impressions

The painter Degas seemed to enjoy capturing the natural asymmetry of dancers in training. He preserved the everyday moments of dancers between barre exercises, waiting or tying their ribbons, or shared with viewers the skewed perspective of performance from the wings.

Similarly, much of what I’ve seen of Carl Johnson’s ballet photography (I made his acquaintance early on in my blogging career) offers casual glimpses of the young dancers in his photos. The shot above may be a bit more formal but the muted reds and blues of this textured image recall the impressionistic paint strokes of Degas.

About the Photographer: Carl Johnson is a photographer from Albany, New York, whose photographs of dance have been sold around the world. Carl blogs about music, biking, and other aspects of his non-urban life over at My Non-Urban Life. His daughters are academy students at the School of the Albany Berkshire Ballet, directed by Madeline Cantarella Culpo, in Albany, New York. This photograph is from the school’s annual recital.

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Friendly Reminder: Please respect copyright online. Unless permission is granted through Creative Commons or other licensing agreement, please do not publish copyrighted photos without the permission of the owner. Thank you!

3 x 12 — The Best of Dance Advantage 2009


celebration1It’s been an incredibly packed year! Over 120 posts were added to this blog in 2009 and when I look back I must admit that I’m rather proud of the quality of much of that information. I know that I have grown and learned so much as a writer this year. I was so happy to welcome a handful of guest bloggers this year as well, particularly as my 1-year-old son became a 2-year-old!

And Dance Advantage has come a long way too!

At the start of the year, this blog was still hosted for free at Though in January I had been blogging less than a year, I had already decided that to make this blog function the way I wanted, I would have to bite the bullet and jump into self-hosting. By April we had a new location and by May, a new look. I’m never satisfied and I don’t love the tediousness and headaches of maintaining a site (especially when I don’t really know what I’m doing!), BUT it’s been an exciting ride!

It’s also been exciting to watch this small community expand.

The blog is only part of it – Twitter followers, Facebook fans, you are some of my most loyal readers! I believe subscriptions to the blog/newsletter have tripled since the beginning of 09. I’m in awe and completely humbled that so many have visited and regularly read what’s here. And I am so thankful for those of you who comment and who take the time to voice your appreciation. It truly means so much to me!

3 x 12 = 36

Students, Teachers, and Parents are the focus of this dance blog. For each of the 12 months of 2009, there was at least one post for you. Below are 36 links (well, more than 36 actually) leading to the best Dance Advantage articles of 2009. What makes these posts the best? No real criteria. It is easy for articles to get “buried” on a blog that constantly updates information. Many of you who may not have even heard of this blog in January! These are the posts that I felt most proud of, that I felt provided truly useful tips or knowledge, and those in which I felt newcomers might be most interested. I hope you’ll agree it is a diverse collection that clearly illustrates the purpose of Dance Advantage.

Without Further Ado…

January was a busy burst of information in 2009!


For Students: Defining and Dissecting a Piqué Turn

For Teachers: 12 Tips for Teaching Tots

For Parents: A FREE Download for Parents of Dancers (Lisa Howell’s Parent’s Manual)

Honorable mention: What to Look for in a Dance Studio — This one is a bit of a cheat, as it compiles links to four important posts on DA (all of which were written in 2008)!

February is admittedly slim, Hey, I was into heavy rehearsal, but these are keepers.

For Students: 7 Secrets of Super Performers

For Teachers: Choreographic Inspiration — Using Your Past in Future Dances

For Parents: What Has Dance Taught You About Life? (Okay, not officially for parents but this is a great place to learn of additional ways dance can affect the life of your child… straight from those who live it. P.S. Feel free to keep the conversation going!)

March roared in with a handful of key posts for students.

For Students: 7 Ways Dance is Like Learning the ABC’s

For Teachers: How to Be a Great Teacher’s Assistant (Teachers have told me they refer their assistants to this post!)

For Parents: Guest Post: Life as a Dance Mom — Finding the Balance Between Friend and Fanatic

Honorable mention: Just as I slipped this post in at the very end of March, I’m slipping it in here. Why? Because I think I managed a decent answer to a good question! What is Artistry and How Do I Develop It?

April was a shower of articles on topics from Facebook to Eco-Friendly studios.

butterflyFor Students: How To Do a Proper “Crunch” — Activating Your Core

For Teachers: Approaching Choreography for Musical Theatre

For Parents: Appraising the Value of Praise (a post for parents and teachers)

May was a time of rebirth for DA with lots of info.

For Students: Backstage Bliss — 11 Rules of Thumb for Students in a Dance Recital

For Teachers: Mustering their Motivation — Strategies for Engaging and Inspiring Students

For Parents: A Celebration of Dance Moms (special Mother’s Day post)

Honorable mention: Teachers, May’s posts on curriculum and lesson planning were also a hit!

June was just busting with articles on music and more.

For Students: Strategies for Remembering Choreography

For Teachers: Five Favorites: Music for Children’s Classes

For Parents: Why and How to Encourage Students to See Concert Dance

July had a little bit of everything.


For Students: How NOT to Ask a Question in Dance Class

For Teachers: Top 10 Reasons Teachers Should Continue Their Education (psst! Check the bottom of this post to get some ideas about where to continue!

For Parents: Accentuate the Positive — How to encourage and reinforce the positive aspects of competitive dance

Whew! Take 5… 678

August had me sweating as I blogged from the road on our family vacay

For Students: How and Why to Strengthen the Inner Thigh

For Teachers: Back to School — Props and Classroom Aids

For Parents: Parents, Which Type of Helicopter Are You?

September spotlighted the professional dance world.

autumn_leaf1For Students: Gracing the Stage — My Interview with Houston Ballet’s Joseph Walsh

For Teachers: Biographies You Can Sink Your Teeth Into (Teachers, relax with a good book, you deserve it!)

For Parents: Guest Post: The Professional Dancer’s Survival Kit (Parents need to know what it takes too)

October fell together as we welcomed fall.

For Students: Lifting Your Leg from Underneath and Other Impossible Feats

For Teachers: Introducing the Iliopsoas (a nice brush-up for instructors)

For Parents: Help! My Child Doesn’t Listen to the Dance Teacher! Part I (Be sure to navigate to Part II!)

November‘s posts were already warming up for December.

For Students: Stretching Safely for Splits

For Teachers: Keeping Rhythm Fascinatin’ – How to Make Tap Dance Come Alive (an excellent start by new Tapography columnist, Sarah Mason)

For Parents: Sweet Exchange with a Sugar Plum Fairy

December included a big giveaway but a few things to think about as well.

ornament3For Students: Oversplits — Overdoing It?

For Teachers: Guest Post: Confessions of a Busy Dance Mom

For Parents: This Dancer’s Response to World AIDS Day In the spirit of the season, I encourage you to assist dancers and performers in need of financial assistance due to AIDS and other diseases – help me raise just $300.

Too much to read at once? Bookmark it!

Where do we go from here? I have some plans for 2010 but you will have a hand in what Dance Advantage becomes.

If you want to be the first to know when big things happen or just be sure that you don’t miss new posts when they arrive, subscribe to the blog. If you want to get to know me a bit better, Twitter is a good start. I happy to give tips to newbies – just say hello!

Have a healthy, joyous, and successful 2010! Thanks for reading.