Is port de bras music always pretty?

So… I’ve got a burning question.  Why do teachers always ask for ‘pretty’ port de bras music? Why not …..mysterious? Or slinky?  Or regal? Or something with a bit of attitude? Is it the great British tradition of ‘soft arms’ at work here hence the call for ‘pretty’ music?  Fair enough, teachers may want to keep it simple when teaching the basics to young students, but for older students or experienced dancers would it not be more useful to have music which inspires an urge to interpret?

For me, ‘pretty’ says ‘nice but non-descript’.  Think nice tune and bland harmonies. Non-descript music is often the worst thing a musician can produce for class (mind you, bland flavours are often very useful as a contrast to over-rich Wagnerian harmonies, for example. Like a cool breeze after one emerges from a muggy hot house). We are called on to make music that urges dancers to stretch their feet more, plié more deeply, jump higher,  rap out sharper frappes.  Why not enrich our music to help them be more generous with a circular port de bras,  give them a poignant and sorrowful tune to help make ‘sighing’ arms, or something elegantly masculine for boys’ to help them practice princely arm gestures?

Last summer, I played for Ruth Brill’s women’s class at a summer school. She marked a port de bras exercise and was expecting a stereotypical nice adage tune.  However, I had been desperate to use an Indian Classical scale as a basis for improvisation since hearing one several years ago. So, I decided to go ahead with Plan A, committed myself to some Carnatic flavouring and hoped for the best. She was startled but used the music (phew, thanks Ruth!).  At the end Ruth said it made her think of the Arabian Dance from Nutcracker. She then asked the students to try it again, but this time to take on a personality that the music suggested to them. They did, and…wow!. By responding to the mood, she saw personalities emerge from the dancers that hadn’t been there before. They just came alive!

I wonder –  how often do inexperienced pianists watching class come to the conclusion that  port de bras music  should  just be pretty? For a long time, I did.  So long as the music helps dancers to create fluid carriage of the arms, let’s not stop at…pretty.

How I became a dance pianist – an introduction

Not that many years ago, I remember floundering in the pea soup of ballet steps that made up an enchaînement.  I had only started playing for dance because of a chance remark to a young pianist to whom I said “You’re so lucky to have the opportunity to play for ballet. I’ve always wanted to give it a go but never had the chance”. Next thing I knew, the ballet teacher for whom she worked needed another pianist and my number was passed on to her.

I spent a year playing for syllabus classes without having a clue about what made certain music suitable for particular steps.  The springy steps were the easiest to identify with – springy music, please!  Improvisation was also easy – something tinkly for fairies, heavy for elephants, and hoppy for frogs.  Beyond that….zilch.  Not  a clue  about what made rond de jambe music different from plié music, or what differentiated tendus from glisses.  Dynamics – what’s that?

Seven years later (after a gruelling year of training with Scottish Ballet, complete immersion in  vocational dance training courtesy of Elmhurst, and playing for anything and everything  dance-wise  that came my way), I am writing my very first blog about playing for dance.

These scribblings are not about THE way to play for dance. They are personal ideas and observations that I’ve made in the many hours spent in dance studios watching dancers at work. Some are not even my own ideas, but those of teachers and wiser dance musicians who generously shared their knowledge (due credit given). But I think it is important to write them down as there is so little information in the public domain about dance music and its practitioners. Very few dance musicians choose to explain their choices of music, or even to help out fellow pianists trying to improve their understanding of dance music.