Music as Dance's Muse

How music influenced the steps of four American choreographers

Music Muse

Is someone near you listening to an iPod? Or some other MP3 player? These days, you don’t have to look far to find a person who is plugged in. For many of us, music is simply a push button away.

Music surrounds us every day. We can listen to our favorite tunes when we do just about anything—from walking to school to riding in the car. Music plays while we shop in the mall, and while the phone is on hold. Music is often in the background when we watch T.V.

Because music is so much a part of our lives, it can make us think of people we know, or experiences we’ve had. A song can remind us of a loved one or a special holiday. Music can also transport us to places we’ve never been. We can move around the globe instantly when we listen to rhythms and sounds from other countries and cultures.

Choreographers must think carefully when choosing music for their dances. The musical backdrop creates a mood or atmosphere for the dance that will color how the audience sees and experiences it. The rhythm, or pattern of beats in the music, can influence the speed and phrasing of the movement.

Four different American choreographers—Alvin Ailey, Robert Battle, Larry Keigwin, and Mark Morris—have all used music to inspire their choreography, but in different ways. Let’s take a look at how each one of these choreographers has managed their musical muse.


  • arabesque, a ballet position on one leg in which the dancer extends a raised leg backward while stretching one or both arms forward
  • slow jazz walk, a low sunken walk with feet and hips turned outward (an influence of modern dance)

Learn more about Alvin Ailey.

Alvin Ailey created his dance company to give voice to the struggles and challenges of African Americans. One of the many dances Ailey created for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre was Night Creature, inspired by the music of Duke Ellington.

Duke Ellington, also African American, was one of the most important American composers of the last century. He composed original music and conducted his own band. He was known for popularizing jazz music through his innovative compositions and the success of his band both in the USA and abroad. Ellington died in 1974, and in a tribute to him, Ailey choreographed an entire evening of dance to Ellington’s music entitled “Ailey Celebrates Ellington.” Night Creature is one of the dances from that program.

Ellington’s jazz music suggests the atmosphere of a Harlem nightclub in New York City, where people would shimmy and shake until the sun came up. In response to the music, Ailey’s dance portrays young people out on the town dancing until dawn, or when the club finally closes. Their movement combines the elegance of ballet with movements like swinging hips and slow jazz walks. The movement builds in intensity with high kicks, arched torsos, and arabesques until the leading lady tires of flirtations and waves everyone off stage, one by one, as the evening comes to an end.

Ellington said the following about his music: “Night Creatures, unlike stars, do not come OUT at night—they come ON, each thinking that before the night is out he or she will be the star!” The atmosphere created by Ellington’s music—that of young people vying for attention at a nightclub—was the inspiration for Ailey’s choreography. In commemorating Ellington and his jazz music, Ailey was celebrating the contributions African Americans have made on the cultural landscape of the United States.


bols, vowel and consonants spoken in rhythm. They are used in traditional Indian music by drummers to help them remember rhythmic sequences.

Robert Battle, the current Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey dance company, choreographed Takademe in 1995. Like Ailey, his choreography was in direct response to his choice of music. Battle’s choreography reflects the rhythmic structure of the accompanying Indian Kathak vocal music composed by Sheila Chandra.

The music is percussive. There are no words, but sung syllables called bols. At times, the syllables, or bols, are fast in a sharp staccato (Ti Ri Ki Ta); and at other times, they are long and drawn out, like an exhale (Dhaa).

Battle’s choreography responds to the changing rhythms in the Kathak vocal music. When the syllables burst forth like machine gun fire, his movement is full of quick changes, like fast jumps or arms whipping in a circular motion from the shoulder. At other moments, like during the long exhales, the dancer’s body slowly slumps sideways. When there are pauses in the music, there is also stillness in the choreography.

While the movement does not seek to replicate the rhythm of the music exactly, it is clear that Battle has taken the percussive score as inspiration for Takademe, while exposing the audience to the musical traditions of another culture.


Larry Keigwin, choreographer for KEIGWIN + Company, also relies on music to create an atmosphere. Keigwin, however, experiments with how changing music in the middle of the dance affects the way the audience interprets the movement.

His dance Megalopolis is performed to three different pieces of music. The dancers move in grid-like patterns and diagonals as if they are bustling along city streets to Steve Reich’s driving “Sextet-Six Marimbas.” The movement changes when a song by hip hop artist MIA begins; the choreography becomes similar to that performed in a dance club.

Later, when the music changes but the movement stays the same, the audience can see how much music influences the way we interpret movement. The same exact dance phrase can feel completely different when performed to varied musical selections that have contrasting rhythm and intensity. Imagine how different Swan Lake would look if danced to hip-hop music?


  • melody: the tune you hum or sing when listening to music
  • harmony: the sound that occurs when several different notes are played or sung at the same time
  • counterpoint: the combination of two or more melodic parts so that they support one another, yet remain independent
  • dynamics: the overall volume (loudness or softness) of the music
  • rhythm: strong and weak beats played in a repeating pattern

For choreographer Mark Morris, it all starts with the music. He creates a dance when a piece of music inspires him. If the music makes him visualize movement phrases, he decides to make a dance to it.

Morris thinks of himself as “a musician in the form of a choreographer” and often works with the musical score in his hand. When there is a solo instrument in the score, he matches that with a solo dancer. When there are parts for many instruments, he uses his ensemble of dancers. The music is like a map that he embodies through movement.

Morris likes to choreograph to classical music because the structure is often very clear. His well-known work, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, is choreographed to an ode by George Frederick Handel. Morris insists on live musicians when he performs, and this work has four solo singers, a choir, and 24 dancers.

Morris responds to the melody, harmony, counterpoint, dynamics, and rhythm in his choreography, as well as the mood. L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato has different moods, indicated in the title (happy; pensive/thoughtful; moderate), which Morris matches through his movement. Dancers weave between each other at fast speeds at times and spin in large exuberant circles, but the work also contains moments of stillness and silence.

Choreographers can risk being too controlled by the music, but Morris is successful because his choreography is inventive, full of humor, and visually complex.

In closing…

All choreographers think of the impact music will have on the movement they create. Some, like Morris, use the music to give structure to the choreography. Others, like Battle, choose an aspect of the music, like its rhythm, to respond to. It is clear that music can affect the mood of a dance as shown when the same movement is performed to different musical selections, as in Keigwin’s work. It can also take us to a specific place and time—like a dance club in Harlem—as in Ailey’s Night Creature.

Something else the choreographer has to think about is when the music is well known, or the artist who created it is famous. At such times, the music can automatically stir up many memories or associations for the audience. And because music is so influential, some choreographers often opt to dance in silence, so their movement can stand alone with no preconceptions from the audience.

Now that you have had a chance to think about how music inspires and influences dance, go out and see it for yourself! When you watch a dance performance, pay attention to how the choreographer uses music. When you listen to music, think about what kind of movement would go with it. You may find a special song that inspires you and your musical muse.



Kirsten Bodensteiner

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment


Bremser, Martha. 50 Contemporary Choreographers. Routledge, New York, 1999.
LA Times, April 30, 2011
Opera West, May 6, 2011
The Orange County Register, May 6, 2011
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 10, 2011
The New York Times, August 19, 2011
The Times Union, August 26, 2011
The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2011

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