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  • Jamie McCarthy

The Hierarchies of the Dance-(ing) Class(es).

9th August 2015.


There’s an interesting thing about playing as a musician in dance classes: you often get paid about a half to two thirds of the fee that the teacher gets.

I’m not sure that most teachers and certainly not most of the people dancing in the session are aware of this, but as someone who has sometimes played for dance class and has taught a lot at a dance school, I’m acutely aware of it.

There are many questions about this. You could say, well, as a teacher you have to prepare the class and you’re heading it, so you’re taking most of the responsibility – you need to be rewarded appropriately for that. As a teacher I know ALL about the extra preparation you have to do and also what it’s like to lead a class, so I appreciate that a teacher should be paid accordingly. But … as a musician, I also have to prepare: I use violin, percussion, voice and laptop: being able to work in an improvised way requires a lot of preparation, not just day to day, but long-term – the preparation of my life in and out of the arts so far you might say. In addition to that I also have to maintain all those things (have you seen the price of a decent set of violin strings these days?!)

So – to be honest, having seen it from both sides, I don’t really buy the difference in the preparation argument. But then there’s the heading the class thing …

Hmmm – before I get into that, there’s something I want to go into at a deeper level, about the history and hierarchy of the dance class and I think, regardless of the dance form we’re working in (in a Western ‘Contemporary Dance’ setting), I think we need to go back to the roots of the ballet class. In an old-style traditional ballet class, the musician is there to ‘support’ the movement, to support the teacher, to respond and follow, to assists the students in keying into things like rhythm, phrasing and ‘musicality’ (a much debated topic). It’s a bloody hard job that to do well requires an immense amount of skill, concentration and soul. It’s not something I’ve ever been able to do and I’m slightly in awe of those who can.

In this 'back in the mists of time' type traditional set-up up there was a clear hierarchy: the tradition of ballet on top, the teacher as transmitter of that tradition, the student as receiver of it and the musician as the servant of all three. It’s a bit like the conception and birth of Jesus: the ballet tradition as god, the teacher as the holy spirit, the student as the virgin Mary awaiting the divine insemination … and the musician? Well, if I were being positive I would say perhaps the Angel Gabriel, announcing and assisting the ‘great event’, however, in some situations it’s definitely more like we’re the donkey present at the nativity scene ☺ (Certainly, when I hear stories of the old Russian Tradition teachers, donkey is indeed the more apt description!) Please don't get me wrong - I'm as appreciative of a lovely furry ass (as my Grandad back in Ireland would have called a donkey) as the next person, but I'm talking more about traditional roles and status here ...

I think the pay rates of musicians who play in dance classes across the board reflect this set-up and although I still don’t really buy the logic for the disparity of pay, there is something here about responsibility for what happens in class that at least has some coherence to it. The trouble is, many, many dance classes don’t really operate in this way anymore: the hierarchy is either not at all there in the same way, or it is very much more blurred: in what I consider to be the most rich learning environments for everyone concerned, there is much more of a flow of ideas and energy – of sound informing movement and movement informing sound, that is much less about sounds supporting the learning of movement technique and more to do with different kinds of energy and (dare I say it?) human beings with different forms of expressions of their humanity exchanging, informing, influencing, playing, morphing, taking on and giving back in different form, conversing …. The list could go on for a long time. OK, this is ideal and it’s not always this bloody fantastic, but it’s more a reflection of what goes on in many dance classes than the old school ballet set-up.

It’s strange how as people who spend their lives dealing with movement and sound that we often, by default prioritise, value (and pay!) words and directive, verbal teaching situations more than experiential ones. So many times students or participants in ‘professional’ classes have told me that they’ve learned an immense amount about how sound and movement interact from the classes that I’ve played in and the way the ‘teacher’, them and me as a sound-maker have interacted. After all movement and sound can also express thought. To be honest, I can’t function in those classes where the traditional hierarchy still operates – it freaks me out – I’m simply not that kind of musician and person, so the classes I play in are ones where the old structures of power are operating at a minimum (oh, except, I get paid at two thirds the rate the ‘teacher’ does … did I mention that?)

As a side-observation, one of the by-products of adopting the old hierarchy in situations where it really no longer belongs is that it can give rise to a degree of fear: the ‘teacher’ can end up feeling afraid that they don’t know enough about music to lead things, the musician can end up afraid of having to follow incredibly tricky rhythmic patterns or match a very specific feel (I am amazed at the skill of some of the musicians I’ve heard play in these respects – slightly in awe in fact), the students are afraid that they don’t really know what’s required of them in terms of the music and musicality of their movement, (so much so that they often discount the musicality that they display in so many less formal situations in their life) and often, everyone is afraid to ask everyone else. It’s crazy, because we’re no longer in that ‘traditional ballet situation’ most of the time and there are many great musicians, teachers and students who just throw all that shit in the bin and do wonderful stuff, but I know, because I’ve seen and heard people talk about it, that this fear can and does sometimes operate in the dance class. I would say it’s the result of operating within an inherited hierarchical framework that no longer suits the way we ‘move and music’. (I think many other traditions of dance have never operated in this way: with West African musicians I have worked with for example, first of all there IS no strict divide between musicians and dancers, there is an emphasis on human interplay and communication and whilst I don’t know from the inside what the dynamics of that situation really are, I sense and have experienced a much greater equality in some ways).

So … my suggestion? Let’s think and feel it through … what have we inherited, but no longer need? Ask ourselves are we unconsciously putting someone in the role of the donkey or playing the donkey ourselves? What can we let go of? What can we embrace? How can we be less afraid of each other and learn from each other more organically? What new models of playing with each other are we already using, but haven’t quite fully embraced because structures and value systems we’ve unconsciously inherited? Perhaps we should even drop the term 'class' for what we do - but that's another post ...

Oh … and yes … as a start, let’s pay musicians who play in dance class more money!

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