Meet the Dance Class Music Maker

Ballet class accompanist Colleen Jones describes how she tries to inspire every dance step

| 13 Jul 2022 | 12:28

Colleen Jones is an accomplished and experienced ballet accompanist. She has worked for numerous dance schools, the most notable being Ballet Academy East, also known as BAE. As an accompanist, Colleen is able to offer advice and insights about how to make it in the music industry in areas or ways that wouldn’t occur to most people.

What do you do as an accompanist?

As an accompanist, I play live music for dance classes ranging from 45 minutes for the younger dancers to an hour and a half for the adults. My job is to provide live music to serve the musical needs of the dance teachers and the students in the class. That’s my goal: to serve them, help them move across the floor, and help the teachers present and demonstrate their techniques.

Where did you study piano?

I studied piano as a child at home and later at university, getting my bachelor’s degree in music. Later, I studied jazz privately with Gary Diel at the Manhattan School of Music and I became very interested in the genre. The artistry of jazz musicians in New York clubs such as Blue Note and Village Vanguard really inspired me in the study of jazz. New York also has the best Broadway productions in the world and I really learned a lot from enjoying said productions.

How did you know you wanted to be a musician?

I was brought up in a very musical home and studied classical piano as a child before getting my bachelor’s in music. I started playing piano in restaurants and was part of a jazz group. I became an accompanist in 2008 and that’s been my job since.

How did you become an accompanist?

One of my friends asked me if I had ever thought about playing for dance since she was a dance teacher herself. She invited me to sit in on one of her classes to see what I thought, and, in that class, Michael Cherry was playing. Michael Cherry is incredibly talented and is known in the dance community as an accomplished accompanist. He has a beautiful, soothing touch, and saw how he watched the movements at the barre, and the energy he played with when the leg lifts or with pirouettes and I thought this is amazing. I really enjoyed it.

Michael Cherry suggested I start with the young dancer division as a beginner. I started in 2008. Over time I became more comfortable and was able to find the right tempo and repertoire, especially for the adult classes, as the tempo and style for adult classes is more specific. Eventually, I became more comfortable with this and had more fun with it. There is nothing I would rather do.

What is your favorite part of your job?

At Ballet Academy East on the Upper East Side, the school that I have worked the most for has many different age divisions. The young dancers, for example, start very young, at 18 months old. Playing for them is always fun because the toddlers sit with the grownups in a circle. The young dancer division goes up to age six and after that, they have the “primary and enrichment” division.

One of the reasons I love working with BAE is because they are so organized and the pre-professional division focuses so highly on technique and discipline, they follow the syllabus, and it’s very inspiring. The director, Julia Dubno, has created a dance school that not only connects with the community but inspires young dancers to a professional level of dance.

Another thing I really love is playing for the adult classes because a lot of the time, those classes mean the world to them. They work full time, and they look forward to their ballet class. Through those classes, my music can help motivate them, the teacher can direct them, and we work together as a team to get them excited about dance.

By watching the teacher’s direction as we work together in the studio, it makes me feel like I am part of a team that inspires the dancers at any age to become the best they can be.

When you’re choosing the music for different routines, do you play specific pieces, or do you improvise?

Some of the music is set for the different levels and divisions. For example, the pre-professional division requires a very specific type of music. For modern or tap classes, I can play Broadway show tunes, an upbeat jazz style, depending on the teacher’s requests. Classically trained, I also incorporate jazz, tango, flamenco, pop, and Broadway show tunes; it is really all about what the teacher wants and what the dancers can relate to in the music.

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming an accompanist?

There are various CDs available with different pianist’s repertoires to help the new accompanists learn what repertoire to use. Some music books are also available, including Steven Mitchell’s book, “From Tots to Teens.”

Sitting in on live classes to see the routines at the barre and the center will help the new accompanist with tempos and style of music for particular movements.

But just like becoming a dancer, with practice and hard work, it is so rewarding!

Lea Efran is a NYC high school rising junior. She plays volleyball, does jiu-jitsu and is a Stone Soup Magazine honoree.