Friday, January 31, 2014

Modern Ballet Pianist Interview and Giveaway

Have a listen!

The Modern Ballet Pianist is a collective of skilled musicians who are dedicated to revolutionizing music for ballet technique class. We believe that ballet music should be the core of dancers’ movement, whether on stage or in the classroom. With our recognizable melodies arranged into traditional classical piano accompaniment, our pianists’ passionate and joyful playing is the closest thing to having a live musician in the room.

Our pianists have played at top dance institutions worldwide, including American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey Dance Company, School Of American Ballet, Mark Morris Dance Group, Joffrey Ballet, Stattsballet Berlin, Los Angeles Ballet, The Julliard School, NYU Tisch, Ballet Academy East, and more.

With monthly releases and discounts for regular costumers, we provide ballet instructors all over the world with fun, innovative, and NEW music, economically priced to suit the needs of both small and large dance schools. Teachers can choose to download mp3s of the music or be shipped physical CD copies. Each album consists of 28 tracks, starting with Pliés at the barre, and ending with Reveránce at centre. Ordering information is at 

Below is an Interview with Modern Ballet Pianist Founder, Justine Leigh (who has oh-so-very generously agreed to give 3 of her phenomenal ballet CDs to one lucky winner!):

How long have you been accompanying ballet classes?
I started playing for ballet classes in 1999, when I became music director for The University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance. I moved to NYC a year later, and was hired by American Ballet Theatre, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and The Mark Morris Dance Group, where I was a featured performer in their music ensemble.

What is the process to become an accompanist?  How does a musician learn to play for dance classes and get started?
A good accompanist knows how to listen, above anything else. I had a lot of experience in listening to other performers when I was a vocal accompanist in college, and dance is really the same - but listening with your eyes. When researching for ballet class, it’s best to develop a repertoire that has great melodies with music that has a square number of measures, in phrases of 8. Then have a few pieces of music for each exercise, from Plie to Reverénce.

Do you listen to other popular accompanists for inspiration?  Is there a ballet pianist scene functioning both within and alongside the dance world?
I listen to popular music, and I listen to the great concert pianists. There is a small scene of ballet accompanists throughout the US, but unfortunately there isn’t much of a budget to bring live accompanists into smaller schools. This is why I started The Modern Ballet Pianist - to give everyone the chance to have great music in their classrooms no matter their funding.

You mention "revolutionizing music for ballet technique class." If I may be a little tongue in cheek here, why on earth does ballet class music need to be overturned?  
Over the years, I’ve found that most ballet music is antiquated and therefor incapable of holding the ear of its young students. My company focuses on getting the attention of the next generation of dancers with current music, but remaining true to ballet’s classical roots with our classical arrangements.

As a teacher and as a student I have been part of teacher/accompanist relationships where both parties would like to kick each other and those that are like the best of marriages.  What's the secret to a teacher and accompanist working well together?
The accompanist should respect that the teacher is in charge, and the teacher should respect that the music makes the dance.

What is the best thing a teacher and or dancer has ever said to you about your playing?
On my first day of accompanying Mark Morris, the company manager told me on break that “Mark didn’t come down and complain about you. That never happens.” Knowing that the “Mozart of modern dance” liked my music was pretty awesome. We worked together for years after that first day.

Some pianists sound like they set mechanical hands on the keys and went out for coffee, while others sound truly inside the music. When you are playing for class, do you feel as though you are performing as well? 
I feel like I’m lucky to be making music for a living - and if I get bored, it’s my own fault for not bringing passion into the classroom!

There are teachers who really prefer classical music, as opposed to classically styled music in class. How would you work with a teacher like that?
 I have a huge repertoire of classical music that I reserve for those teachers. Though I know I’m doing a great job when I can sneak in some Lady Gaga and make it sound like Chopin!

Have a listen!

You mention that you are working with other artists to produce all this wonderful class music.  How does this collaboration/collective work both creatively and as a business?
The albums I have out so far are all me playing, but I’m working with other artists to expand our sound and repertoire. This is making it possible for us to release albums on a monthly basis, so that our dancers never tire of our music!

What would be hitting pay dirt for your new company?
It would be so awesome to get picked up by every dance wear distributor!

Your advice to musicians looking to play for ballet classes either as side income or as a career?

Take the music that inspires you, and find a way to inspire the dancers you work with. Authentic inspiration is the most attractive thing in all of us!

Have a listen!

"Plié Pirouette POP! breathes new life into those dated boring ballet CDs. The selections are engaging and entertaining, with excellent tempos for ballet class. And somehow the emotion comes through in this recorded music! It's a MUST OWN!" - Allynne Noelle, principal at Los Angeles Ballet

I know that after reading this interview and sampling these amazing CDs, you are as inspired as I am to get into a ballet class!  The Modern Ballet Pianist, is without a doubt, as Dance Teacher Magazine says, "the next best thing to having a live accompanist in the room."

Justine Leigh's soulful and dynamic CDs are PERFECT for dancers who want to practice at home, as well as ballet teachers, and studio owners.  Even if you are not a dancer, do remember The Modern Ballet Pianist CDs as a fantastic gift for the dancer in your life.  She or he will thank you a million times over!!!

AND, I as mentioned at the top of the interview, Justine Leigh has agreed to give a package of the 3 CDs shown above to ONE LUCKY WINNER!  All you have to do is enter the the Rafflecopter drawing below.  Merde!

Note: Giveaway open to residents of the continental U.S. only. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How to Nail Audition Season: Find Your Inner Dog*

by Katie Mc Cann

It’s that season again!  Nuts have been cracked.  The season of cheer and giving is over. Everyone’s rested and well-fed. Quite.

It’s audition season, and it’s time to nail it.

Most dancers approach auditioning with at least a small amount of dread.  Or hatred.  But, given that auditioning is just as much a part of a dancer’s career as taking class, rehearsing, and performing, let’s make 2014 the Year of Successful Auditions.  

Now let me say I mean no disrespect when I compare dancers to dogs – I love both dearly. 

But the collar fits…so we’ll wear it.

There are thousands of breeds of dogs in the world, and they’re all bred to be good at different things.  Border collies are herders. Dobermans are protectors. Hounds are finders. When asked to do the thing they are made for, they are brilliant at it, proud of themselves, and happy.  Ask a border collie to bring in a herd of sheep – wow! Speed, confidence, focus! However, ask a border collie to be a suburban lap dog, and while you’re at work, he’ll freak out and eat your couch. 

Despite all of the emphasis on training in every possible dance style, each dancer gravitates to a specific movement vocabulary that feels most organic to him or her. A musical theater dancer in a granola modern company (no matter how talented the dancer is and how badly s/he wants a job) will produce a frustrated dancer and a disappointed artistic staff. You need to be the best breed of dancer you can be, and find the job/program that will keep you from eating the metaphorical couch.

If you’re auditioning for EVERYTHING because you just want SOMETHING, the odds are you will NOT end up in a place where you’ll be happy and able to grow.

The hardest part of the audition process: figure out what you want and do your research.

Things to consider as you research jobs/programs:

  •     Pick your style.  Yes, you should take classes in every genre you can find.  These days, there’s   so much fusion of techniques that being well rounded is a must.  But, if you’re a ballerina at heart, go be one.  If you come alive in modern class, go find your favorite style and do it.  When you’re doing what you love, you’ll get better at it faster, and get noticed more often.
  •     Pick your people.  If you’re working with a director/artistic staff/teacher whose expectations are totally different from your goals, every day will be miserable. Remember that collie eating the couch. Make sure you fit the culture you’ll be working in. Talk to people who have been there. Visit ahead of time.
  •     Artistic choices need to make dollar sense, too. 

o      If you’re auditioning for summer intensives and college programs, remember that your tuition payments are important to the institution.  Of course, they want the best dancers, and they want those dancers to leave the program successful and happy with their experience, but they do want your money.  If you’re going to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for an experience, shouldn’t you be getting the most out of it?  Do you really get to take as many classes a day as the brochures say?  Do the class sizes allow for individual attention?  Do you get to work with choreographers and directors who are currently working in the industry? Do you mesh well with the faculty/artistic staff? Find people who have been in the program and ask questions.

o      When auditioning for companies, make sure you actually end up making money. The life of a dancer is always life on a tight budget, but breaking even isn’t worth it. Make sure there’s enough money to justify taking the job. If it’s a short gig or apprenticeship, make sure there are enough hours left in the week to make your nut without exhausting yourself. Hungry, homeless, exhausted people don’t make good artists.

Once you’ve found your prospects, the rest is easy.  Really.  You’ve been dancing every day since time began, right?  It’s just one more day, and you’ve made choices to put yourself in front of the people who are looking for the specific skills you have.

A couple of day-of-audition reminders:
  •  Dogs are pack animals, and so are dancers.  It may feel like that audition is you versus everyone else in that room.  But the artistic staff isn’t always looking for “that one singular sensation.” They’re looking for more puppies who fit in their pack, play well with the other dogs, and are happy doing good work.  Show your team spirit and willingness to get in and play. 
  •  They are rooting for you.  They want to hire fantastic dancers, and they’re hoping you are one of them.  Go ahead and be fantastic.
  •  Mistakes are opportunities to show your ability to think on the fly.  Figure out some brilliant way to cover or recover.  The audition staff were probably performers.  They’ll give you credit if you stay calm and find a graceful way out of it.

Best audition advice I ever got from a teacher: Don’t try to change yourself to fit what you think a company wants unless you are willing to be that dancer every day.  It is very difficult for a hound to be a Doberman every day (again, see couch-eating metaphor). Find the company that wants YOU.

If you’re doing auditions all over the country, it can get exhausting. Sleeping in strange beds and navigating unfamiliar places is a mental energy suck.  But, it’s worth it to find a dance home that makes you happy. When the day arrives, an audition is a class and a rehearsal in front of new eyes.  You do it ALL THE TIME, so just keep doing it (with a silly number pinned to your clothes).

Dogs playing in the square, Piran, Slovenia
Photo: Dianasch via Flickr

Find your pack and go play.


Katie McCann graduated from Butler University's Dance Department with a Bachelor of Science in Arts Administration.  While at Butler, she performed soloist and principal roles with the university performance company including Myrtha in Giselle and Odile in Swan Lake.  She also performed in original contemporary ballet and modern-dance works by choreographers Donald Byrd and former Martha Graham company member Larry White. After graduation, Katie danced with Kentucky Ballet Theatre in Lexington, Kentucky.  She performed soloist roles in Paquita, Dracula, The Nutcracker, and various repertory pieces.  Now in Chicago, she is director of Dance in the Parks, a non-profit dance initiative that brings free, professional, outdoor, dance concerts to neighborhood parks. She teaches student and professional-level ballet classes throughout the Chicago area.

Visit Dance in the Parks on Facebook!

*This piece originally premiered on January 11, 2013.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Mom in the Spotlight: Comedian, Kellye Howard

Kellye Howard

How long have you been a comedienne?  Officially and unofficially?
I prefer the term comedian, just because as a female we are already categorized into this little box of expected genres of comedy. And I hate it. (Smile) 

I have been doing comedy for 8 years this coming June. I've been a full-time comedian, meaning no 9-5 to help me support this dream since June 2010, so almost 4 years.

How many children do you have?  How old are they?
I have a 13-year-old daughter named Faith. I have a 12-year-old stepdaughter named Mina. And I have two deceased children Diontae (2 months old at the time of his passing) and Heaven (15 months old at the time of her passing).

You told me about some very painful things that have happened to you.  I know that many comedians use their art as therapy.  Can you speak to this a little? 
Comedy is definitely healing. Growing up I was what some would call a class clown. As I've grown I've realized it was my way of counteracting the struggles I was facing at home. The loneliness and the unhappiness I was battling.

Have you ever had any hecklers or people who found your humor offensive?  If so, how did you handle it?
Not really any hecklers. I am very energetic and quick witted on stage, so one wouldn't dare challenge that.  I have had a few women get offended by a domestic violence joke I sometimes do, but to me no subject is off limits. The more painful it is to address the funnier it can be.

How does one stay in shape as a comedian?
If you mean physically in shape, I work out daily. I make time to go to either the gym or yoga. It's apart of my routine, like brushing my teeth or maybe prayer for some.

Mentally, I just allow my mind to wander. I say whatever comes up with no filter. I don't restrict my possibilities. And yes, this can be dangerous. But I've learned to manage it at this point. I also try to write daily. Writing is a great way to exercise the mind.

You mentioned that you are fortunate enough to be able to devote yourself full-time to your work.  That's amazing!  How do you balance this with motherhood?  
I'm a very active mother because I am a full-time comedian. My husband works a day job, so he gets the girls up and out the house, but I do the rest. I pick them up; I go to conferences at the school. I take them to their after school activities, etc. We split the work accordingly and it works out well. Except when I'm on the road, during those times I just make sure to call and text as much as possible and he does everything else.

I know about the process of creating choreography, but nothing about creating a stand-up comedy set.  How is a comedy show created?
Well, a comedy show and set are created on two totally different levels. One involves budgets, booking, and schedule...which I try to avoid that part of the business completely. It's so draining.

As far as a comedy set, a lot of my material is directly from my life. I will take a premise, talk about it on stage and let it naturally unfold. I write stories about my life during the day, and sometimes these naturally surface on stage as well.

I write a lot on stage. This means I take a concept, talk about it on stage, and allow the adrenaline of the moment to created other funny aspects of the story. I tend to be conversationally funny which makes it easier to naturally allow jokes to evolve in to longer bits as I talk to an audience.

How does someone start out in comedy?  
It's like getting it the swimming pool when you think the water is too cold...just jump! You'll never be more ready at a later date. So just do it, like Nike!

How does someone know they can make the leap between friends finding them funny and actually making strangers laugh?
Many people take for granted how difficult it is t make a group laugh that is not personally responding to you, meaning you have to provide the premise, the set up, the point, and the punch line...with no help. I've seen many want-to-be comedians go on stage having been told they were funny by friends and family, and fail terribly. It's completely different. Not impossible if studied properly, but not an easy task either.

Not to put you on the spot or anything, but could you tell us a quick joke right now? 
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side! (Smile)...Google me!
I'm very animated, dramatic, and physically comedic, which makes it difficult to just share a joke via text. 

There seem to be more and more women in comedy, but isn't it still a man's world?  What are some of the issues confronting a woman in comedy?   
The world of comedy is very male dominated, but women are starting to surface more and more, with something to say that's more appealing than sex, and weight issues. I'm excited about my future in comedy because finally there will be a black woman to reach the heights of some of our male counterparts. (I.e. Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Kevin Hart)

If you notice there very few black women to do so. We have Mom's Mabley, Whoopi Goldberg, and Wanda Sykes. Not many black female comedians reach the same stardom as some of the black men. It's unfortunate but very true.

Do you have any advice for women trying to gain a foothold in comedy?  Especially moms?   
Don't feel like you have to conform to the expectations of what female comedians are known to talk about. Be honest, be consistent, and stay focused. NEVER EVER give up. People think comedy is a race, but it's not. It's a marathon. It takes time,  it takes pacing and it takes dedication!


Kellye Howard began her career in comedy part-­time in 2006. That year she was featured in her first television performance on TBS, Pauley Shore’s Hot Girls of Comedy, a segment of Minding the Store. After just six months, she was selected from a comedy competition on Power 92 radio station in Chicago to open for Katt Williams during the taping of American Hustler.  In June 2010, Ms. Howard devoted herself to comedy full-time. She has been on both college and military tours, having performed in Korea for a month for the United States Armed forces. In 2010 Kellye was featured on Comedy Central’s Russell Simmons Presents Stand-­Up at the El Rey. Recently she finished filming the reality TV pilot "My Life is a Joke" produced by Page Hurwitz, which aired on the OWN.  She also was featured on NickMOM's "Night Out", a stand-up show catered to the hardest working people in the world...MOMS!

She is currently represented by 3arts Entertainment. She resides in Chicago with her husband and daughters. 

 “Laughter Takes the Pain Away, Do yourself a Favor and LAUGH today!” She lives by this daily, and urges others to do the same. 

To hang with Kellye more click here!

Follow Kellye on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube!

Monday, January 20, 2014

On Awakening and Martin Luther King Day

Today was Martin Luther King Day.  I didn't want my children, especially my older son who is five, to think they just had a day off from school. I wanted them to know who we were honoring.  And why.

Last year my then four-year-old son and I read a grade school biography on Dr. King.  It had both illustrations and photographs. We read about where Dr. King grew up and where he studied.  We learned where he met his wife, Coretta Scott King.  We read about his preaching, and Rosa Parks, and early events in what would come to be known as the Civil Rights Movement.  

Mr. R, stared in morbid horror at the photograph of Dr. King behind bars in the cell where he wrote "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." He kept wanting to go back to that page.  I stopped at the photographs of the white mobs, their faces twisted with hatred, the fire hoses, and the dogs.  

It was too much.  

I tried to keep my voice as clear and objective as I could, discussing the separate drinking fountains, and the separate schools and waiting rooms, hospitals, train cars, and how a little dark-skinned child could not swim in the same pool with white children. I left out so much. 

He didn't seem to understand -- which a four year old shouldn't.  That will come later.

I remember the awakening I had as a child.  When afterwards the world was different. I saw with new eyes.  I remember a man in my apartment building who never said hello to us.  "He's prejudiced," my mother told me. She then explained it in kid-friendly terms -- that he thought black people were dirty and stupid.  "But we're not!" I thought, indignant and horrified.  

When I was five, Roots aired.  Although my mother wouldn't let me watch it, I did happen to catch a glimpse now and again.  I first heard the word "nigger," and I knew instantly who it was directed at, what it meant, and felt its cruelty.  Months later at day camp when I was 5, two white boys would direct that word at me and a friend. We told on them and they got in trouble.  

Through books and movies and events in real life I started to get that being black wasn't just about having dark skin.  It was how you were treated.  It was if people were nice and fair to you or were mean for no reason.   It was your parents and relatives buying you black dolls because they prayed to God you wouldn't identify with Cinderella or Snow White or Barbie and want to look like them.  It was your hair being a curiosity for some white people and too dark-skinned or light or big-lipped or nappy headed for other black people. It was proving yourself and making sure you were exemplary. It was your dad spitting if a white person ever spat after seeing him. It was not wanting to believe that the reason was because of his or her skin color.  Or yours. It was knowing a history full of injustice and triumph, learning about the greats and the firsts, and knowing they were especially transcendent because white people wouldn't let them vote, perform, play or live like human beings.  

It was being proud because your people had succeeded in spite of.  Knowing how horrible the in spite of was. Is. Knowing it was all so stupid and cruel but so real. 

But along with that ever developing awakening, I had tons of friends of all religions, colors and ethnicities who liked or loved me, for who I was inside.  We liked each other because of what we had in common, and we could talk about what made us different. And if something happened -- when we couldn't talk honestly and openly about race when the subject arose, the relationship almost always died, sooner or later.

Today my kids are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that though imperfect, is in many ways a model American community. It's a college town that attracts people from all over the globe.  It is extremely racially diverse.  Residents range from élites like the Obamas to people in Section 8 housing.  As a mixed race family, we know more families like us than we can count, in addition to single mom and double mom households.  I often wonder what it will be like if we ever leave here, and my kids realize that Hyde Park is special, far from the norm.

       *     *     *     

Yesterday I looked for that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. biography and I couldn't find it.  I guess we'd borrowed it from school or from the library. 

Instead, I tried to initiate a conversation with Mr. R on fairness. I mentioned that people were not treated fairly based on the color of their skin.  That brown and black people couldn't do the things that white people could do.  Knowing we've discussed the different skin tones in our home, I wondered if he'd make the leap to Daddy being able to do things that Mommy wouldn't be allowed to do.  

He didn't. He was silent.  Maybe he didn't want to talk about it.  Maybe it sounded too absurd.  Maybe he just wanted to go play Brave - Temple Run.

Whatever the case we have our job cut out for us - to instill in our son and daughter a sense of pride in their black and white heritage, while teaching them what people of color need to know.  To help them grow into intelligent, strong, curious, confident, responsible, tenacious individuals. To help them become their best selves who are prepared to meet what confronts them when they wake up.  

Thankfully Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others before and after him have made the morning easier.  

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