Music and Dance Part 2: Starting to Move

Continued from last post, “What musicians can learn from other performing arts forms”

Email This Post Email This Post

Ok, so maybe we can grow as artists from exercises of dancers and actors.Now what?

Part 2: Starting to Move

This second post is designed for people ready to start exploring adding movement to their musical practice. If you don’t see any benefits to that, check out the post above.

Exercises in exploring movement

The exercises provided generally have two purposes.

  1. Experiment with how your body can move. I once heard choreographer John Heginbotham say that dancers don’t have anything special–they have the same four limbs everyone else does, and dancing is just a puzzle to find wonderful new ways to use them. This was something that had literally never occurred to me and I thought it was magical.  Most musicians (me included), are a bit stiffer with their bodies, and less practiced with this puzzle than your average theater or dance student. We need to get used to all the possible ways to move our body that we don’t use in daily life if we want to play with movement.
  2. Practice using those movements with a specific emotional intention.  We can tell young students when to crescendo, when to play loud, etc. But the dynamic is really just an element of our interpretation. This is the difference between long tones where you practice crescendos and decrescendos, and attaching emotional meaning to the dynamics in a piece. You can lift your arm or leg or move or hold still, or anything. The actual choreography is less important than the intention behind it and how it relates to the choreography around it. We need to practice figuring out how to express whatever emotion or concept we imagine.


The rest of the post is designed for people ready to literally move as they read.

Environment Recommendations:

Give yourself a completely judgement-free zone. For me, this is ideally a large, locked room with a mirror where I can see me but no one else can. (We don’t always have this luxury, but get as close as you can. Schools, churches, community centers and more are often friendly and living rooms are bigger when the furniture is moved to the side.) This is the chance to badly dance while no one is watching and look really dumb and enjoy laughing at yourself. And then surprise yourself when you do something awesome. This should absolutely be fun and enjoyable. If it is not, change anything you need to so that it is. Take your time and explore each exercise as long as you want.

(These can be done both with and without your instrument)

Beginner exercises

Exploring basic movement

Experiment with different ways to stand and fall to the ground. First spend a few minutes exploring variations of ways to find yourself on the ground in various poses and ways to get yourself standing again. Lead with different body parts (hand, knee, head, etc.), experiment with different speeds up and down.

Adding context to basic movement

Do the same exercise as above, but start attaching an adjective or feeling to it. Imagine feeling forced or weighed down and struggling to get up. Then switch it and float down and feel like you’re being lifted up. Now move as though everything is heavy, liquid, airy, sticky, or anything else you imagine. Add in leading with different body parts again. Then instead of adjectives use emotions. How would you move if you were scared, angry, nervous, agitated, etc.?

Exploring other movements

I used the up and down motion as a loose framework for this just to have something to guide you in moving a way outside normal life habits. But you can do this as a totally separate exercise where you may not end up on the floor but rather move through space. Start on one end of the room and find yourself on the other end in different ways. Do a movement adding a new prompt to the motion. Move taking up as much space as possible, as little space as possible. Move with your knee leading everything, or your elbow. Move thinking about circles, now thinking about angles. As with most of these exercises, there is no wrong way, idea, or movement. Just stay with each prompt for a while, giving yourself time to experiment. The goal is to get you thinking creatively about how to use the tool of your body.

Easy bonus (with a friend)

Energy ball

Imagine you are throwing energy back and forth (or in a circle if you have fun and cool friends who will try this with you). Start by just throwing energy around and trying to match the way the person throws it to you. Was it fast? Did it seem like they were throwing something heavy? Was it aggressive? Gentle? Every couple rounds someone can randomly change or alter the energy for a while and throw it in a new way. The important thing about this is to make sure you commit with your whole body to what you think the energy is. You need to be aware of the cues others give you and you need to be committed enough to pass those cues to the next person. This gets us thinking about all the different ways energy can look and feel in the abstract sense of visualizing energy.

Then use adjectives again. Light, heavy, feathery, bubbly, sticky, flowing, bouncy, sad, excited, frenzied, or anything else you come up with.

More advanced

The exercises above are like scales and warm-ups in that they give you some foundational building blocks for movements you might really use. They give you ideas for movements and help you stay focused on linking movement with an idea or emotion.

This next exercise is like an etude in that anyone can do it, but I get the most out of it if I do it after warming up with some of the other exercises and exploring movement possibilities and it helps me prepare for approaching real pieces.

Improv dance

This is good transition from abstract energy to conveying a musical idea. It lets us practice drawing from the sound we hear rather than abstract thought or made-up emotion, without limiting us to the pieces we are working on. Don’t worry, you’ve been improvising dance this whole time. Now you are just doing it with music. And, it is really fun.

Put a piece of music that you love on repeat–a pop song, jazz song, classical song, or anything that inspires you that day. I liked pop songs because they have fairly clear sections that repeat and are pretty short so I can do different variations each time a section returns. Play with improvised movements without worrying too much about what the product is. The only goal is to let your body experiment with possibilities that match the sound you hear, and at this stage it is much more important that a movement feels like the way the music makes you feel rather than that it looks good or that it conveys that feeling to others appropriately. It’s okay to take a few seconds to regroup every now and then, but try to keep moving without judgement if something doesn’t work. Eventually, something will get close to expressing what you want to express.

Listen to the music and think about what kind of cues you’re getting. Maybe from the structure, the words, the melody. If there is an underlying ostinato, maybe you’ll have an underlying repeating dance step that parallels it. Maybe you have the same step every time the chorus comes back. Or maybe you are expressing something different in this iteration of the chorus and you alter or replace the first choreography. Don’t overthink it, just play with each song a few times and be aware of what you end up with. Again, no judgement. Just fun and exploratory.

Make up your own

These are some of my favorite exercises, but anything that makes you explore movement and expressiveness is great. Look online, talk to friends, make something up. It’s all about being creative and curious.

You now have more than enough to start exploring because there is no wrong movement as long as it makes sense to you.


While you have all the tools you need, the next post gives some examples of how to approach actual music from your repertoire.



Jessica is a classically-trained clarinetist based out of Florida and Ohio who loves cats, vegan chocolate chip cookies, psychology, and working with as many different types of artists as possible. She has a BA in psychology and BM in clarinet performance from Northwestern University and began her MM in clarinet performance at BGSU in fall 2017.

Follow on Facebook or Instagram