It has been years since I have had a regular accompanying schedule, and I miss it so much.

I started playing for classes in 1995. By 1999, I was playing 4-6 classes a day, 6-7 days a week in NYC. My daily routine started early at 6 AM. I would check my gear and make sure everything was intact from the day before. I would run down the stairs with two congas on a fold-up dolly, a backpack full of small instruments, and a djembe. All together, everything weighed over 50 pounds. I would stop at my corner deli for a breakfast sandwich and a small coffee, which I would eat quickly and head in the direction of my first class.

Careful not to tip over the dolly balancing the two congas and hardware, I would walk from the Bowery over to the "old" Dancespace on Broadway to be there by 8 AM. This was before it moved downtown. There was an unfinished rehearsal space upstairs where I would set up my drums and get ready to play for Shen Wei and the amazing people in his early company. Although the two of us did not speak the same spoken language at the time, we communicated through the sound and movement. I cherish witnessing the company develop that amazing style of Shen Wei’s technique.

Jesse and Michael in class.
Me and Jesse in class.

By 9:30, I was packed up and dragging the already complaining dolly on the uneven streets of Broadway heading up to Houston. Limon class would start around 10 AM with Rita Steinberg or Carlos Orta. This space had a piano, so most of the class was playing tangos and beautiful ballads in between hard-hitting percussion for combinations that sent dancers flying across the room. So many people from so many different companies came out to that morning class. The energy, even on the hottest or coldest days, was always inspiring.

I would be back on the street wrestling with the fragile, wobbling dolly by 11:30 and off to Two Boots Pizza for a couple of plain slices and a Martinelli's for lunch. I was a regular, so they had my order ready to go and I was out the door by noon. I would head east to NYU where I would need to get a quick double shot of espresso before playing one of the most fast-paced ballet classes with the incredible James Martin. We had a great time together in class. He had an electricity in his eyes and would choose some of the most breakneck tempos for petite allegros. I had to channel my inner Chico Marx to keep up.

I was back attacking the pavement with my stressed out dolly for an almost 2-mile walk to a small dance studio on the 8th floor of a stoic building in the heart of Chinatown. This space had the best views of any NYC dance studio. There was a constant flow of inspiration coming in from the views of folks doing so many different things on the street. I played some of my best classes there. Sometimes it would be a beautifully calm and focused ballet class by Jackie Villamil or even a single student class with Merceditas Manago-Alexander. My day could have ended right then, but it was back to the streets to make the next class on time.

Afternoon class with Jenn Nugent or Pam Pietro at Dancespace would start around 3 PM. There would be a line out the door with dancers trying to get into the class. These classes would sell out, and folks would sadly not always be able to take the class. The classes were a straight-up party. We would all be so energized at that time of the day. The class was filled with some of my closest dance friends, lots that I am still close with today. We would make such a racket that folks would be watching through the windows outside of the studio, and businesses in neighboring buildings would often call the police on us for noise complaints. It felt so rock and roll!

I had an hour break after that, so I would load up the sad, exhausted dolly and head back up to the Limon studio for 6 PM class with Alan Danielson. I would stash my drums at Limon and head out to get a quick dinner and try to catch a few moments to walk around and clear my head before class started. Alan was also a musician and would play hand drums with me which was great fun after a long day of solo playing. Dancers that were managing full-time day jobs would come to that class. It was, for some of them, as much of the NYC dance experience as they could get while trying to survive financially. There was an incredible importance to playing that class and really giving the students my best.

Around 8 PM, the dolly begging for mercy, I would start the ascent back up the five never-ending flights of stairs in my shared apartment on the Bowery. Within 12 hours, I had not left an area of 2 square miles but had walked close to 10 miles. If I was lucky, I had only tipped over the laughing dolly a handful of times. That was the routine of most days of the week for about 3-4 years.

Michael playing class.
Playing class.

Before the pandemic, I was only playing 2-3 ballet classes per week. As the program head for the modern dance program, I had limited time to accompany class. When we shifted to online classes, I wasn't even in the studio with the teacher and students. I transitioned from university work to freelance composing at the same time that dance classes were starting to resume in person. It wasn't until last summer that I finally stepped into a dance studio at the American Dance Festival for the first time in years. During that first class, I wept through the entire first combination…and continued to do so for the rest of the class.

I had lost my identity as a class musician, and began to doubt if I would ever be able to play again. However, it turned out to be just like riding a bike. Over the course of a couple of weeks, I fell back in love with one of my favorite things in the world - accompanying.

Currently, I work alone in my small 200 square foot studio, communicating with collaborators through email, DMs, and Zoom. Fortunately, I have the opportunity to work with amazing choreographers and dancers from around the world. However, the drawback is that once I put down my phone or end a Zoom session, I am left with only myself. There is no one there to provide critical feedback on how my music supports or does not support the movement. This feedback is crucial to my work. Luckily, I receive videos of performances and improvisations each day that feature my music. Many of these videos can be found on my Instagram page, and I watch every single one.

Although there is nothing like playing for class, I do enjoy seeing so much movement being created to music of mine. I don't see the process of composing for dance all that different from playing any of the classes I described above. All of the skills employed are the same. My job is to watch and listen so that I can find the best sonic environment to support the movement I am watching. The main difference is the expanded amount of time I have to create something for the movement, and the unspoken exchanges that happen in a technique class filled with students and an amazing teacher.

At my core, I am an accompanist. This passion has led me to become a composer, an educator, and a music distributor and licenser. I now own a company focused on innovating music education and distributing music for our beautiful dance community. Playing in class has been instrumental in getting me to where I am today, and my heart is just about full.

That small empty spot within me longs for the blisters on my hands from arm wrestling that courageous dolly, which is still resting in my bedroom closet next to the two congas and the djembe that is now missing a head. I know that I have not yet played my best class and that I will return to the studio eventually. As an accompanist, I feel like I have so much more to offer. For now, I am channeling that same energy into creating a course on how to get started with accompanying. I hope to inspire many more people to hit the streets with a drum on their back in pursuit of their next dance class.