What is accompanying (for dance)?

New friend: "Cool, you're a musician. What type of music do you play?"

Me: "I play lots of different types of music, but primarily for dance."

New friend: "Wow, like a DJ?"

Me: "Yes, kind of like a DJ at times. It depends on the class."

New friend: "Class? Not at a club?"

Me: "No, I play for modern, ballet, and other types of dance."

New friend: "..."

Me: "You know the piano player that sits in the corner of a ballet class, playing while the dancers train?"

New friend: "..."

Me: "Did you see The OA? I create music for contemporary movement like on that show..."

New friend: "..."

Me: "I am a composer."

New friend: "Oh, that's awesome! I love music! Wait, are you a dancer?"

Me: "..."

What I do for a living is unusual. It's not self-deprecating, but it's a unique profession that is rarely understood.

When a musician plays for a person who is dancing, they are accompanying a dance. Accompanying can also refer to when a musician, usually a pianist, plays for a singer, choir, or another musician. When I accompany dance, I play a similar role, but I support a dance teacher and students rather than another musician. I create a sonic environment for dancers to practice movement.

Being a dancer is unlike any other profession. Dancers learn movement techniques in groups of usually 15-30 people. They learn by modeling and repeating the movements of a teacher, in what is called a technique class or simply "class". This is similar to a musician playing scales, but whereas a musician practices technique alone in a practice room, dancers practice technique in groups. It is a communal practice.

Technique classes encompass a variety of genres and styles, ensuring that no two classes are alike. Some teachers specialize in a specific movement style, such as Gaga, Limon, Graham, Humphrey, or Cunningham technique. Accompanists may also specialize in accompanying a specific dance style or, like myself, strive to play for a variety of class styles.

Each dance technique can incorporate various types of music. As an accompanist, I must be capable of playing music from nearly any genre, with any harmonic structure, at any tempo, in any meter, and for any duration of time. This is one of the most challenging jobs I have had as a musician, as it tests my abilities on every instrument I play.

Accompaniment happens in every form of dance. Music and dance have always been intertwined like no other two art forms. Musicians create new music, and dancers find new ways of moving to that music. Dancers create new movements, and musicians play something new to accompany them. The two art forms have always inspired each other to develop. We see major developments in music happening in scores created for dancers. Even today, as new music is created, choreographers find that music and are inspired to create new ways of moving.

Playing for dance provides a supportive and inspiring environment. Accompanying dance is like going to the gym daily for a composer. As a musician, I have dedicated my artistic life to this practice.