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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Music for Dance

In the past we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies, Stravinsky, trumpet, Maria Callas, Bach, the organ and mezzo-sopranos.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love music — of many different styles — made to be danced to. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

I think I first heard it in a TV commercial for beef, but Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” was written for ballet. A particularly American ballet — about a cowgirl! — choreographed by Agnes de Mille in 1942. Like Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring,” written for Martha Graham, “Rodeo” forged a mythical sound of Americana that was taken up by pops concerts and advertisers. But this is dance music, as you can feel from the start, when the scene-setting of open spaces accelerates into a trot and then kicks into the broncobusting, heel-cracking main theme. That Justin Peck’s 2015 choreography for New York City Ballet successfully ditched the story and held onto the rhythms is a testament to their power.

When we did “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” this fall at the Metropolitan Opera, we included step dance, an African-American social dance form used in fraternities, sororities, H.B.C.U.s. I connect it to Juba dance; enslavers would sometimes take the drums away from the enslaved, who would continue to use their bodies as a way of communicating.

It’s about the body being an instrument — using your hands and feet and body to create rhythms that are a musical composition. I tried to create a score, a rhythmic score, inside of Terence Blanchard’s opera score. This was the first time that step dance had been on the Met stage, and I tried to honor the ancestors and what this movement means as best I could.

“Apollo” is full of nuance. After Apollo’s first solo, there is a musical shift when he’s introduced to the three muses. You can hear the delicacy of each muse, and there’s this coy energy as the god discovers himself through dancing with them. Stravinsky’s score is so layered and intricate; you hear melody on top of melody, just as Apollo supports all three women as a partner. And then those layered melodies culminate in a really lush, beautiful resolve. It’s the music that creates this image of openness and fills the space with density. It’s a moment of harmony that melts my heart.

The first time I saw “Grace,” Ronald K. Brown’s 1999 hit for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I had to check the fine print in the program. What was that song? The one that had me itching to get up and move along with the dancers? Thus began my habit of listening on repeat to Roy Davis Jr.’s “Gabriel,” featuring Peven Everett. The 1996 British garage track — with its infectious house beat, luminous trumpet and mellow yet passionate vocals — was made to be danced to in contexts other than a theater. But in Brown’s hands, it’s equally at home onstage, where his intricate, cyclical movement slinks into the music’s subtler grooves and widens its spiritual dimensions.

Many people’s first experience with live ballet is “The Nutcracker.” It was mine, too, and though I knew nothing about dance, I couldn’t get enough of Tchaikovsky’s score. I later loved the symphonic drama of his “Swan Lake” and then came to “The Sleeping Beauty,” immediately hooked by its famous Rose Adagio. A moment of stasis yet suspense, the fairy tale scene is set by a flowing harp, followed by Romantic strings and dignified brasses as Aurora receives and rejects a series of suitors. The ending, regal and rattlingly loud, is a triumph not only for the princess, but also for any ballerina who emerges unscathed.

A good piece of dance music is an aural guide for the body to explore the freedom of movement. It changes directions. It grabs onto your heartbeat and pulses through your veins. It makes you tap your feet. One of my favorite pieces of dance music is for the Tinikling, the national folk dance of the Philippines, which emulates the swift footsteps of the tikling bird. The virtuoso melody provides variations on a theme, syncopated rhythms, changing tempos to build excitement and, finally, a crescendo release. Fair warning: Only the most musical dancers avoid the sore ankles that come with the closing snap of the bamboo poles.

There is a mystery to “Reflections in D,” unlike many other songs by Duke Ellington, who called his compositions “American music” rather than jazz. Though abstract, the song suggests a poignant story behind the haunting, bittersweet melody. In 1962 Alvin Ailey was moved to create a dance to this music, so when we listen to it now, we see and hear the prowess and vulnerability of both these great artists. Though the piece is brief, it says everything needed, with nothing superfluous, something that can only be achieved by masters of their craft. Our own memories are freed by the tranquil poetry. “Reflections in D” is a meditation on being.

Twyla Tharp’s 1986 masterpiece “In the Upper Room” has many moments of quiet intimacy. But as you can guess from the music alone, the final section is a relentless full-ensemble Olympics. In the score Tharp commissioned from Philip Glass, she got the sonic equivalent of her surging, athletic choreography, with the dancers (by this point dripping in sweat) soaring through the fog and shadows created by Jennifer Tipton’s lighting. Many, many people have set Glass to movement, never more exhilarating than this.

I respect and value “Trio per Uno” for the sheer genius behind the percussion syncopation, and its variety of color and mood. I have always been drawn to percussion for dancing because of its obvious physicality and the impulse to move from places internal. But I often find that single-movement percussion works fall too far into a single rhythm, making the dance one-dimensional. So when I came across this piece I was immediately taken by its changes in direction throughout, and how recklessly it ends. The duet I set to it is one of my favorite pieces of my choreography.

Given its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1931 as the successor to his “The Spider’s Feast,” Albert Roussel’s undeservedly overlooked “Bacchus et Ariane” is a magnificently symphonic kind of ballet — painted in bright, bold colors, graced with soaring lyricism and driven along with grinding, mechanistic rhythmic force. After Bacchus’s kiss leads into a gloriously rapt dance for Ariane, a pounding bacchanal cavorts out of control, before Ariane reaches her apotheosis and is crowned in stars. There are more graphic accounts of this music out there, but nobody matches Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for finding the beauty in the carnage.

What I love about dance music is that it can be anything. It can be a piece that inspires me to choreograph a ballet for the stage, or something that causes me to glide in synchronized rhythm around my kitchen as I prepare dinner. It’s all fair game. In the case of “Become a Mountain” by Dan Deacon, it’s all of the above: the centerpiece of a longer dance that I choreographed a few months ago for the Juilliard School Class of 2022, and also a stand-alone track that gets my blood pumping on these frigid winter days in New York.

Arturo O’Farrill is a musician with great love of and respect for the art of dance. Our collaborations have explored both the freedom of improvisation, composing music on the spot, and working with his vast catalog for choreographic inspiration. “The Sandbox” is one of our many improvisational moments, recorded for my show “Chasing Magic.” Playfully we flow through Latin, jazz, classical and blues music in five minutes. Our interaction reflects the freedom, tradition, stop-time, call-and-response nature of jazz and tap. We always surprise ourselves when our rhythm and cadence uncannily sync, like magic.

The sabar is a dance form of the Wolof people, who mainly live in parts of Senegal and Gambia. The dancing is accompanied by a style of drumming with the same name. I grew up in Senegal, with this musician’s family as a neighbor. The sophisticated rhythmic language of sabar inspired me to begin dancing at an early age. It is a freeing way to approach dance, as individuality and improvisation are key elements, and the energetic, mathematical polyrhythms triggered a lifelong desire in me to choreograph my own variations on movement.

With its slick grooves, percussion, guitar licks and beautiful vocals, “Betray My Heart,” by D’Angelo and the Vanguard, is one of the rarest love songs I know. I included it in my newest evening-length work, “An Untitled Love,” because it is so pure, honest and sincere that I’m given a glimpse into what the joys of love should feel like. There’s something in the song’s lyrics and arrangement that makes me want to cry, and then get up and dance with the biggest smile on my face. My backbone slips, my shoulders roll, my heart thumps, and my head bops in its declaration.

Hindemith’s score for Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” — known in dancer shorthand as “Four T’s” — resulted in a groundbreaking merging of music and dance exploring the notion that in every person there are four humors, or temperaments. “Phlegmatic,” the third variation, evoking the unemotional, indifferent side of the psyche, starts out with strings that make the body droop and rise. The spare, strong notes of the piano part are like light cutting through mist to pave the way for a melody that builds and bounces, all the while conjuring physical sensations: gliding, floating, flying. The music’s spirit may belong to Balanchine, yet somehow it makes room for more — within it, there are so many dances waiting to be danced.

New York boasts plenty of places where you can check out improvising composers plying their craft — but not nearly so many spaces to dance while they play. That has made live concert interventions like the pianist Jason Moran’s “Fats Waller Dance Party” particularly inviting at venues like Harlem Stage. On Moran’s accompanying album, “All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller,” he keeps alive the social aspect of early jazz, with a contemporary twist. During a track like “Lulu’s Back in Town,” Moran injects rhythmic fillips that call to mind producers like J Dilla, while still doing honor to Waller’s rendition from the 1930s.

Prokofiev’s ballet “Romeo and Juliet” has a tortured history. Its premiere was repeatedly delayed; the music was derided as impossible to dance to; and the score was subjected to Soviet censorship. But it has become one of his most beloved works — by turns fiery, lyrical and haunting. There are also moments of irreverence, such as in this carnival-like dance featuring the mandolin. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop, brings anguish and electricity to the score.

I am Jamaican, and I love reggae music. Chronixx, one of Jamaica’s celebrated young singers, known for his rapturous songs, invites listeners to hearken back to the Rasta skank of Bob Marley. In “Smile Jamaica,” he starts off by singing about a girl he’s met; they exchange names and sweetly, just when the beat drops, we find that her name is Jamaica. He sings: “And I said smile, girl, smile. Smile for me, Jamaica.” In Jamaica we say “di music sweet mi,” and so I can’t help but drop my head, drop deeper into my swaying hips, pump my bent arms, smile, and sing along with the chorus.

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