Air de Ballet


Recently I was asked to guest lecture for the Mark Morris Dance Accompaniment Training Program led by Sarah Marcus and Robert Boston. I casually spoke about my history with dance and offered humorous anecdotes. Afterwards, in conversation with students, I realized it would have been more helpful to give exact examples of what to play for class.

My first mentor was the great Pearl Lang at the Martha Graham school, who taught me how to provide noisy Bartókian propulsion for classes that were generally quite fierce in atmosphere. At the other end of the spectrum, serious ballet classes require romantic-era qualities like grace and rubato.

I’ve played for teachers in the Isadora Duncan, Merce Cunningham, José Limón, and Paul Taylor traditions. There were also tango classes and tap classes: For a couple of years there in the early 90’s, I did damn near everything, and making a living, too. Eventually I ended up playing for Mark Morris’s ballet class, which led to becoming the music director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, a post I held for five years.

Ballet class is harder to learn how to play for than modern class. In some modern classes, one can bring in drums or drone a modal fantasia for an hour and get by. A ballet class pianist needs some familiarity with 19th-century European music, the tiniest amount of comprehension of plié, assemblé, and relevé, and to always note when a combination at the barre goes to the second side.

An important book on the subject also has a Mark Morris connection: Dance and Music: A Guide to Dance Accompaniment for Musicians and Dance Teachers by Harriet Cavalli, who also curated a score of ballet class music excerpts for Mark’s wonderful early dance Canonic 3/4 Studies. To understand the combinations and movement in ballet class, read Cavalli or talk to some dancers.

Many NYC dance class pianists are jazz musicians at heart. We are most comfortable improvising music in class based off of standard pop tunes and jazz forms. However, I always wanted to include more sounds that were from the romantic-era of European piano repertoire, especially if the class was ballet-based. If others are feeling the same urge, here’s a few ideas to help get started. 

In all the recorded examples I play a “lead in” or “four for nothing” introduction as if I were in Mark Morris’s class. In proper Russian ballet it is common practice to simply arpeggiate tonic and dominant before the combination starts. Other teachers might simply count it off. In the end, at least a basic mutual understanding between instructor and musician is a crucial part of making the class enjoyable for all.

Dance class combinations are usually in 8-bar phrases. One thing that makes appropriating the great composers difficult for class is a lack of square phrases. For example, the old “Turkish March” of Beethoven is good for ballet jumps —  but the phrase structure is 8 – 4 – 8. The solution for 8 – 8 is to improvise a short ending.

Anton Rubinstein’s flashy arrangement is the most common form of this piece, but it might be a bit thick for casual performance. There’s no reason not to thin it out on the fly.

Turkish march

Another familiar Beethoven dance is the little Ecossaise in G. This is in 8 bar phrases, perfect, but perhaps it could use some improvised amplification in the bass to help the dancers attempt to defy gravity.


Chopin would seem ideal for ballet class but there’s not so much that is readily usable. Again, the phrases are uneven. However the famous E-flat nocturne is in 8s and certainly does the job. (As a bonus, note how the whole piece is just like an AABA standard with another bridge and A out — just like if you were making a three-minute record with Billie Holiday.) For class, you shouldn’t play the piece with the dramatic rubato required for recital, and there’s no need to play the fancy ornamentation, either. A “straightened out” and “improvised” version in waltz time is fine. (Amusingly, IMSLP has the following “easy” arrangement.)

easy chopin

There are marches, polkas, waltzes, and other dances by many great composers. However at some point I tire of fussing with the canon and prefer to go further afield. For my “improvisations in the styles of European composers” I have been repeatedly inspired by the “B team.”

One hundred years ago, when there was a piano in every home, publishers produced countless collections of medium difficulty pieces by good composers who were a little too predictable to retain much of a hold in the repertoire. These anthologies are now dirt cheap in used book stores, but IMSLP does have some scans, for example Anthology of Modern Classics and The World’s Best Music.

For ballet class it is particularly helpful to find a book of Russian composers, simply because Russia is where so many of the great ballets come from. One could easily play a whole class out of the three-volume Album of Russian Piano Music.  Again, I’d stay away from big names like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Scriabin, but instead look for not-too-difficult pieces in 8 bar phrases by minor composers.

I am a pretty good sight-reader, and part of how I got that way was by playing through any of these anthologies whenever I found one. Below I’m going to read the first page of a few things from The Pianist’s Anthology. My rule with my iPhone recorder is “first and only take,” so there are plenty of mistakes. Doesn’t matter! In fact, dance class is an ideal situation to learn how to “keep going no matter what” in repertoire.

“Jadassohn” is not a name that has maintained too much relevance. There’s no reason to turn a page or get stuck with an odd bar phrase so I just improvise a turnaround.


“Lack” offers an intro that I couldn’t resist. (Before I start I could tell Mark, “Two bars of vamp to begin.”) Naturally I fake the arpeggios at the end of the bridge.


This Paderweski waltz might have a bit more genuine compositional/pianistic interest. Ignore the written intro and go straight to the tune.

Au Soir

Two second-tier composers especially good for class are Moritz Moszkowski and Carl Czerny.

Moszkowski has stayed in the regular piano repertoire thanks to a few light encore pieces played by Vladimir Horowitz and others. His music is always attractive and wonderfully written for the hand but stops just short of genius. Perhaps if he used fewer regular 8 bar phrases he would have had a better shot at immortality. Still, that regularity makes Moszkowski perfect for dance class. There’s a nice set of 26 famous pieces collected by Schirmer.


For the Mazurka there is a ballet intro already given:


Some jazz harmony in this one:


One time I was involved in a Vince Giordano soundtrack to a Harold Lloyd film a Moszkowski boogie-woogie turned up.


As is, “Monologue” might be too sparse for class, so I play it as a tango.


A repeated note idea for a “big waltz.”

momento giojoso

Although Carl Czerny wrote excellent larger pieces including several worthy sonatas, he will always be remembered for hundreds (thousands?) of short and fairly banal pieces intended to help pianists with their technique.

Czerny exercises have a long history with ballet.  There are anthologies of Czerny just for ballet class. As mentioned above, Cavalli used some Czerny for Morris’s Canonic 3/4 Studies, while the Harald Lander choreography Études has Czerny orchestrated in the manner of Les Sylphides.

Playing through The School of Legato and Staccato might be helpful practice for dance class pianists. Eventually improvising in the style of a Czerny étude won’t be that difficult.

It goes without saying that you never play that soft for dance class, one must push those bodies around with the force of your playing. The following piece is much harder pianissimo — that’s Czerny’s point — but I can just read it down like ragtime.

Czerny D minor

In general the “staccato” pieces are more relevant then those promoting “legato.” Still, Czerny was a proper composer with nice voice leading, and the following might be good for dance class.

Czerny Ab andante

One can practice leaps at the piano while the dancers practice leaps on the floor.

Czerny G leaps

These are starting to get too hard for sight-reading…

Czerny A octaves

Finally we have a piece that Cavalli appropriated for Canonic 3/4 Studies.

Czerny canonic

A logical next step is improvising a Czerny-style etude on jazz changes. Here are three bad examples. This is arguably truly terrible music. But when you play for class a dozen or more hours a week this kind of thing makes sense: You push yourself as some kind of wacky creative pianist and the dancers don’t mind.

Autumn Leaves:

Ain’t Misbehavin’:

Out of Nowhere:


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