Music

How Beyoncé’s Choreographer Knows She’s Found the Perfect Song

Courtesy Alsop

For choreographer and teacher James Alsop to choose a piece of music for class, it has to make her groove.

"You're sitting down and your body can't help but to move," she says. A heel tap or a subtle sway of the hips—any organic movement that manifests from her gut—is the sign of a stellar, dance-worthy song.

This visceral reaction to music can be unpredictable, says Alsop, who's choreographed for artists like J. Lo and Beyoncé, for the Netflix series "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Soundtrack," and for The Devil Wears Prada, set to open on Broadway in 2021. "It can happen with Kimbra or something real hood. It just depends on what moves me. Right now, it's Afrobeats," she says.


Compared to Alsop's music-choosing process, her path to becoming a sought-after choreographer was more foreseeable. Though she realized early on in her career that she wanted to be a choreographer, she knew that she had to work as a dancer first. A major break arrived in 2010: While acting in a supporting role in the musical indie film Leave It on the Floor, Alsop was put on the spot to choreograph a scene in an hour by the film's co-producer, Frank Gatson Jr., who also happened to be Beyoncé's creative director.

Gatson was impressed. Not long after, Alsop was introducing her signature style—a mix of jazz, ballet and contemporary technique, with accents of hip hop and funk—to Beyoncé in person. The star immediately fell in love with Alsop's interpretation of her music. This meeting resulted in the iconic music video "Run the World (Girls)."

Working with Beyoncé was like a dream, says Alsop. "She's an out-of-this-world creative force. A lot of my firsts were with Beyoncé. I learned to work under pressure as a teacher and come up with choreography in an instant."

Whether she's working with pop stars or young dancers, music has always been the motivating force behind Alsop's work, especially as a teacher. She loves challenging students' musicality: When teaching syncopation or a complicated rhythm, she'll "say the song" (for example, "boom tap tap, boom tap tap") with no music, and have the class repeat the sounds back to her four or five times. Then, she'll incorporate the movement. "This makes it easier for dancers to retain because they've instilled the rhythm into their entire bodies," she says. "Repetition is really important to get the beat."

Alsop strives to mix up her music selection to energize her classes. "Dance teachers were always the ones who introduced me to new music," she says. "I always fell in love with new sounds in class that inspired creativity that you might not get from what everyone else is playing."

Her current hunt for new artists and genres includes asking friends from all over the world for recommendations before spending hours of falling down YouTube rabbit holes. "I'll type in 'West African dance' and find this incredible song with dancers from Nigeria or Ghana, and then I'll type in 'Afro-Cuban' and find amazing Brazilian songs," says Alsop.

Alsop made Dance Teacher a playlist of her favorite songs to use for class, and shared some of the artists and songs that inspire her:

Janet Jackson's entire collection

"Any song from any album. I love her forever. She's always been a reason you wake up and go in the morning. Everything about her musical composition to her production to her lyrics to her background vocals are otherworldly."

Master KG's "Jerusalema"

"This is just a global feel-good song. It is literally about spreading love across the world and it comes with its own line dance. How could you not love it?"

Mariah Carey's Emancipation of Mimi

"This album is a vocal masterpiece. It's also a reminder to never count yourself out. Mariah had been through a lot, and much doubt had been cast on her career. Then she clobbered everyone over the head with the mastery."

Beyoncé's "Freakum Dress"

"This is a go-to dance song for me. From the loud drum and bass of Rich Harrison's production to the meaning, all the way down to the incredible choreography of Jonte' & Ramon. This song and video solidify Beyoncé as one of the best to ever do it. I can't hear this song and not do the original choreo."

Jessie Ware's What's Your Pleasure?

"In my personal opinion, this is the best pop album, and I may even dare to say the best album to be released this year. Talk about the most perfect pick-me-up from beginning to end during a year full of quarantine. There's something for everyone on this album and it's all based in dance."

Teachers Trending
Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy. Photo courtesy Dance With Me

Listening to Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy riff together makes it crystal-clear why each has mastered the art of partnering in the ballroom—they've long been doing this dance in real life as brothers and business partners.

Along with their "Dancing with the Stars" pedigree (and a combined three mirror-ball trophies between them), Maks and Val (and their father, Sasha) also run Dance With Me, a dance company hosting six ProAm Dancesport competitions annually and running 14 brick-and-mortar studio locations across the U.S.

Last year, the pair launched an online component, Dance & Co. The online video platform offers beginner through advanced instruction in not only ballroom but an array of other styles, as well as dance fitness classes from HIIT to yoga to strength training. "DWTS" fans will recognize such familiar faces as Peta Murgatroyd, Jenna Johnson, Sharna Burgess and Emma Slater, along with Maks and Val themselves.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
@jayplayimagery, courtesy Kerollis

In the spring of 2012, Barry Kerollis was abruptly forced into treating his career as a small business. Having just moved cross-country to join BalletX, he got injured and was soon let go.

"I'd only ever danced with big companies before," the now-freelance dance-teacher-choreographer-podcaster recalls. "That desperation factor drove me to approach freelancing with a business model and a business plan."

As Kerollis acknowledges, getting the business of you off the ground ("you" as a freelance dance educator, that is) can be filled with unexpected challenges—even for the most seasoned of gigging dancers. But becoming your own CEO can make your work–life balance more sustainable, help you make more money, keep you organized, and get potential employers to offer you more respect and improved working conditions. Here's how to get smart now about branding, finances and other crucial ways to tell the dance world that you mean business.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Oleson

American dance educator Shannon Oleson was teaching recreational ballet and street-dance classes in London when the pandemic hit. As she watched many of her fellow U.S. friends pack up and return home from their international adventures, she made the difficult choice to stick with her students (as well as her own training—she was midway through her MFA at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance).

Despite shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders, she was able to maintain a teaching schedule that kept her working with her dancers through Zoom, as well as lead some private, in-home acro classes following government guidelines. But keeping rec students interested in the face of pandemic fatigue hasn't been easy.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.