With the exception of heavy metal, Grace Buckley has choreographed to almost every genre of music—from pop to country, soulful indie rock to R&B.
Buckley, who's been a New York City Dance Alliance faculty member since 2012, describes her tastes as a "mixed bag," with one caveat: She prefers lyrics.
When she first started teaching at her hometown studio in Westchester County, New York, this instinct seemed unfounded and simplistic.
"I used to feel that it wasn't creative to connect so literally to lyrics," says Buckley, "but there's a lot to be said to listening to what the artist is saying and how they're saying it."
Today, Buckley embraces her natural pull toward the lyrics, letting the singer's phrasing, vocal stylings and poetry inspire the intricacies of her technical, fluid and lyrical jazz choreography. "I have trouble choreographing without them," admits Buckley, who's also a guest teacher at Steps on Broadway in New York City.
The idea that popular music with lyrics can enhance the dancers' connection to the music—and the audience's connection to the performance—was reinforced during Buckley's time dancing with Bad Boys of Ballet.
The company, founded by Adrienne Canterna, was rooted in classical ballet but incorporated contemporary, acro and hip-hop choreography set to pop music like Michael Jackson, Queen and Lady Gaga, with the intention of making ballet more accessible. Buckley quickly discovered the powerful effects of choosing music with a broad appeal.
"Adrienne's inclination made the work approachable. It helped me find my style," says Buckley, who toured internationally with the company as a dancer, dance captain and ballet mistress until 2018.
In 2019, while co-choreographing on Season 3 of NBC's "World of Dance" for contestant Kayla Mak, Buckley took her music philosophy further. "I learned from Tabitha and Napoleon [the show's co-executive producers and supervising choreographers] that finding relatable music for television that's also dynamic is important for the overall entertainment value and keeping the crowd engaged," she says.
Now, when Buckley's teaching at Virtual Steps, serving as director of her workshop for young dancers, BUILD Dance Series or setting competition choreography, she enforces the importance of musicality, frequently breaking down the phrasing of the lyrics, or pointing out the crescendos of the vocalist.
She also emphasizes that clarity of timing and dynamics is just as important as technique. "I count through everything," says Buckley, "but I try to leave time to move beyond the counts and hone in on the phrasing, hopefully getting to a place with the music that we can throw away the counts."
Buckley has found that her students' relationship to the music has actually deepened during the pandemic. Remote learning requires dancers to take more of a responsibility for their own ear and musicality, she says, relying less upon her constant counting.
"If you're in the same room you can count along with them. Virtually there's less of that," she says. "This gives young dancers more opportunity to really listen."
Buckley made us a Spotify playlist with songs that she uses for class, and told us about the artists, albums and songs that continue to challenge and inspire her work.
Melodrama, by Lorde
"Though not all of it is age-appropriate, I honestly believe this to be a perfect album, every track, from start to finish. Different tracks appeal to me for different reasons, whether it be the melodies, the vibe or the lyrics."
"An incredibly soulful vocalist with orchestration that sounds truly unique on each track. I love how unexpected his music can be."
Evolve Photography, courtesy Buckley
Molly Kate Kestner
"I originally heard this artist's music on a commercial, which speaks to the widespread appeal of her voice and tone. Lyrically, her music is inspiring and age-appropriate, but musically still has a strong dynamic edge."
"Take Me to Church," by Hozier
"As cliché as it sounds, this music is something that has inspired me time and again. I have had the opportunity to choreograph to it in a few different settings, including for 'World of Dance,' and never tire of it. The intensity of his voice paired with the variety in the orchestration is something I really connect to."
"Diane," by Cam
"Though I love country music, I haven't ever really been inspired to choreograph to it until hearing this artist. Her voice is crystal clear and so inspired, and her songwriting team is incredible."