Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance? In With the New

By Amy Brunvand

Listening to classical music with children and other dancers.
by Amy Brunvand
There are two types of music lovers—those who listen with their brains and those who listen with their bodies. Unfortunately, these two types get along in a concert hall about as well as cross-country skiers and snowmobilers get along in Utah’s backcountry, and this is particularly true of classical music. If you have been to hear the Utah Symphony lately, you have probably noticed that the audience is exceptionally well-behaved. The only two people moving are the conductor and the soloist, who are both engaged in a uniquely beautiful and expressive dance that both engenders and reacts to it. If you watch these two for a while, you will get a glimpse of what people who prefer listening with their bodies are repressing when they will themselves to socially accepted quietude.

I found myself  in the center of a costume-drama enactment of this conflict at the Utah Symphony’s Halloween High Jinks concert, which is part of the “Lollipops” kid series so it’s open to everyone from babes-in-arms to their great-great-great grandparents. The kid in front of me was so dead serious about classical music that he had dressed as concert master Ralph Matson for Halloween. His equally serious mom kept turning around to glare at my antsy five-year-old pink princess daughter who kept talking about the music and bumping the seat despite my earnest librarianish shushing. Lucky for me, the Ralph Matson impersonator was so adorable that he won a prize in the Halloween costume competition, and as a result the family of audiophiles was someplace else when Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet wrapped up the concert and my pink princess was completely unable to resist getting out of her seat to perform the role of the firebird.

OK, so I should control my child or be banished to the lobby. I should have consideration for other people who paid for their tickets. I should respect that intellectual appreciation of classical music requires being able to hear the nuances. And yet it seems to me that a child who feels moved to dance to the Firebird ballet music is every bit as much a music geek as the kid whose childhood hero is Ralph Matson.

It seems that way to Daniel J. Levitin, too. He is the author of  “This is Your Brain on Music” (2006) and a few months ago he wrote an editorial for the New York Times noting that children at classical music concerts often respond to the music by swaying, shouting and generally participating when they feel like it. “Music can be a more satisfying cerebral experience if we let it move us physically,” writes Levitin, who suggests that stuffy concert halls could be greatly improved by ripping out some seats to give us room to move.

Outraged cerebral listeners wasted no time firing off letters to the editor objecting to this heretical suggestion. They insisted that that people who are truly interested in classical music require respectful quiet so that they can concentrate. The other type of music lovers, those insensitive satyrs and bacchants who want to defile Mozart’s Requiem by clogging or trample on Beethoven’s symphonies by dancing like Isadora Duncan—those people should satisfy their shameful urges by dancing to recorded music at home.

Of course, it’s far easier to control noisy distractions at home too, but nonetheless cerebral listeners don’t want to be exiled from the concert hall. I suspect that’s why they like to convince themselves that dancers and little children don’t truly appreciate music anyhow so recorded music is plenty good enough for them. However, what the symphony conductor and the soloist are doing up there on stage looks undeniably like dancing, and that tends to contradict the notion that dancers aren’t actually listening.

As a mother of small children, I’ve found it surprisingly hard to find places where children can listen to live music with both their brains and their bodies. When adults are listening, kids bother them by making noise. When adults are dancing, kids bother them by getting underfoot. One dance group I used to go to eventually asked me not to bring my annoying kids any more, and I thought of them when I  recently read an article about aging polka fans who explained that the tradition is dying out because, “When we were growing up, our parents would take us to the dances. But then when our generation grew up, we got babysitters.” 

So even though I find that peaceable evening symphony concerts are an exquisite refuge from daily life, I also agree with David Levitin who says, “When an orchestra builds the timbral mass in Ravel’s Bolero, we want to break out of our seats and dance and show how good it feels.” And that’s why I’ve learned to love the jiggly, chatty kids and the crying babies at Lollipops concerts where no babysitters are expected. By conventional symphony hall standards, the kids are misbehaving, but if you pay attention, most of the bouncing and humming is a direct and enthusiastic response to the wonderful music. By listening through their bodies, kids give new life to the classical war horses, and for those who are willing to drop their prejudices about how classical music ought to be heard, an audience of squirming children at a Lollipops concert can show you a whole new way to hear it.

Utah Symphony Lollipops Concert.
Magic Circle Mimes Company
“The Listener” March 29 (Saturday), 11 am.

Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian at the University of Utah.t

This article was originally published on March 7, 2008.