My father is a musician. I grew up in the world of ballets, operas and musicals, because Dad was always playing in the pit. My husband is also a musician, and his work enables me to venture back often into those worlds of opera and ballet and musical theater, where I’ve always loved to live. And soon my son will be old enough to join me, because his dad is playing in the pit.

So when I go to the American Dance Festival (ADF) every year, I go to listen as much as to watch. Dance is not exactly a lucrative profession, and most dance companies can’t afford live musicians. But every year, hundreds of young Danskin-clad hopefuls descend on Durham, mainly to learn from the masters, but also to have the chance to practice to real, live, high-quality music.

Natalie Gilbert, director of ADF musicians, is here for her 21st year. She’s the only woman in the gaggle of 11 faculty and three interns, a reverse of the harem effect so often observable at dentists’ and doctors’ offices. (Men, she explains, are attracted to dance accompaniment for obvious reasons–most dance students are young, nubile females.) Gilbert says also that, though she feels a responsibility to get new musicians involved each year, and receives “stackloads” of resumes, there are rarely openings, because “once you have the job it’s hard to let go of because it’s such a rewarding experience.” What makes the job so good is the opportunity to let the creative juices flow, and the camaraderie with other dance musicians. “Being a musician in the dance world is a little bit of an isolating experience,” Gilbert explains. “It’s a particular corner of the music world. We’ve dedicated our artistry to that.”

Friendly and articulate, Gilbert enthuses about improvising music on the spot. Unlike the accompaniment for ballet classes, which employs classical repertory and must adhere to a given form, when playing for modern dance classes, musicians are encouraged to be daring and push envelopes. This was evident one afternoon during Andrea Woods’ Modern III class, in which accompanist Michael Wall employed intricate rhythms, switching off between piano and drums. At one point he played “in 9” (nine beats to the measure). While playing in 9 isn’t that unusual, Wall played a tricky 6+3. He’d start out simple, as Woods first taught the steps to the dancers, and, as the dancers became more proficient at the choreography, Wall would make the rhythms more complicated, and the sound more urgent, more vital. This in turn gave energy to the dancers, whose bodies then moved more fiercely, with more conviction, creating a rapport between instruments–physical and musical. Gilbert says that this is one of the main attractions of accompanying modern dance–the use of irregular rhythms, 5s and 7s for instance–and making them up right then and there.

ADF classes can become jam sessions in which the musician who is getting paid to accompany is often joined by a couple of others who are there just because it’s so much fun. Most of the musicians play a variety of instruments, shifting back and forth as the spirit moves them. Twenty-three-year-old cellist Chris Lancaster, at ADF for his third year but for the first time as full-time faculty, uses effects pedals, a real-time sampler, bass and electric guitars, an accordion, an Irish bazuki (“it’s like if a cello and a mandolin had a baby,” he says), and drums. He gets paid, he says, only to haul his equipment to and from the rehearsal studios: “I play for free.”

The immediacy of dance, the exchange of energy between dancer and musician, intoxicates the ADF players. “When I was playing classical music there was a huge gap between me and the audience far away,” says Lancaster. “I never got anything from my audience. With dance, I get back from the dancers immediately. The more I give, the more I get back.”

Lancaster, who was first brought here by ADF faculty member Alan Terricciano–who was one of his college professors at the University of California at Irvine–says that he’s good at playing “the pretty stuff.” But at the ADF Musicians’ Concert, an annual event in which the music faculty get to strut their stuff sans dancers, Lancaster emerges onstage in Alice Cooper-style black eye makeup and skintight leather pants, his carnelian-tinted hair in pigtails. He plugs his cello into his effects pedals and amp, and performs a Black Sabbath-inspired tribute to Ozzy Osborne. In sharp counterpoint is 14-year-ADF veteran Jefferson Dalby, in suit and tie, practically dancing himself as he coaxes a killer rendition of Steve Allen and Ray Brown’s “Gravy Waltz” from the acoustic piano.

The Musicians’ Concert, Gilbert tells me, began very informally, “a Laugh-In-type formula, pretty raucous. We made fun of the dancers.” At this year’s Musicians’ Concert, the players did take a few moments to perform a spoof of a dance piece that had apparently been performed earlier in the festival. The audience laughed hysterically when Gilbert and her cohorts crawled and goose-stepped across the stage, and someone apparently trapped in a black garbage bag struggled mightily (to express the creative energy of the cosmos?).

Most of the concert, however, was serious stuff. Interns Jaime Fennelly and Chris Peck, who are experimenting with computer-only electronic sound, got to use their PowerBooks to create a “Pre-Concert Music Improvisation.” Gilbert played piano in a duet with “recorded media,” titled “To Asylum,” composed by Terricciano, who also played a stirring piano solo from “Musica Ricercata.” A glitch occurred in a performance of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” which featured Wall on piano, Fennelly on bass, and Peck on laptop. A problem with the monitors meant that Wall couldn’t hear himself, and had to spend the entire time with his ear to the piano, preventing him from performing his solo. Aside from that, the concert went without a hitch: a whirlwind of instruments and styles, electronic and acoustic, solos and duets and trios, finishing with ADF old-timer Khalid Saleem and his Rhythms of Life percussion ensemble in a rousing African drumming performance. The musicians’ pleasure and joy was more than apparent. For them, ADF is one of the world’s best playgrounds.

ADF faculty members relish the opportunity to network not only with other dance musicians, but with dancers and choreographers from all over the world. They get asked to compose music for new dances, or play live on stage in performances. The dance world is small enough that, like most musicians, they can’t afford to limit their playing to dance alone, and they take other gigs to pay the rent. But that makes an experience like ADF all the sweeter. EndBlock