Body Music

Photo: Mike Melnyk
Photo: Mike Melnyk

Body musician Keith Terry brings his unique style to Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF) happening this weekend at the Majestic Theatre.

Dallas — Finger snaps, foot stomps, chest womps and butt slaps. These are just a few of the body parts Keith Terry uses as musical instruments in class. He also pops his fingers, shuffles his feet and whistles. He calls this blending and bending of tradition and contemporary musical and dance elements body music.

As a trained percussionist Terry was a drummer for the Original Jazz Tap Ensemble when he started incorporating hand claps and foot steps into his work. His “ah ha” moment came in the late ‘70s while playing drums for a tap dance class. “I had this thought about what it would be like to make music with my body so, I stood up and started playing around with this idea of being a body musician. After class Charles “Cookie” Cook and Charles [“Honi”] Coles came up to me and encouraged me to pursue it. I took their advice and I am still pursuing it.”

Over the years Terry has studied a variety of rhythmic techniques from Japanese Taiko and Balinese Gamelan to North American rhythm tap and Ethiopian armpit music. He travels extensively in the U.S., Asia and Europe where his body music performances, workshops and residencies are popular among professional performers and educators. “I am fortunate that I get to travel a lot and it has really opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about rhythmic time in different parts of the world.”

As a soloist Terry has been featured at Lincoln Center, Bumbershoot, NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, the Vienna International Dance Festival and the Paradiso van Slag World Drum Festival in Amsterdam. From 1998 to 2005 Terry was on the faculty at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where he designed and taught a dozen courses on the relationship of music and dance, including deep listening, synchronicity, time and timing. Terry is also the founding director of Crosspluse, an arts organization dedicated to rhythm-based intercultural music and dance located in Oakland, California. In 2008 he formed the International Body Music Festival (IBMF), a 6-day festival that explores the language of body music from culture to culture. It was actually at the 2014 IBMF in San Francisco where he met Katelyn Harris, the co-producer of Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF).

Terry is currently in town for the festival which runs Jan. 16-19 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. He is teaching alongside Chloe Arnold (Beyoncé and founder of Syncopated Ladies), C.K. Edward (national tour of The Book of Mormon) and Harris (artistic director of Dallas-based Rhythmic Souls Dance Company). For those dancers taking his class for the first time, Terry says not to worry. “I see body music as the first music. I mean before we were making instruments we were stomping and clapping. There’s just something really old and familiar about it makes people feel comfortable when doing it.”

His teaching style has grown organically throughout the years. He requests his students to wear sneakers as tap shoes will overpower the other sounds. During warm-up he views his body as a drum set with the claps being the snare drum, the bottom being the tom-toms and the feet being the kick drum. His says his classes are more than about just training body musicians. He has taught ballet, modern and taps dancers as well as actors and theater folk. “It’s about using the material to get that rhythmic understanding inside them so they can then express whatever style they are doing.”

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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