“For me, musicality isn’t about hitting every beat. It’s about how we listen to the song, because everybody listens to music differently,” says dancer and choreographer Bo Park, whose musically driven choreography has earned her credits with Virgin Voyages, HARMONIX, Hideaway Circus and her own company, SHINSA.
Park has always wanted to dance and remembers watching dance movies when she was a young child living in Korea and dreaming of training in New York City. But becoming a professional choreographer wasn’t always her goal.
Before regularly teaching at Broadway Dance Center and Peridance, Park got her start in teaching and choreographing at a studio outside Manhattan. At the time, it was a way to pay the bills while auditioning and taking class. “After I got my visa and came to New York, I faced the harsh reality that getting a visa was just one step, and now I have to make money.”
More so, Park admits that she didn’t fully grasp how tough it is to make it as a dancer until she started auditioning for professional dance jobs. “I had to be a certain way. They [casting directors] wanted a certain look or a certain type, and that was very hard for me to become,” she says. “I tried to fit in here and I tried to fit in there, until I wasn’t sure who I was or what I really wanted to do. I felt like I was doing all these things because I had to.”
Over time, Park says she lost sight of who she was as a dancer. She took a few weeks off from dance to reset. But during this break something clicked. She began to choreograph for her own enjoyment. “I just wanted to move and choreograph to remind myself that this is how you move, this is who you are, and this makes you feel better,” she says.
Moving and choreographing to music became cathartic for Park: “I’m not really good at expressing my emotions. Because in the culture I grew up in, I have to show people I’m strong even if I’m upset. So when music brings the emotions out of me, it’s actually really therapeutic. Whenever I’m sad, if I just listen to a song and move around, it helps me let all those emotions out.”
Park’s work reflects her emotional musicality. A majority of the time, she choreographs to music that mimics how she’s feeling that particular day—focusing on the lyrics and the tone of the song.
Of course, finding new and inspiring music for her classes each week can be challenging. Luckily, Park has a strategy. At least once a week, she goes down a rabbit hole researching a song or artist she likes, listening to whatever is recommended using Spotify or YouTube. “I feel like nowadays it’s so easy for us to find something new because they [music platforms] send you recommendations, like ‘You might like this artist’ or ‘You might like this song.’”
Sometimes in class, Park plays the song for her students to absorb before even teaching the first eight counts. With the song in mind, students can then approach the movement musically. Each song is filled with textures that can alter the intention of the movement: Is it flowy or hard; staccato or gooey? By playing the song before learning the choreography, students can practice with the right feeling.
While Park shares the way she hears the music with her students, she encourages them to find their own musicality within her choreography. “Even if we listen to the song differently and you catch different sounds, the way you interpret my choreography and make it your own is very inspiring.” She says, “I hope that more people can show appreciation for those ‘unique movers’ rather than tell them ‘You have to always do it this exact way.’”
Here, Park shares her handpicked playlist of songs that have motivated her to dance and choreograph lately.
“The Key,” by Tems
“When I feel self-doubt and low self-esteem, this song makes me feel like someone is trying to tell me that it’s OK. Most of Tems’ songs give me those feelings, and when I dance to the song, it brings out my honest and genuine feelings.”
“I Keep Calling,” by James Blake
“I love to choreograph to James Blake’s songs because of how deep the sound and lyrics are. Even if I don’t fully understand the message/story he wants to say, the feelings he sends out really connect with my emotions. He’s one of my favorite artists that warms my heart.”
“Coming Back,” by James Blake
“Sometimes, when I feel lost or have difficulty finding a song to choreograph to, I love to listen to music that calms me down because it helps me scan through the feelings I have at the moment. This song is one of them.”