Jan DeGaetani and Dance

Hello, Friends,

As promised, here’s some work about Jan’s use of dance and movement as a singer and teacher.


I wonder if people remember how committed Jan was to the soundness of her physicality. How upright and easy her stance, her posture, regal but relaxed. She taught us all to be mindful of the body as instrument, as vessel. She never asked me to read and study that thick compendium on vocal production and singing I lugged around the summer after my first year at Eastman. She asked me to sing and notice what my body was doing, what my body needed to be doing, how my body—muscles, breath, phonation [flaps in the wind] would do it all on its own. Then, to learn what to do next, to better, to lengthen, to diminish, to shape by experimentation and practice and noticing, always, noticing in the moment of doing. Making decisions because of flesh and bone and air and teeth and because of the writer who composed the thing in the first place.

She was strong. Her large shape belied the well-used and honed muscles she developed. [Later in life, some would deride her for the weight gain. When her mother called her fat, she laughed.]


She learned to dance, once. She studied body movement in New York early in her years there. She was rehearsing the role of the Old Maid in The Old Maid and the Thief in Woodstock, and wanted to figure some things out. Dancer Elaine Summers, an avant-garde choreographer in SoHo who summered upstate observed Jan rehearsing: a 20-year-old trying to be an old lady in body and sound. She offered to teach Jan a set of relaxation exercises she used with her dancers. She saw at once what I was trying to do, and why I wasn’t able to do it.

Jan studied with Summers for almost four years until 1961 and created her own mishmash system for attuning body-mind awareness and alignment.

Soon, others wanted to learn her system. Composer and friend Stanley Walden introduced Jan to Joseph Chaikin who asked her to teach it to his actors at his Open Theater.

You have a channel, Jan would say; for an instrumentalist, it’s the instrument, for a singer, the voice.

But you need to support the channel at the source, the body, the mind. You need to care for, exercise, know the source.

She would learn Alexander Technique, yoga, practice daily to be free physically while identifying which parts of her instrument, the whole body, weren’t functioning well.

In 1973, Jan was teaching two days a week at the State University of New York in Purchase. This post was among her first teaching jobs. Ancient Voices had already been nominated for a Grammy and Jan had been singing it all over the country. But she wasn’t teaching voice at Suny. She was teaching instrumentalists.

I try to teach them to let go, to breathe, to find a way to be musicians and public people.

It was the only required course in the music department. Vocal Improvisation and Body Movement.

They were not allowed to bring their instruments to class.

She was in part teaching vulnerability.

Your feelings must be involved, but your ego must not.


During the second semester of 1985, Jan is musician-in-residence at Skidmore College. She teaches four master classes, private lessons, and performs twice. One of the master classes is devoted to movement and the body.

Your body is your instrument, Jan tells the circle of singers surrounding her in the small recital hall where she teaches. You have to use it—move it—to bring your music alive. The nature of life, all life, is to be in motion.

The young singers hadn’t expected to dance.

[I imagine Jan flashing that wicked little smile, thinking, Well, no, not ballet, but movement to go forth to meet…

“What,” they must have wondered.

The music.]

The relationships: body, space, time, inert marks on a score. Mind. Gut. Heart. Body moves both voluntarily and involuntarily. The other depends on that channel.  What is the dance here before sound emerges? During? After? How do they inform what is happening?

There’s a common misconception that singing is some kind of aethereal, artistic activity that happens as if by magic. But it’s not. Singing is very definitely a physical matter, involving the body, and above all, the body in motion.

Bounce on the vowel, she says.

Put on a record and dance when you sing.

Conduct yourself as you sing.

You see, singing is like dancing; you don’t want to stop and think about rhythm. You want to listen, to move to the music—to feel it—not count off the bars. You want to let your body just breathe into the rhythm appropriate to the music.


We all received this body-wisdom, regardless of the instrument. It was all the same to Jan.

Jan DeGaetani movement techniques

Skidmore College, 1985. Teaching an entire class of movement.


On Saturday mornings my second year at Eastman, I woke early, headed to one of the dorm lounges to learn movements of the Alexander Technique because Jan suggested  that we, her students, do this. It was quiet on weekends, people sleeping in. A man, a woman—I don’t remember them speaking much at all—worked with students one at a time on long massage tables, at straight-backed chairs. We learned to sit by bending appropriately at the waist, how to remain in alignment as we descended, hips, quiet; sacrum, purposefully reaching back to chair. We learned to walk, shoulders easy [mine would never drop much, nor could I ever lay them down flat against the floor of an evening yoga class I took on Gibbs Street across from the school, another Jan suggestion.] These Saturday mornings went on for some weeks, I think, maybe six. I was eager to learn. And to please. I wanted to have a deep relationship with my body, its movements, alignment, disconnect, pain.  Possibility.


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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