"Getting Comfortable with Discomfort": Pianist Conrad Tao and Dancer Caleb Teicher Visit TCHS

Written by
Mariana Corichi Gómez, TAP Program Associate
Dec. 6, 2021

On November 3, Trenton Central High School students trickled into the school auditorium for their regular 10:00am dance class. On this particular morning, they were greeted by two special guests: pianist Conrad Tao and dancer Caleb Teicher. As the students situated themselves on the stage floor, Tao and Teicher warmed up in anticipation of their workshop. 

A versatile pianist and composer, Tao recently appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, and Boston Symphony Orchestra. His composition, “Everything Must Go,” was premiered in September 2018 by the New York Philharmonic and conductor Jaap van Zweden. Tao’s mastery of piano extends from classical repertoire to jazz and contemporary improvisation, as seen in his interdisciplinary collaborations with Teicher.

Teicher is a dancer and choreographer specializing in musically-driven dance traditions and creating new concert dance works from their unique perspective. In 2015, Teicher founded Caleb Teicher & Company,  a creative home for new dance works of varying aesthetic and performative styles. Teicher is the recipient of a 2019 New York City Center Choreographic Fellowship and is known for their collaborations with Tao and other musically diverse talents. 

The workshop began with Teicher asking the TCHS students what styles of dance they liked. Students responded by listing hip hop, jersey club, majorette, and contemporary. Tao proceeded to fiddle on the keyboard in response to the students’ music tastes. 

Tao and Teicher perform "Cherokee"

After lacing up their distinct white tap shoes, Teicher began improvising as Tao played an Art Tatum transcription of the jazz standard “Cherokee” by Ray Noble. Teicher moved organically across the floor, gliding in every direction. A clear conversation soon emerged between Tao’s piano and Teicher’s tap dancing.

After they finished the opening combination, Teicher turned to the students to discuss dance technique. Teicher played a little game where the students corrected Teicher’s ballet technique, causing the students to giggle as Teicher feigned uncertainty over proper posture. 

Teicher talked about the importance of using full force and flexibility from the legs when tap dancing.  They explained to the students: “Like a whip, movement originates from the top of my leg and ripples down to my toe.” 

Tao echoed the sentiment in his own piano playing and added, “We learn to put effort in the right place.” 

Teicher then invited students to improvise. TCHS senior Breyniah took the stage as her classmates cheered her on. She initially focused on footwork and slowly embraced Tao’s ad lib music. When Tao began a new idea on the piano, she opened up into beautiful pirouettes, flips in the air, and effortless ponches. 

Both Teicher and Tao emphasized how crucial improvisation is to their work. Tao expressed, “It’s not a wrong note if you commit to it, embrace it, create a new phrase.” 

Next, Teicher invited all the students to stand up and learn a routine, set to the music of “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. As the students repeated the combination, Teicher asked them to put their own flavor into it. One student moved to the front of the stage and started improvising, prompting another dancer to get up and join her. Then TCHS dance teacher Elizabeth Zwierzynski danced side by side with Teicher while the students practiced the steps. 

Teicher and Ms. Zwierzynski high-five

After one final round of Teicher’s choreography, everyone sat down as the workshop came to an end with a Q&A facilitated by Ms. Zwierzynski. 

A student asked both Teicher and Tao, “When you disconnect while performing, how do you reconnect?”

Tao answered, “We explore how dance and music can be united but also divergent. We have to trust that both artists can find their way back together.” 

Teicher reiterated Tao’s feeling. “It’s about getting comfortable with discomfort. So much depends on listening carefully to one another.” 

Reflecting on the experience, TCHS senior Jalisa shared, “Observing Conrad and Caleb was such a wonderful experience! Their combined talents are immeasurable and I wish I could enjoy a full show of both of them.” 

Tao and Teicher's TCHS visit was sponsored by the Neighborhood Music Project, a collaboration between Princeton University Concerts and Trenton Arts at Princeton.

Tao, Teicher, and the TCHS dance students
Tao, Teicher, and the TCHS dance students