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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now to another installment in our occasional series called Why Music Matters. Every now and then, we'll bring you the stories of music fans in their own words, about how songs or bands have affected their lives. Today's story is a little different, though. It's about the absence of music and how a choreographer took on the challenge of dancing in complete silence.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE LESSON)

AMY O'NEAL: Six, seven, eight, one...

I can hear a piece of music, and then I'll dance to it, and people will say: Oh, is that choreographed? It seems like that you know that music really well. No, I just listened to it for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE LESSON)

O'NEAL: ...six, seven, eight. You're on your right leg.

I'm Amy O'Neal. I am a choreographer and dancer and performer, video artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANCE LESSON)

O'NEAL: Up. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")

WILLOW SMITH: (Singing) I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth...

O'NEAL: I actually had to do a performance a couple years ago where I couldn't use any music. And I thought that I would be OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")

SMITH: (Singing) I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair...

O'NEAL: A dancer just purely in the dance element. And that was the point. It means I had to go in and make it up on the spot. I had like 15 minutes without sound. But I felt like, OK, well, I need to have some kind of circumstances to deal with, so I asked people to bring me outfits to wear.

And so different people brought stuff, and they would put it on the stage, and then I would end up sort of changing out there and sort of embodying whatever outfit it was that they brought in. I knew of vocalizing and, you know, talking and dancing at the same time, which I never do. Someone gave me three some glitter sweater, and I put the glitter sweater on the bottom part of my body. And I was doing some weird push up, jumping kind of thing, and I was yelling: Glitter butt, Glitter butt, like really wild over and over again. And it was funny at first, and then it just got really weird.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

O'NEAL: It was definitely one of those performances where, like, you know it wasn't that great because people weren't saying that much to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

O'NEAL: You know? And I - yeah. And when I saw the video, I was like, oh, my God. Why are you doing that? You're just doing that because you're nervous about it being quiet. Like, what's up with that, you know? And you're a professional. You're a professional, like, contemporary dancer. Like, this should not be a problem for you.

These questions came up like, well, do I use - is the music a crutch for me? Why do I have to have it? Why can't I just be up there alone? And so - and it was a really vulnerable place. And that's where the question came up. Well, do I hide behind it? Do I hide behind music? I think I'm still probably questioning that.

There's an inherent sort of tension and beauty in silence. I mean, things really aren't ever silent. There's always something, whether it be your breath or somebody coughing. But then when music happens, it's - everything sort of becomes alive.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WHIP MY HAIR")

SMITH: (Singing) I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth...

RAZ: That's choreographer Amy O'Neal with Why Music Matters. It's a series produced by Anna Boiko-Weyrauch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIP MY HAIR")

SMITH: (Singing) ...shine than a little bit. Soon as I hit the stage, applause, I'm hearing it.

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