Smile Politely

The roots of body music

Body music both is and isn’t exactly what it sounds like. On the one hand, it’s a form of music-making that relies solely on the body. On the other hand, it draws on musical traditions from cultures around the world, reaching back through history to recover a form of expression that emerged physically first and foremost. Musician Evie Ladin, who serves as the International Body Music Festival’s Executive Director, and body percussionist Keith Terry, who founded the event and serves as its Artistic Director, visit Champaign-Urbana this weekend for two performances that showcase this unique musical style, each in a different way.

Ladin and Terry will be performing at The Upper Bout on Friday, and Krannert’s Day of the Drum on Saturday. The two performances may share a few songs, but they’ll be very distinct experiences. Friday will incorporate instrumentation and dancing for a greater folk element, while Saturday exudes elements of world music through body percussion. These two seasoned musicians put on a show like nothing quite else, and they kindly took some time to speak about their unique sound before hitting the road for their spring tour. 

Smile Politely: For someone who has never seen or heard of body music, how would you describe it?

Terry: Well, it’s just, you know, physically led by clapping, slapping, stepping, vocalizing. It’s rhythmic, but it also has melody and harmony used in the voices. It’s very old, but kind of new at the same time.

Ladin: That’s actually why we call it body music, because we use melody and harmony and singing, as opposed to just being body percussion.

SP: What ties it so well to folk and roots music generally and Southern Appalachian music specifically?

Ladin: There are body music traditions in cultures all over the world, and the body music tradition most common to the Southern Appalachian tradition is hambone. That came directly out of slavery on the African American side.

SP: The performances are a really striking blend of dance and music. It’s something you obviously don’t see every day, but when you do it clearly pairs so well together. You see how the body really is this whole other instrument besides the voice.

Ladin: And we all have one. We find that our performances are a mix of genres from our varied experiences, but it’s all very connected to roots music. That’s our foundation, so it translates into everything we do. The ways we perform are unusual, a little unexpected.

SP: How did you and Keith meet?

Ladin: We met in a collaboration between a dance company I was in and Keith’s group, and at the end of the collaboration I was on the other side.

SP: That’s a good collaboration then!

Ladin: Yeah. It took several years to bring our arts as close together as they are now. It’s been a good ten years that we’ve been really developing our duo.

SP: Do you still try to, for your own artistic identity, retain some kind of work that isn’t focused around the duo?

Ladin: We’re both still interested in the different things that we were interested in before we met. The ways they collide, we collaborate, and then we each do a lot of projects away from each other as well. 

SP: I’m interested in what the songwriting process looks like. With your work, it has to be so much more physical.

Ladin: I sit with my guitar or banjo and write music that way. The flip side of it, there’s a dance-making process. Choreography involves a very different set of skills, and a very different type of rehearsal. For instance, I just came out of the woods this winter with a host of new songs, and one of them, as we’re playing it together, we try it different ways and think, ‘Oh, this would be a great dance number.’ And to me [dance] expresses the energy of the lyrics. I’m very much a lyric-driven person. Keith is more, what would you say?

Terry: I’m not certain. I like the groove as well. That’s really important to me. I don’t often listen to the words. It’s more often the emotion that comes through, and the nuances of the voice.

Ladin: And I’m all about the words.

SP: That’s why you pair so wonderfully together. What do the lyrics often focus on?

Ladin: Oh, it’s hard for me to be self-reflective about my own subject matter, and I did just produce a host of new songs and they are moving in different directions than things I’ve done before. I think they generally speak to the human experience. I like to evoke a mood or a feeling, and really bring people into that feeling.

But it’s very interesting being a musician and a dancer, as we both are. Sometimes musicians and dancers speak different languages, or the experience of them…oh, what am I trying to say? The experience of either art is the same, but the process of getting there is different. For instance, the dancing we are doing may never be about something, that’s what I’m getting at. We’re creating music. On the one hand you’re speaking about songwriting and lyrical content and that is really about something, it brings you to an emotional place. But the dancing can also bring you to an emotional place.

Terry: It’s kind of the visceral reaction you get. You feel it in your bones.

SP: That makes sense then, how an audience tends to react to what you’re doing onstage, because they seem to get bodily involved.

Ladin: Yeah, we get them riled up.

SP: For the dance numbers, how long does it take to put all of those moves together?

Ladin: A while. (Laughs.) You’re putting together the music and the dance at the same time, and then you’re also creating choreogrpahy with it, and then you also want to add another layer of detail, specificity, you know. So it really takes some time before a new piece sinks in. I would say, you know, six months. I feel like with dance more than music that the process is more continuous well into the performing of it. I mean you’re always tweaking things as you perform it, and you have different experiences of music and dance, but dance seems to change more.

SP: And you’ll be doing two performances in Champaign-Urbana?

Terry: They’re very different settings and presentations. I’m really impressed that the Krannert Center was so generous to let us do that. Often, because it’s a fine arts presentation, they have exclusivity. They don’t want you doing things in the immediate area. But they were really open to this, and they saw the different audiences and very different settings that the two performances will take place in.

SP: You’re planning on releasing in album in 2016?

Ladin: We’re going to go to the studio in August. We’re actually working on it with our dancemate. We’re in a band called Evil Diane with Eric Pearson, and the three of us are rehearsing and creating the music. I’m kind of giving it its time, because everyone is busy and songs need time to settle into where they want to be.

Terry: We’re also touring with some of these songs. When you’re touring you’re playing them all the time and you’re getting to flush them out. That’s where I’m at in the process of these new songs.

Ladin: That’s why it changes how you feel about it. I love when songs sort of consistently make the audience laugh or sigh audibly, and it’s very interesting because you don’t know these things when you’re writing them. You don’t know them until you get in front of audiences. They take on those shapes. They bring out similar things in audiences around the world.

As for the album, look for an early 2016 release. We’re just really going to give it time to get the team together and the publicity together.

Ladin and Terry play The Upper Bout on Friday, and take the stage at Krannert on Saturday. For more information about this weekend’s performances or to learn more about their music, visit and

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