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Keeping Tap Timely in a Contemporary World

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When we think of the history of dance, one of the first styles that comes to mind is tap. From the beginning of time, many cultures have used percussive rhythms for their celebratory dances, as well as for communication. American tap dance as we know it grew out of a combination of African rhythmic dancing, the Irish jig and reel, and European clog dancing, and what we are left with today is a beautiful and ever-evolving dance form. Depending on the region, the tap category at competition is either one of the largest and longest, or nearly non-existent. Our IDA judges Angelina, Kelly, and Samantha are excited to share their thoughts and suggestions on how to promote, sustain, and continue enjoying tap dance!

As dancers get older and continue their training, tap seems to be the class that is dropped most often in favor of another style. Teachers must encourage their students to continue their tap training as they grow up. “TV shows like Dance Moms and So You Think You Can Dance glorify contemporary and jazz. Singers and TV commercials employ hip hop and street jazz dancers. There ARE working tap dancers but the number is much less. Because of this, there is less interest and intrigue [in tap]. Children aren't seeing it on their television every week, so they're not walking into a dance studio and asking to take a tap class so they can shuffle just like Maddie Ziegler,” says Samantha. Angelina agrees, “It’s easy to keep kids excited with jazz and contemporary, by going to conventions where they take classes from teachers who inspire them, but tap is often left out of some conventions.” What can teachers do to promote interest in tap?

“Tap is music!” says Angelina. “Tap class serves so many more purposes than just for tap dancing. It helps you hear music better and work with dynamics of other dance forms. If you play an instrument, tap class helps you to recognize rhythms and musical patterns.” Call and response games can be useful in teaching tap class and give the students the opportunity to “be the teacher”.

In order to maintain interest, Samantha suggests that the teacher “keep class moving. Whether the dancers are advanced or beginner, the class always needs to keep moving. In a jazz class, dancers warm up, go across the floor, and learn a combination. Tap should not be any different. While the order or outline may be different depending on the class, the actual class material should never feel stagnant. Because repetition is such an important part of tap, constantly striving to make steps more challenging will keep kids coming back, despite the repetition in rehearsal.”

Teachers may struggle with ways to keep their ideas and teaching techniques fresh when it comes to tap. Check out these new tap-focused conventions, Resonance Tap Experience and Tap Into The Network, as well as the social media phenomenon Operation Tap for inspiration!

While we’re on the topic of social media, dancers in 2017 have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips in terms of dance media. Samantha says, “It’s important to know where tap came from. The past is important. The history of our movement is important.” Youtube and Vimeo allow dancers and teachers to go down a rabbit hole of dance videos, and explore the current and historic tap dancers who influence the style. She adds, “The Nicholas Brothers (check out Stormy Weather) are incredible athletes and could make anyone want to get up and dance.” Angelina’s favorite piece of tap media is the Challenge scene from the movie “Tap”, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. She says, “My twin sister and I used to watch the challenge scene over and over all of the time.” Additionally, Samantha adds, “It’s important to know where [tap dance] is going. Tappers like Michelle Dorrance and Nick Young are paving the way for a new generation of tap dancers.” You can find information about their work at Dorrance Dance and Institute For the Rhythmic Arts.

Tap can often be confusing and frustrating to students who haven’t been taught proper music theory, or any music theory at all.

Kelly believes that “learning basic time signatures and tempos is a great place to start, and understanding the meaning of down beats, up beats, off beats, and note values (quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, etc) is a great foundation. Next comes experimenting with syncopation and phrasing, and relating tap sounds to the music.”

Samantha agrees, “Musicality is such an essential aspect of dance. No matter the style, you can tell which dancers are in tap class based on their ability to find instrumental qualities and isolate their bodies accordingly. Even if it's not your favorite class, it will 100% benefit your quality of dance.”

At competition, judges are looking for not only musicality, but clarity of sounds, shading and accents, and good timing. Kelly says, in regards to the tap category at competition, “Sadly, more often than not, the tap sounds clash with the music and sound as though the tap rhythms are competing with the meter and/or the tempo of the song. Combining clean sounds with smart musicality, along with top-notch performance quality is a recipe for success!”

Angelina reminds teachers, “Keep in mind that your judges at competition are sitting at your feet level most of the time. Make sure that when you are cleaning a tap dance, you try to watch it at that level. You’ll be amazed at how different that dance looks from there!”

The beauty of tap dance, unlike the more strictly codified terminology of ballet, is that it truly evolves and changes, and comes from a rich history of trading steps between tap dancers who are musicians in their own right. There is so much room for experimentation in tap, and that freedom is something that should be celebrated and encouraged within the studio and competition setting. Happy Tapping!

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