A New Take on New York Tap

Posted on May 1, 2009 by

It’s a Sunday afternoon in February and Susan Hebach, director of the American Tap Dance Foundation’s year-round youth programs and the Tap City Youth Ensemble, is rehearsing with three students at New York’s Chelsea Studios. She acts as a metronome, clapping out a steady beat while the dancers click away. As members of Tap City Youth Ensemble III, these are less experienced dancers—though they’re still quite accomplished for young teens. They can hit the floor hard, but haven’t yet developed the nuanced dynamics that mark a more veteran tapper.

As they move through the piece, Just in Time, choreographed by ATDF Artistic Director Tony Waag, Hebach stops them to work on rough spots. This is an extra rehearsal, added for students who had been absent, to brush up before the group’s performance at a benefit for ATDF later in the week. Wearing jeans that accentuate her lithe frame, Hebach talks to the dancers with an easygoing manner. Even though she has years of experience and knowledge on them, Hebach treats them with the respect of seasoned professionals. “We have tried to foster the idea that this is a safe, positive place,” she says, over coffee after the rehearsal. “We’re going to challenge you, we’re going to help you, we’ll do anything we can, but you have to dig in and be responsible.”

This sort of partnership in learning is fundamental to the American Tap Dance Foundation’s education program. There are about 35 members in the three Tap City Youth Ensembles—which are divided by experience and skill rather than age—and another 200 students enrolled in weekly classes. Hebach, Waag and ATDF’s education advisor, Margaret Morrison, have built a curriculum that utilizes the legacy of tap dance in America, including a wide variety of styles, from rhythm (or jazz) tap to vaudevillian entertainment to avant-garde work. But they don’t just look backwards. ATDF instills in its ensemble members the importance of continued growth and the need to carry tap dance into the future.

As a child growing up in Boston and then an Atlanta suburb, Hebach wasn’t exposed to the hoofing style that defined rhythm tap’s heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, where the foot is simply another instrument in the orchestra. While studying dance education at Georgia State University, she got her first taste of this style from Tommy Sutton, who was teaching at local studios. Then she saw the 1989 PBS special, “Tap Dance in America,” hosted by Gregory Hines, and she knew what she had to do. “It was totally pivotal,” she says, rattling off a laundry list of dancers featured on the program, including ATDF’s artistic mentor (and co-founder), Brenda Bufalino. “I saw all these people, and I thought, ‘I have to go do that.’”

Shortly afterward, by chance, GSU received a stack of flyers promoting the Colorado Dance Festival. “A lot of the same people in the documentary would be there teaching. I packed a suitcase and at 20 years old, I wandered into my first real tap experience.” At the Festival she studied with Bufalino (among many others) and she says: “It changed my whole life.”

The next stop was New York to train with Bufalino and her creative partner, Charles “Honi” Coles (who died in 1992), at the Woodpeckers Tap Dance Center. Hebach did work-study, cleaning the floors in exchange for rehearsal time. Talking about her memories of Woodpeckers cracks the surface of Hebach’s otherwise composed demeanor. “You could observe rehearsals in action, which is really where you learn mechanics, how to work with music, as you watch somebody develop choreography. It was really pretty important,” she says, fighting her quivering voice.

Those experiences, along with her degree in dance education, have set Hebach up with a solid foundation of teaching techniques. In addition to mastering basic tap vocabulary, ATDF dancers are well-rounded, with musicality, choreography and improvisation skills.  

The custom-made curriculum of ATDF features classic pieces of tap dance choreography that students learn at each level. Not only does this broaden their range of movement, but it also adds to their understanding of tap history. In other words, the organization has managed to codify a tap legacy that has traditionally been passed down orally—or, rather, aurally, through the language of the feet—and thus carries on the original founding intention of Bufalino and Coles. “Without works that can be continued on and reconstructed, tap dance is always in danger of being lost,” says Bufalino.  

The Tap City Youth Ensembles not only study and reconstruct repertory pieces, but they also have the opportunity to work with a wide range of guest artists. Some of the most prominent figures in contemporary tap have set choreography on the young dancers: Michelle Dorrance, Josh Hilberman, Guillem Alonso and Bufalino herself.

But as much as these experiences nurture the students’ development, the students also nurture each other. A prominent aspect of the educational approach is student mentoring. The Tap City Youth Ensemble II dancers could be loosely defined as apprentices to TCYE I. The groups rehearse together, and Hebach relies on dancers who know the choreography to pass on their knowledge to the newbies. “That’s an amazing thing to watch,” she says. “It fosters another level of understanding of the material and also the skill to pass it down.”

Some of the ensemble members will be putting that skill to good use in the near future. ATDF has teamed with Young Audiences New York to bring tap dance to local schools. Hebach, Waag and Morrison collaborated on a 50-minute script, “Tapping Into New York,” that focuses on tap’s history in New York, particularly the story of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson was prominent as an African-American performer during a time of racial oppression, and he was known for his unique style, marked by light feet and dancing on the toes.

Back at Chelsea Studios, when one cast rehearses, the others watch, responding verbally with shouts of, “Yeah!” and “I like that!” To an outsider, these moments might appear unconventional, even a bit chaotic. But commanding the classroom is not Hebach’s style. She relishes the relationships the students form with each other and generously takes a more laid-back role. As she says, “I feel like it’s my job to be their guide—to think about what they need, bring those opportunities to the classroom and then guide them through successfully.”

And what would success be? ATDF’s staff realizes that only a few students will pursue dance as a career. Others might choose to teach or simply patronize the arts. But Hebach has a specific desire. She sees her students as ambassadors, carrying forth a message. “People don’t know how cool tap can be, they don’t know that it can be this deep thing that takes time or energy. Tap dancing is an amazing artform.”

Last year she escorted a group of ensemble members who auditioned and performed on amateur night at the Apollo Theater. They performed Opus One, a piece from the tap canon, choreographed by tap master Harold Cromer. Somehow, the group at the Apollo got thrown in with the adults—meaning they could have been booed off the stage. They weren’t. DT

Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer based in New York City.

ATDF’s Tap Curriculum

Sundays are busy at Chelsea Studios, with up to 15 ATDF classes and rehearsals over the course of the day. There are nearly another dozen classes during the week, serving students from as young as 3 years old up to adults.

In one room, Toni Noblett teaches six pre-teen beginners. They are sampling different versions of the same song, listening to breaks and instrumentation to determine which is best suited to their choreography.

Down the hall, full-time ATDF employee Courtney Runft works with a group of 7- and 8-year-olds who are in their second year of tap dancing. They rehearse “Linus and Lucy,” to the Vince Guaraldi Trio. When Runft asks them what to do if they forget a step onstage, a self-possessed young boy answers, “You just go with the flow.”

When she’s not directing the Tap City Youth Ensemble, Susan Hebach teaches classes throughout the week. She frequently gives short, in-class choreography assignments, and even the youngest students work on improvisation, a hallmark of the rhythm tap style on which ATDF’s education program is founded. Hebach explains: “Some of the major things are being able to listen to music so you can identify when to start and when to stop. At first we don’t even tap it. We just make up a rhythm and pass it around with claps, which is less stress. We try to make them understand that they are making music with their feet.”

ATDF offers weekend workshops with guest choreographers for experienced and professional tap dancers. And in the summer, there’s the Tap City Festival, which began in 2001 under Artistic Director Tony Waag. For more information about ATDF, visit their website, www.atdf.org. —K.R.

It All Began With Woodpeckers

From the beginning, Brenda Bufalino was taken with the musicality and phrasing of her mentor, Charles “Honi” Coles—the individual style he displayed as a soloist in the 1930s, as part of a duo with Charles “Cholly” Atkins in the 1940s and ’50s, and for decades with the Copasetics, honoring and continuing the tradition of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, with tap dancers like Buster Brown, Charles “Cookie” Cook and Bubba Gaines. 

In 1978 Bufalino and Coles began having long dialogues about pushing the boundaries of tap forward, and out of that sprang the idea for the American Tap Dance Orchestra. Founded in 1986 by Bufalino, Coles and Tony Waag, the ensemble was driven by a specific artistic vision: an ensemble of rhythm tap dancers who create music with their feet. Bufalino choreographed new works, experimenting and collaborating with live musicians, and the group toured internationally.

Then, in 1989, the ATDO spawned the Woodpeckers Tap Dance Center, a permanent space on Mercer Street in New York where, as Bufalino explains: “All the dancers from the orchestra could teach, mobilize, rehearse. It was a place for people to come in and gather, from all over the world.” 

But in 1995 Woodpeckers was forced to close when its funding collapsed, and in 1999, the orchestra disbanded. Waag and Bufalino decided to maintain their nonprofit status, foreseeing a new life for the company. In 2001, Waag organized the first Tap City Festival in New York, and the American Tap Dance Foundation was born. 

The journey, however, is not yet complete. Waag and Bufalino agree that in order to ensure their continued growth, they need to find a new home. As Bufalino explains, a permanent space that, like the original Woodpeckers Tap Center, would offer creative freedom. “We need that place to germinate ideas, so that you can go in at midnight and put on your shoes.” —K.R.

Bringing Tap Mentorship Into the Classroom

When Acia Gray and Derick K. Grant walk into the studio and face a room full of eager tap students, they might be the only ones standing at the head of the class. But the spirit and wisdom of their many master teachers lend an invisible presence in the room. Both Gray and Grant remain determined to keep the voices of their mentors alive, whether it be in a step, a story or a memory.

The two dancers possess their own highly distinct styles. Gray is known for speed and precision, Grant for his sweeping and complex rhythms. Both are adamant that their students know the exact lineage of everything they teach—what they consider their “tap family.” “When I think of why I dance the way I do, I understand why the history of the form is so important. And the older we get, the less people have heard of the greats,” insists Gray. “I learned as much from talking and visiting with my teachers as I have in the studio. It’s amazing what you learn from across the kitchen table.”

Gray, 48, is co-founder and executive/artistic director of Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, TX, the nation’s only full-time tap company. In addition, she helps run Tapestry Dance Company Academy and teaches throughout the U.S. Although Gray spent time with a long list of famous tap dancers, she names Brenda Bufalino, Sarah Petronio and Steve Condos as her key influences in the classroom.

She met Bufalino at Colorado Dance Festival in 1989. “I get my perfectionist streak from her, as she wants every note, balance and accent right,” says Gray. “She’s also big on tone and texture.” Gray credits Petronio for her improvisational bebop style. “I teach a music-based improvisation, rather than just grabbing steps from your body,” she says.

Condos taught her to value solid technique and to find new ways of sounding accents, a skill she fully integrated into her own dancing. “He had a way of twisting a step so it felt completely different,” says Gray. “I try to keep that level of novelty and invention going.”

Grant is a Boston native and has been dancing professionally since childhood. He danced in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, performed with Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble and was a recipient of a Princess Grace Award. Grant begins his classes at Steps on Broadway and elsewhere with the same warm-up he learned from Jimmy Slyde. “No matter how advanced the students are, we always start from the top,” says Grant, 35, who studied privately with Slyde starting at age 11. “Sounding good is only half the job. You need to move through space, and there has to be a strong relationship between sound and movement,” says Grant, speaking about Slyde’s emphasis. He also brings Paul Kennedy, or “Uncle Paul,” into the classroom every day. “From Paul, I learned to slow it way down,” says Grant. “Once you get your hands on the step and can control yourself with accuracy, you can speed it up.” —Nancy Wozny

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