Armed for Tap
Effective upper body use in tap
Ray Hesselink’s tap dancing is full-bodied expression: Fluid arms and polished hands finish the picture his fast-flying feet begin. But that wasn’t always the case. “When I started tap dancing, I never thought about my arms,” says the New York City–based master teacher. “Finally, longtime instructor Bob Audy said, ‘You have to use your upper body.’ Once I started thinking about that, it helped everything. I felt stronger and lighter.”
Now, Hesselink helps students at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center incorporate arm movement—whether choreographed or natural—into their tap dancing. When the arms are fully integrated, they make a tap routine a dance rather than an exercise.
“Your feet create the music, but the entire body tap dances,” says Acia Gray, teacher and artistic director of the Soul to Sole Tap Festival in Austin, Texas. But most tap dancers have a difficult time incorporating their upper bodies, especially when they’re concentrating on complicated footwork.
Explain the Importance of Port de Bras
To show students why they should pay attention to their arms, demonstrate how the port de bras can help with balance and momentum. “When you’re not controlled up top, you lose clarity, strength and speed in your feet,” Hesselink says. “If the arms or the head are drooping, it weighs you down.”
“The arms need to work in natural opposition to the legs to help a dancer remain solid,” says Gray. “My style in particular—but a lot of tap, too—moves from the core, so your arms naturally respond to shifts in weight in the hips and leg, because they’re connected through the core.” Reminding students to allow the arms to counter the legs in a gentle swing is an easy way to introduce the upper body into a footwork-heavy class.
Establish “Home Base”
Once students have mastered the counterbalancing swing, have them try a simple, modified ballet second position as a “home base” for the arms, which creates a polished look and improves stability. “The alignment should be ballet- or jazz-based, with the arms slightly in front of the chest to avoid a rib cage that pops out,” explains Hesselink. “I describe it as a tightrope walker holding a stick in front for balance.” Florida-based tap master Debbi Dee takes this idea one step further and has students hold props like ropes or canes while they dance, to keep their arms positioned properly.
Adding a ballet first position during turns (Hesselink often describes it with the visual of “holding a beach ball”) can also help students increase their turning speed and accuracy. After the turn, they should move back to the gentle second position to reestablish their balance.
Many students struggle with unwanted tension in their arms and hands, particularly when they’re concentrating on their feet. Dee uses a tactile tool to bring awareness to hand habits. “I have the student place a rubber band around her four fingers,” she says. “As soon as the hand moves involuntarily, the rubber band reacts and draws the student’s attention.”
Gray says teaching the movement as a rhythm, rather than emphasizing counts or steps, often alleviates tension. “Dealing with rhythm alone draws out the right side of the brain, the student’s ‘singer,’” she says. “Then when the student ‘sings’ the rhythm, they relax and feel the groove. Tension usually comes from thinking too much.”
Put Arms and Legs Together
Coordinating the arms and legs is often the most difficult step. Dee’s strategy is to work through an exercise or routine in slow motion, which can help students link the two elements together. “I go through the phrase slowly and fluidly, keeping the rhythm pattern, as I would when cleaning a routine,” she says. Hesselink has a different approach: He clarifies arm and foot movements separately before putting them together. “Go through the combination without any feet and help the students just with the arms, épaulement and upper body,” he says. “Then add the feet back in. The two will be better-coordinated and cleaner.”
It’s critical that students can handle both choreographed and looser arm movements. “Students should be able to switch from rhythm or street tap, where the arms are loose, to choreographed—though not mechanical!—arms for theatrical tap,” says Dee.
If a student is having trouble with loose, partly improvised street-tap arms, Dee suggests this approach: “Watch the student practice and note how they naturally move their upper body. Then work off that. If a student tends to hold her arms to the side and then lift them a bit during a certain step, I’ll set that lift in the choreography. It’s figuring out what feels normal.”
For routines or phrases with highly choreographed arms, Gray offers students a narrative or visual to connect with the arm movement. “It’s important to give the dancers a reason why they’re doing a certain arm motion, so that it comes from an emotional core and doesn’t end up looking like drill team,” she says. “For example, I have a piece called Softly as a Morning Sunrise. I describe its choreographed arms, which go up and down, as the sun rising and setting. That gives the arms a purpose.” Gray adds that linking arm movement to a musical accent can also help students use the arms precisely, but naturally. DT
Lauren Kay is a dancer and freelance writer based in NYC.
Photo by Kristi Pitsch, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance