Back It Up
How backward curriculum design applies to tap class
In a well-known scene from the 1989 movie Tap, a young Savion Glover lingers outside a sunlit studio. Inside, Gregory Hines engages in a genial challenge with Sammy Davis, Jr., Howard “Sandman” Sims, Harold Nicholas and other tap luminaries. The scene highlights the dancers’ impeccable skills, but the confluence of three generations of hoofers also reveals an underlying feature of the dance form: Tap is vernacular dance, traditionally taught and shared person-to-person, creating a veritable family tree of steps and styles.
Today, some students are mentored, while others learn tap in a studio setting, where a typical tap class mirrors its ballet and modern dance counterparts: warm-up, exercises across the floor and a combination. But the progression may not be designed with a particular endgame in mind. While students inevitably learn a great deal, they could be learning more. Enter Barry Blumenfeld.
Blumenfeld teaches with New York’s 92nd Street Y professional development program for dance teachers and artists, the Dance Education Laboratory and at NYU Steinhardt. Using the DEL model as his guide, Blumenfeld has developed a tap curriculum anchored in two concepts of modern pedagogy: backward design and scaffolding. The approach offers many advantages, not the least of which is efficient use of limited class time. The curriculum is inherently adaptable, making it appropriate for all ages and skill levels. And if the concepts are completely new to you, Blumenfeld says you can start small by applying them to just a single class period.
Break It Down
The curriculum takes a long view on planning. Teachers begin by outlining objectives for the full semester (or even the entire year) and then move backward—hence, backward design. “The idea is that you think about your really big goal, your reason why, and then clarify it into small goals,” Blumenfeld explains. “For me, the biggest idea is that tap is an expressive art.” With that in mind, he asks, “What do I want my students to know when they’re done? And what do I want my students to be able to do?” These questions help him identify the specific skills that allow dancers to use tap to express themselves, such as virtuosity, clarity, speed and musicality. He also includes improvisation, which gives students the tools to create their own choreography. And he wants his students to have dance literacy—that is, a context of tap history and a vocabulary that allows them to describe movement.
Blumenfeld continues moving backward, progressively breaking down each objective. “It works on multiple levels over the semester,” he says, “so that each class reflects the larger structure.”
Put It Back Together
Designing backward breaks down big goals into manageable pieces. Scaffolding assembles manageable pieces into lessons that work toward the big goals. A clear example of how these ideas work in tandem is scaffolded exercises that build to an end-of-class combination.
To begin, you would identify an objective for the class period—for instance, exploring different ways of moving in space. “Part of virtuosity is the ability to travel,” Blumenfeld says. “If you want to be able to dance, you need to move in space.” He uses Laban Movement Analysis, so he breaks this idea down into self-space and general space, but you can use your own movement vocabulary.
With this mission in mind, you would work backward, choreographing a combination that illustrates the big idea. “So I need steps that spring straight up and down,” Blumenfeld explains, “and stuff that travels.” With the final combination in place, you can integrate those steps into every aspect of the class, from the warm-up to across-the-floor exercises. These bite-size lessons are the scaffolding that supports your overarching goal.
The Curriculum in Action
If you want to teach students to think about movement in space, the warm-up might include hopping and leaping steps, which introduces the concept and engages the springing muscles. A shuffle exercise could build on the theme with a break featuring a leap so that students think about switching feet in the air. And ideally, the steps for all your exercises are pulled directly from your end-of-class combination.
“All the while, you’re using the terminology,” Blumenfeld says. “For example, ‘We’re going to move across the floor in general space.’” When students individually workshop pullbacks, he describes it as traveling through general space. During an improvisation lesson, each student might get eight counts to freestyle, but Blumenfeld might challenge them to include a wing or pullback moving in either general or self-space. And a short video, such as The Nicholas Brothers’ famous Stormy Weather routine, introduces a historical aspect while serving as an exciting visual example of the overall concept.
By the time you get to the combination, instead of teaching a dance from scratch, you simply put together the pieces you’ve laid out as the class progressed. “So when they get to the combination, it’s like, ‘Surprise, you already know it,’” Blumenfeld says. “The students feel great, because everyone wants mastery.”
Built for All
By setting a long-term objective and threading it through every lesson, the curriculum caters to a variety of learning styles. An idea that makes sense for one student during improvisation may click for another during across-the-floor exercises. Blumenfeld even scaffolds in audition skills using a combination that connects to the historical video, a crucial lesson for dancers who want to pursue performance careers—but this also targets students who learn best through careful observation and listening.
The rigorously structured curriculum may seem counterintuitive given Blumenfeld’s desire to facilitate and foster creative expression. But in fact, he says it is precisely this organized architecture that allows students to flourish. “You need the structure,” he says. “You can’t jump if there’s no floor to push off of.” DT
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer living in New York.
Photo by Catherine Lucey, courtesy of Friends Seminary