How I teach rhythm tap
“Alright, time for some cramp-roll love,” says Aaron Tolson midway through his afternoon intermediate-advanced tap class at Broadway Dance Center in New York City. “You know how I love the cramp rolls.”
His students groan good-naturedly in anticipation of what’s coming. “C’mon, it’s good for you,” he says with a smile, rubbing his stomach. “Vegetables!”
With his lengthy mane of dreadlocks, Batman T-shirt and two-tone purple tap shoes, Tolson exudes cool as he slowly sounds out the accent he wants: “one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a.” He asks his dancers to step into their cramp rolls evenly, keeping the rhythm square, rather than jumping into them with a galloping rhythm. “Then the muscle memory sticks,” he explains later. “With the exception of brush, toe-heel is the foundation of tap dance.”
After a few rounds, he changes the accents so that each sound of the cramp roll’s toe-toe-heel-heel has a moment to shine (one-ee-and-a-two-ee-and-a-three-ee-and-a-four-ee-and-a). Brows furrow in concentration as his students try to punctuate each accent, sometimes jumbling up their feet in the process. But they keep going, shifting tempos, breaking into groups and, finally, demonstrating one by one.
“You’ll probably never have to do that onstage,” he tells them afterward. “But you can!”
For Tolson, challenging students with exercises slightly beyond their technical level shows them the scope of what they’re capable of. The result is greater confidence in their abilities, as opposed to frustration or discouragement. He starts out simply, gradually tacking on new layers of complexity—crossing the feet, turning, traveling—to the original phrase, allowing his students to gain thorough practice of both the fundamentals and more advanced variations.
While his drills are tough, Tolson keeps a casual demeanor, laced with light sarcasm and humorous catchphrases. (“May the floor be with you” is a frequent blessing from the self-proclaimed Star Wars geek.) “My teaching method is based on the idea that classes should be fun and lighthearted, while still challenging each person,” he says.
Tolson, who teaches at both BDC and Peridance Capezio Center, frequently drills exercises straight through to the end of class. “I never get to my combo,” he says. “I really just love to focus on technique.” His students, many of them aspiring professionals, don’t seem to mind. He often squats down to watch intently as their feet hammer the tap-battered floor, stopping to correct not only rhythmic missteps but also improper form.
For instance, in rhythm turns, he cautions against stepping on a turned-in foot after the initial shuffle. “I always say this is $50 more in your paycheck,” he says, showing a cleanly crossed foot. “The details make such a difference. When you just do this,” he says, demonstrating a sloppy example, “it becomes mush. But when you’re very specific, you become a great dancer.”
Below, Tolson and student Hannah Kravec break down three variations of rhythm turns.
Aaron Tolson grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, and started tapping with Joe Dussault in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the age of 10. As a teenager, he studied under Julia Boynton and performed with Gregory Hines, Derick K. Grant and Savion Glover at the Apollo Theater. After graduating from St. John’s University, Tolson danced in a Tap Dogs training workshop and in Riverdance, and in 2010 he assistant-produced and choreographed the musical revue Imagine Tap! along with Grant. Tolson’s been on faculty at The Boston Conservatory and Plymouth State University, and he is currently on staff at Broadway Dance Center and Peridance Capezio Center. He serves as the director for Speaking In Taps, a pre-professional youth company based in Massachusetts. Together with his wife Emily and Derick K. Grant, Tolson co-directs the Tap2You competition.
Hannah Kravec is a student at Dance FX in Sunrise, Florida.
Photography by Kyle Froman