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Katharine Pettit Has a Solution for the "Dance Moms" Effect

Pettit (right) and Slater at Peridance Capezio Center. Photo by Kyle Froman

In a basement wood-floor studio at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City, Katharine Pettit starts her intermediate tap class with simple drills using the heel and toe taps. She incorporates weight shifts and gradually increases the speed to warm up ankles and brains, first hitting the quarter notes and eighth notes, then triplets and sixteenths. “Really fight for that specificity," she urges during time steps. She pauses to demonstrate the correct spot to hit the toe tap—in “the Bermuda Triangle" between the three screws. Her tap smacks the floor with a satisfying, crisp sound.

Currently known more for ballet and contemporary, Peridance hired Pettit in 2014 as part of its mission to bolster its tap program. Fresh off an observership with Susan Stroman on Bullets Over Broadway, she got right to work, emphasizing fundamentals in all her classes. Her background in musical theater draws a crowd of actors with dance experience hoping to refresh the skills they need to ace dance callbacks. “People who come to me are trying to get into audition after audition," she says.

One major struggle she sees students face—both her adults in New York and the tweens she coaches at a studio in Westchester—is a desire to do too much too fast. For younger students, she calls it “The 'Dance Moms' effect," or everyone thinking they can do everything. “I get young students who say they've had 10 years of tap, and they're 13, but they don't know how to separate a shuffle or differentiate between heel tap and toe tap," she says. For older dancers, it's a matter of patience. Even those who are classically trained have to accept starting with the basics before building up to more virtuosic combinations.

She gives them plenty to strive for. On a summer afternoon, there's a determined energy in the room as dancers figure out a combination that turns as it covers ground. Pettit has them changing their spot each time they do the phrase, traveling the rectangle of the studio perimeter. She uses the across-the-floor portion of class to build on the technical skills introduced during warm-up. She also nudges students beyond the pure steps to make it swing. “We're tap dancers, not tap stompers," she says during the next exercise, a walking five-count riff. “You want people to be able to groove to it."

Bio: As a child growing up in St. Louis, MO, Katharine Pettit got her start in ballet, tap and jazz at the local YMCA. At 8, she fell in love with musical theater and began performing in productions as a singer and dancer. By 10, she had added modern dance training to her routine at a studio that taught Graham technique. After graduating from Stephens College in 2003 with a degree in theater and a music (vocals) minor, she moved to New York City, where she began booking theater gigs as a performer and, later, as choreographer and director. In 2008, she began studying with Derick K. Grant at Steps on Broadway and started getting more teaching jobs. Most recently, she earned the 2014 Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) Observership with Susan Stroman for up-and-coming directors and choreographers. This gave her the chance to work closely with and assist Stroman during the creation and rehearsal of Bullets Over Broadway.

Meredith Slater has been Pettit's student for a year. She hadn't tap-danced since childhood when she returned to the studio to expand her skills as a singer, actor and comedian.

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