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Melinda Sullivan on Music for tap

Melinda Sullivan (photo by Jeremy Jackson)

When tap dancer and “So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Melinda Sullivan walked away with the 2012 Capezio A.C.E. Award, she initially felt intimidated by the prize—she would be crafting her first evening-length show. By the time Gone premiered at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, though, she'd expanded her original five minutes of choreography into 50. Her go-to choreographic devices are closely aligned with music: When she's found a piece that she feels drawn to, she often listens to the song over and over again, focusing each time on a different instrument's rhythm. Another favorite trick is to start with one simple step—to keep the time to the music—and use that as a theme she can return to. “You don't need to do every step you know in a dance," she says. “It should be arranged and thoughtful. You need to keep in mind the overarching composition of not just the picture but the music, too."


In her tap classes at The Colburn School in Los Angeles and with the New York City Dance Alliance, Sullivan maintains a consistent vision: imparting the lineage of tap and reminding her students that they are musicians themselves. “A lot of tap that's done today is just about the show—and I'm all about the show, I get it—but you have these shoes on your feet that are instruments," she says. “If you're going to dance and not pay any attention to your instruments, you may as well just take off your shoes." DT


Artists: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Album: Ella & Louis

“This album is really swingy, which is important, because swing is really hard to explain. I can write out the musical notes and the rhythm, but it's better to just feel it. Some of the songs are a bit slower, so I use it a lot when I teach adult tap."

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Artist: HAIM

Album: Days Are Gone

“This rock-pop band of three sisters from Los Angeles is super fun—and they play all the instruments themselves. I think it's important if you're a tap dancer to at least attempt another instrument. It really helps your craft. You can start thinking about music in a different way."


Artist: Emily King

Song: “Georgia"

“I teach a class called 'Untapped,' which is a soft-shoe class, to get dancers who aren't into tap exposed to basics like footwork and weight-changing. Emily King's vocals are so smooth, and the track is pretty open, so it's nice to pair that with the texture of the soft shoe brushing on the floor."

Album: Newsies movie soundtrack

“I know it's kind of cheesy, but I'm a cheeseball. I teach musical theater dance sometimes, so I love tracks that already have dance breaks in them. One of my first tap dances as a kid was to 'King of New York' from this soundtrack."

Artist: Nikos Syropoulos

Album: Gone

“This composer wrote this original music for my show Gone, and I've been using it to teach. I have all of this choreography that I can pull from. It's a really beautiful score, and I like seeing how people react when they listen to it for class or if they choreograph to it."

Former students of Kelley gather around a cardboard cutout made in his honor at the recent tribute. Photo courtesy of Merritt

Every dancer has a teacher who makes an impression. The kind of impression that makes you want to become a dancer or a teacher in the first place. For Mara Merritt, owner of Merritt Dance Center in Schenectady, NY, and countless others, that teacher was Charles Kelley.

Known as "Chuck" to most, Kelley was born December 4, 1936. He was a master teacher in tap, jazz and acrobatics, who wrote syllabuses for national dance conventions like Dance Masters of America. Growing up in upstate New York, Merritt's parents, both dance teachers, took her into Manhattan every Friday to study with Kelley. First at the old Ed Sullivan Theater and the New York Center of Dance in Times Square, then years later at Broadway Dance Center.

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Photo courtesy of DM archives

"It's hard not to get too hurt in this profession."

Ann Reinking got real earlier this month at New York City Dance Alliance Foundation's Bright Lights Shining Stars gala. She was being honored as a 2017 NYCDA Foundation Ambassador for the Arts, and her speech was so moving that we had to share the entire thing with you.

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popular
Photo by Grant Halverson, courtesy of ADF

As a soloist with William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt and later as his assistant, Elizabeth Corbett got to experience firsthand the groundbreaking choreographer's influence on contemporary ballet. "I find it fascinating and never-ending," she says of his work. "It was a repertory that was constantly changing over time and still is." Now on faculty with the American Dance Festival, Corbett brings Forsythe's repertory and processes to the dancers in class every summer.

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During seated stretches, I encourage my students to sit straight on their sits bones and then fold forward at the hips—even if they don't go forward very far. One student tells me that if she sits as I instruct, she can't reach forward at all. Why?
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Teachers & Role Models

In 2011, New York City–based choreographer Pedro Ruiz returned to Cuba after 21 years of dancing with Ballet Hispanico and more than 30 years being away. The experience was so moving that he created The Windows Project as a continuous cultural collaboration between American artists and Cuban dancers.

"I was so overwhelmed seeing all the dancers do Afro-Cuban dance with live music. It was the moment my soul reconnected to Cuba and to my roots," says Ruiz of his first trip back. "I started weeping." He saw that, while Cuban companies and schools have amazing knowledge and passion for dance, they needed access to train with teachers in a variety of techniques, and choreographers outside of Cuba. "Cuba is still struggling economically, so the dancers also don't have good ballet shoes or costumes, and The Windows Project was my way to begin to help," he says.

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How-To
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Midway through every semester at Indiana University Bloomington, contemporary professor Stephanie Nugent notices that her students aren't quite as awake as they were the first week of classes. They're tired from midterm exams and bring less energy to the studio. Nugent, too, feels the lull. "Teaching in academia is an arc with many peaks and valleys," she says, noting that the repetition of exercises can get monotonous. "On days when it feels like we've been doing the same thing over and over, I give students an improvisational prompt, and it reignites all of our interests. It's something to investigate, rather than something to repeat."

Most teachers experience a moment of stagnation at some point. Maybe students aren't progressing as fast as you feel they should, or you feel uninspired by the daily routine. Factors outside the studio, like administrative work, can also deplete your energy reserves. During these low and slow times, consider the following ideas to find inspiration and give yourself—and your students—a boost.

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Teachers & Role Models
Photo by Jennifer Zmuda, courtesy of BalletMet

Long before switching from ballet to Broadway became de rigueur, Edwaard Liang shocked everyone by leaving New York City Ballet to join the Broadway cast of the musical Fosse. Eleven years later, he defied expectations again by taking over as BalletMet's artistic director—without putting his robust freelance choreography career on hold. Liang, it seems, doesn't pay much heed to the conventional approach to a dance career.

In his four years with BalletMet, Liang has sought to challenge his dancers with diverse repertory that goes far beyond the typical confines of classical and contemporary ballet. This month, to celebrate BalletMet's 40th anniversary, the company teamed up with Ohio State University's dance department and the Wexner Center for the Arts to offer a smorgasbord of dance styles: from William Forsythe's singular brand of leggy-brainy dance to Ohad Naharin's exuberant Minus 16, performed alongside OSU dance students. Here, he talks to DT about the effect his choices have had on his career.

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