As a regular convention faculty member, Debbi Dee is a pro at teaching tap to teachers. Named a “Living Treasure in American Dance” by Oklahoma City University in 2011, she will be teaching at our Dance Teacher Summit next week, August 1–3. Dee spoke to DT about her unique method for increasing tappers’ speed and accuracy.

Dance Teacher: How did you develop the 123/ABC Breakdown Theory?

Debbi Dee: That came out of frustration. I could get so fast with my feet, but I wasn’t able to communicate that to my students. I locked myself in a room and dissected the movement and realized I was dancing on all angles of the tap. I finally understood what my own teacher had been trying to tell me, that the metal plate is an instrument. In order to really define where I wanted students to tap on their instrument, I divided the tap into sections: “1” is inside, “2” is center, “3” is outside, “A” is on the tip, “B” is coming down and “C” is tapping flat.

When you concentrate on such a small area, it not only helps with speed but also takes care of your shading and accents without you even realizing you’re doing it. Sometimes people work the entire leg, but when you divide the tap up so precisely, you can’t do that. You’re forced to use more of the foot and the instrument. Taking away that extra movement makes you automatically faster.

DT: Why are dancers tempted to use their whole leg when tapping, even though it’s so inefficient?

DD: In the beginning I was teaching things so big just to get my point across. And then I realized I’d have to undo all of that as students got older. Sometimes I see teachers showing a shuffle as almost a brush-kick forward and a brush-kick back. When I teach beginners, I start the shuffle in the rebound position, almost like a parallel passé, and then I just have the foot come down and touch on A and come back up on B. I ask them to move the leg down and up instead of forward and back. In ballet class, you go thru demi- and grand plié because you need them for certain things. But you will never need a shuffle that big, so why teach it that way? And that goes for almost every basic step in tap. —Andrea Marks



Photos courtesy of Debbi Dee


Introducing and teaching rhythm can seem easy, but in reality it can prove to be a complicated concept—especially for younger dancers to grasp. At Ballet Hispánico's School of Dance in New York City, Los Explorers for 3- to 5-year-olds uses classic salsa and tango music to help kids acquire rhythmic awareness.

Here Rebecca Tsivkin, early childhood programs associate, and Kiri Avelar, associate school director, offer exercises to help youngsters feel the beat.

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Dance Buzz
Panelists (left to right): Emily Nusbaum, Eric Kupers, Judith Smith, Deborah Karp and Suzanna Curtis. Photo by Aiano Nakagawa, courtesy of Luna Dance Institute

This past Saturday, I visited Luna Dance Institute in Berkeley, California, to attend the Dance & Disability Discourse & Panel—a discussion with five artists, educators and researchers about access and equity for disabled students in dance education. Here are three statements from the discussion that I found eye-opening.

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Todd Rosenlieb, left, of The Governor's School for the Arts. Photo by Victor Frailing, courtesy of Todd Rosenlieb

You're setting choreography on your class and most of the students are picking it up. One dancer, though, is having difficulty remembering the steps. You review the material several times, but you fear that this is starting to hold back your more advanced students. Still, you're worried the struggling dancer will be left behind. What is the best way to proceed?

Memorizing choreography is an essential skill for dancers. Fast learners have more time to work on the technique and artistry within a combination, and they are often the first to catch the eyes of directors. Like most skills, learning pace can be improved. Encouraging students to develop their own memorization methods will help them approach choreography with confidence.

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Dancer Health
Neuromuscular expert Deborah Vogel with Jordan Lazan, right. Photo by Jim Lafferty

By strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle, a dancer can help prevent or correct existing pronation. Having strong intrinsic foot muscles keeps the arches aligned, preventing them from dropping inward.

Here, Vogel shares three strengthening exercises to help correct and prevent pronation. She advises dancers to include these in their cross-training regimen.

Mobilize your ankles. (Step 1)

For this ankle mobilization exercise, having a TheraBand wrapped around your ankles puts pressure on your feet to pronate. By resisting that action and keeping your feet centered through the relevé, you're essentially training the ankle where center is.

  • Sitting up straight in a chair, with your feet planted on the floor a few inches apart, tie a TheraBand in a loop around your ankles. You can place a yoga block vertically in between your knees to maintain space between your legs.

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Photo courtesy of New York Live Arts

Ellen Robbins' modern dance classes for kids and teens are legendary in New York City. Robbins, who has been teaching kids how to dance since the 1970s (and whose pupils included the actresses Claire Danes and Julia Stiles), takes the standard recital model and turns it on its head. Her students—ranging in age from 8 to 18—are the choreographers for the annual concert she produces at esteemed NYC venue New York Live Arts.

If that approach sounds borderline insane to you (we know you're all deep in the throes of recital season right now), consider Robbins' unique teaching philosophy: Improvisation is present in every aspect of class, for every age group. Here are four ways she shapes her youngest dancers into choreographers—almost without their realizing it!

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Teachers & Role Models
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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