How I teach pre-tap

Courtney Runft and American Tap Dance Foundation student Julia Freer (age 5) demonstrate a maxi ford.

Forty-five minutes of 3 1/2-year-olds in tap shoes may sound like a recipe for a throbbing headache, but Courtney Runft manages to keep the noise under control. That’s because for the first few months of her pre-tap class at the American Tap Dance Foundation, students wear sneakers. “We learn classroom etiquette,” she says. “For most of them, it’s the first time they’re in a classroom, and they don’t know how to take turns, stand patiently or follow directions.” The noise level rises when the taps are first introduced, but the students quickly learn to control their feet. “I’ll point to them and let them make all the noise they can, and then make the signal for freeze,” she says. “We play noise/no noise, and they get used to it.” Like most skills taught at this level, standing quietly becomes a game.

Runft also co-directs the Tap City Junior Ensemble and teaches adults at ATDF, but it’s the youngest levels that keep her on her toes. “It’s the hardest class to teach because you have to think quickly,” she says. “As soon as I lose one person’s attention, it’s time to move on and switch gears.” Runft, who helps shape the school’s curriculum, has roughly 11 tap activities in her arsenal for pre-tap—including a “scrambled eggs” counting and moving game, hopscotch and a stage-direction challenge—and she goes through more than half of them each class.

Many of the activities are tailored to individual students, depending on his or her coordination. For instance, when students take turns traveling a square’s perimeter, Runft may ask a few students to try more advanced steps, such as hopping on one foot versus jumping with two, or doing flap-heels instead of ball-heels. Although Runft says that girls tend to be half a year ahead of boys in terms of ability, all students show accelerated motor-skill development in the years to come. “By the end of the year they’re able to stand on one foot, hop and shift their weight, and they know dig-toes, ball-heels and shuffles,” she says. “In the next levels you can really tell which kids have had pre-tap and those who haven’t. There’s a huge difference in body awareness and balance.”

Here, Runft teaches a basic maxi ford, one of the first complex steps her students learn (typically ages 5–6) that combines elements from pre-tap class: