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:

PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."



The Boy Factor doesn't just have to do with competition scores: It's how we treat boys throughout their dance education. "We idolize the boys," says Ashley Harnish, a teacher at a competition studio. "We build entire dances around one boy, and we teach them that we need them more than we need the girls."

On the surface, The Boy Factor is flagrant sexism. But what's really behind the phenomenon? "So often, young male dancers are bullied because our culture says that dance is for girls," says a second national competition adjudicator. "This stigma pushes some judges to reward boys by scoring them higher than their female competitors." The Boy Factor also stems from a simple fact: There are far more girls than boys in the dance world.

"Judges see boys as valuable commodities," says Marissa Jean, a staff member at Broadway Dance Center's new building for children and teens and a teacher at several competition studios. "To encourage their career in dance, judges will throw a little extra their way. It could be placing them in the top ten or giving them a special award. They nurture them a bit more than the girls."



But by trying to retain more male talent, are we suggesting to girls that they are less valuable to the dance world than boys? "There's so much about this getting into these kids' psyches," says Childress. "Like, 'Oh the boy will beat me no matter what.' How do we teach self-worth knowing that you're going up against a boy, so what's the point?"

The Boy Factor is a product of and a contributor to the culture that sends the few men in dance up the glass escalator: "Many boys growing up in the dance world are not told the word 'no' often, so they tend to climb the professional ranks more quickly than the women," says Jean. We often bemoan the absence of female leadership in dance, but the damage is already done if we've taught young women that their gender determines their value to our community.

So what can be done about The Boy Factor? First, we could change how we encourage boys to continue dancing. Instead of empowering young men by devaluing young women, we could work as a community to dispel the culture of toxic masculinity that discourages boys from pursuing dance in the first place.

But it also falls in the hands of judges and teachers. "We need to increase awareness," says the second adjudicator. "A lot of us judges don't realize what we are promoting and the messages we send through our scoring and awards. If enough of us band together, I think we can make a difference so that this part of our field is less toxic."

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