Armed for Tap

Effective upper body use in tap

Ray Hesselink leads class at The School at Jacob’s Pillow 2010 Tap Program

Ray Hesselink’s tap dancing is full-bodied expression: Fluid arms and polished hands finish the picture his fast-flying feet begin. But that wasn’t always the case. “When I started tap dancing, I never thought about my arms,” says the New York City–based master teacher. “Finally, longtime instructor Bob Audy said, ‘You have to use your upper body.’ Once I started thinking about that, it helped everything. I felt stronger and lighter.”

Now, Hesselink helps students at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center incorporate arm movement—whether choreographed or natural—into their tap dancing. When the arms are fully integrated, they make a tap routine a dance rather than an exercise.

“Your feet create the music, but the entire body tap dances,” says Acia Gray, teacher and artistic director of the Soul to Sole Tap Festival in Austin, Texas. But most tap dancers have a difficult time incorporating their upper bodies, especially when they’re concentrating on complicated footwork.

Explain the Importance of Port de Bras

To show students why they should pay attention to their arms, demonstrate how the port de bras can help with balance and momentum. “When you’re not controlled up top, you lose clarity, strength and speed in your feet,” Hesselink says. “If the arms or the head are drooping, it weighs you down.”

“The arms need to work in natural opposition to the legs to help a dancer remain solid,” says Gray. “My style in particular—but a lot of tap, too—moves from the core, so your arms naturally respond to shifts in weight in the hips and leg, because they’re connected through the core.” Reminding students to allow the arms to counter the legs in a gentle swing is an easy way to introduce the upper body into a footwork-heavy class.

Establish “Home Base”

Once students have mastered the counterbalancing swing, have them try a simple, modified ballet second position as a “home base” for the arms, which creates a polished look and improves stability. “The alignment should be ballet- or jazz-based, with the arms slightly in front of the chest to avoid a rib cage that pops out,” explains Hesselink. “I describe it as a tightrope walker holding a stick in front for balance.” Florida-based tap master Debbi Dee takes this idea one step further and has students hold props like ropes or canes while they dance, to keep their arms positioned properly.

Adding a ballet first position during turns (Hesselink often describes it with the visual of “holding a beach ball”) can also help students increase their turning speed and accuracy. After the turn, they should move back to the gentle second position to reestablish their balance.

Alleviate Tension

Many students struggle with unwanted tension in their arms and hands, particularly when they’re concentrating on their feet. Dee uses a tactile tool to bring awareness to hand habits. “I have the student place a rubber band around her four fingers,” she says. “As soon as the hand moves involuntarily, the rubber band reacts and draws the student’s attention.”

Gray says teaching the movement as a rhythm, rather than emphasizing counts or steps, often alleviates tension. “Dealing with rhythm alone draws out the right side of the brain, the student’s ‘singer,’” she says. “Then when the student ‘sings’ the rhythm, they relax and feel the groove. Tension usually comes from thinking too much.”

Put Arms and Legs Together

Coordinating the arms and legs is often the most difficult step. Dee’s strategy is to work through an exercise or routine in slow motion, which can help students link the two elements together. “I go through the phrase slowly and fluidly, keeping the rhythm pattern, as I would when cleaning a routine,” she says. Hesselink has a different approach: He clarifies arm and foot movements separately before putting them together. “Go through the combination without any feet and help the students just with the arms, épaulement and upper body,” he says. “Then add the feet back in. The two will be better-coordinated and cleaner.”

Emphasize Versatility

It’s critical that students can handle both choreographed and looser arm movements. “Students should be able to switch from rhythm or street tap, where the arms are loose, to choreographed—though not mechanical!—arms for theatrical tap,” says Dee.

If a student is having trouble with loose, partly improvised street-tap arms, Dee suggests this approach: “Watch the student practice and note how they naturally move their upper body. Then work off that. If a student tends to hold her arms to the side and then lift them a bit during a certain step, I’ll set that lift in the choreography. It’s figuring out what feels normal.”

For routines or phrases with highly choreographed arms, Gray offers students a narrative or visual to connect with the arm movement. “It’s important to give the dancers a reason why they’re doing a certain arm motion, so that it comes from an emotional core and doesn’t end up looking like drill team,” she says. “For example, I have a piece called Softly as a Morning Sunrise. I describe its choreographed arms, which go up and down, as the sun rising and setting. That gives the arms a purpose.” Gray adds that linking arm movement to a musical accent can also help students use the arms precisely, but naturally. DT

 

Lauren Kay is a dancer and freelance writer based in NYC.

Photo by Kristi Pitsch, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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