Gregg Russell Has a Secret to Inspire Young Tap Dancers

Russell always tells teachers, "If you're not enjoying the music, you're not going to enjoy your class."

When Emmy-nominated choreographer and master tap teacher Gregg Russell was a young dancer, his teacher Henry LeTang exposed him to classic jazz music—in class. But, as Russell recalls, no one was using that kind of music at competitions. For his next Showstopper competition number, he decided to dance to the "new" music. He went with an old jazz standard from the '20s. "It was this scratchy track—I don't remember the name—with blues horns, and I remember the judges on the critique tapes saying, 'Oh, this is nice,' like it was brand-new," he says. This opened Russell's eyes and ears to the powerful impact music choice can have.

Now, when considering a new piece, Russell sometimes finds it useful to mix two different styles together. Pairing choreography with an unlikely choice of music can create a whole new sound and experience for both the dancers and the audience, he says. For example, in a recent piece for his company Tap Sounds Underground, he choreographed traditional tap steps, but picked a song by The Derek Trucks Band, an American jam band. The crowd went ballistic. "You would have thought the audience was at church," he says.

Russell, who's performed with legends such as Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers and Michael Jackson, just to name a few, makes sure to bring history into his classes. Although, he admits, making a 10-year-old appreciate classic music can be tricky.

"I'll teach a combo to a current song, but then I'll do the same combo to a jazz song," he says. For the most part, this works. "And it inspires kids to open their minds to hearing new sounds, as opposed to the same five songs on the radio that everyone else is using."

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

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Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

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