Claudia Rahardjanoto: How I Teach Tap

Photo by Kyle Froman.

Claudia Rahardjanoto likes to keep her adult-beginner tap students on their toes. "The vocabulary itself is not tricky, but I make it a little bit more difficult with weight shifts," she says. "It's not always going to be the classic flap-ball-change. Maybe it's going to be a flap-heel, ball-change."

Taking basic, building-block steps—step-heels, walks, shuffles, cramp rolls, flaps—and rearranging them to create more complex phrases is fundamental to Rahardjanoto's classes at Steps on Broadway in New York City. To mix things up, she changes the timing, emphasis and sequence of steps, keeping classic tap vocabulary fresh for drop-ins and her seasoned regulars alike. Her special combination of brain-teasing exercises and a multisensory approach to tap pedagogy empowers students physically and mentally, making a beginner class feel like anything but, and in the best way.

Her first physical challenge arrives at the end of the warm-up and center work. It's what Rahardjanoto refers to as "The Marathon," and it's exactly what it sounds like: several minutes of constant movement, no stopping. The students start with some easy running flaps around the room and then transition into flap-steps, flap-ball-changes, shuffle-hops, Irishes and shuffle-ball-changes. The tempo is manageable but definitely raises the dancers' heart rates. "That takes care of the cardio part of the day," jokes Rahardjanoto.

Next up? The Quiz. She challenges her students to piece together a four- to eight-measure phrase based on terminology and rhythm alone, without her demonstrating. "OK, we're going: fa-LAP-ball-change, fa-LAP-ball-change, shuffle-step, ca-RAMP roll," she chants from her chair at the corner of the room. She gives the class a few minutes to figure out the full phrase, weaving around the room to troubleshoot problem spots with anyone who's confused. "I tell them what to do, I count it for them and I scat it for them," she says. "That way they can make sure that their brain-to-foot connection is really working."

When her students perform the combination—which always starts on the left side, as an added challenge—to music, Rahardjanoto will throw in another curveball or two, like asking her students to face the back wall instead of the mirror. "Now," she tells them, "all you have is the weight of how it feels. And you can listen to each other."

Despite so many brainteasers, the mood in the studio always remains light, thanks to her encouragement and positivity. When one student who'd been struggling with a particularly tricky across-the-floor segment finally gets it right, Rahardjanoto is right there to cheer her on. "There it is!" she says. "You got it."

Claudia Rahardjanoto is from Germany. Since 2003, she has been a professional tap dancer in New York City, and a teacher since 2004. She has performed with Michelle Dorrance, Andrew Nemr, Jared Grimes, Max Pollak, Mike Minery, Roxane Butterfly and Barbara Duffy. She currently teaches at Steps on Broadway and the American Tap Dance Foundation.

Keeko Nakadai is a freelance tap dancer in New York City.

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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