Like most educators, I have been teaching online since early March. My undergraduate Dance and Culture course was relatively easy to deliver remotely (as long as I could pre-record lectures while my son was taking a nap), but my tap classes? Not so much.
This is because tap is a percussive dance form. Sound matters. You can't just mute your students and hope for the best, as you can in many other dance techniques. And so I sat down (virtually, of course) with three seasoned pros to get the lowdown on teaching tap in the age of social distancing.
Anthony Morigerato, Operation Tap
Since co-founding Operation: Tap in 2014, Anthony Morigerato (perhaps best known for his choreography on "SYTYCD") has been teaching tap online to provide supplemental training for students who don't have access to the types of classes offered in New York, Chicago or L.A. He does this primarily through pre-recorded content and has learned how to keep his students on their toes, even when real-time interaction isn't possible. "When I'm recording a video, I'll stop and say, 'I know you're not counting right now.' The students will say to themselves, 'Wait! How did he know that?'"
When teaching in real time, Morigerato prefers Facebook Live because "you're broadcasting out so you don't have the delay on the other side of the camera." Interaction is limited, of course, but dancers can ask questions through the comments field. When giving feedback, Morigerato often relies on his wife Lorri Leonardi, who owns Class Act Dance in Gansevoort, New York. If she's not busy teaching online classes herself, she'll read the questions aloud to Morigerato, so he doesn't have to stop what he's doing.
For pre-recorded videos, Morigerato recommends purchasing a relatively inexpensive microphone kit: one for recording taps and one for vocal instructions. Pre-pandemic, he recorded in a studio using ring lights to enhance visibility, but now he's working in his basement on an O'Mara sprung floor. "People are in their houses right now and don't have the space to move," he says. "Working within these parameters helps me to be sensitive to this fact when I'm livestreaming."
Tamera Dallam, Parkside Academy of Music and Dance
Philadelphia-based Tamera Dallam is a professional tap dancer and instructor at Parkside Academy of Music and Dance. To keep up with her technique, she's been taking virtual classes from two of her favorite master teachers, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Jason Samuels Smith. "I ask questions. I engage in conversation. I advocate for my learning," she says. Unfortunately her students don't always have that same confidence, especially when they're lacking face-to-face interaction.
Dallam was excited that her studio wanted to continue offering classes through Zoom, but her first experience with the videoconferencing platform was difficult. "There was a horrible lag with the music," she says, "and most of the kids were tapping in socks on carpet." Dallam had to continually remind her students to mute themselves and to adjust their camera screens so she could see their feet. "I had to keep telling them, 'I don't need to see your whole body!'"
Now, several weeks in, she's using a Bluetooth speaker to amplify the music for her students and has set up a tap board in a spare bedroom. Dallam uses both a chair and a box to position her camera at different angles (and teaches mainly when her husband isn't home). Because audio delays make it difficult to rehearse recital routines in unison, she spends most of her class time working on technique and teaching new combinations to keep students engaged. "I don't want them to get frustrated or sad that we haven't been able to have their recital yet, so I am trusting them to continue rehearsing on their own, outside of class."
Mark Yonally, Chicago Tap Theatre
In addition to generating innovative social-media content (from tap tutorials to weekly Tea on Tap interviews), Chicago Tap Theatre's Mark Yonally now teaches weekly intermediate- and professional-level tap classes through Zoom. I managed to sneak away from my toddler long enough to take one of CTT's professional-level classes during the early weeks of the pandemic, and it's clear that Yonally has been reflecting on and fine-tuning his approach ever since.
"Our setup is intense," he says with a laugh. His living-room recording studio now includes a white maple roll-out floor, two camera lights, a "social-media toolkit" he bought online (which includes an additional ring light and an attachment to hold his phone), and two laptops: one on the floor that gives students a rear view from his hips down, and one on a bench that shows his face. Like Morigerato, he has come to rely heavily on support from his wife, fellow tap dancer and CTT's business manager Jennifer Yonally. Her prep work begins at least 30 minutes before programming goes live.
For his children's classes, Yonally asks his students to download their recital song and take turns "hosting" on Zoom. Running the sound from their personal computer or device eliminates the audio delay for that particular student, allowing Yonally to focus on their timing and musicality. For his adult classes, he keeps everyone on mute, but will occasionally "spotlight" a student (which allows them to be both seen and heard by the entire class) or "pin" them (which highlights the student on the host's screen only), to allow for additional individual listening and feedback.
"You have to give up being able to watch people dance in unison," Yonally explains, "and students have to appreciate the experience whether or not they are dancing together." All the same, Yonally says he has "never felt quite as privileged to be a dance teacher" as he has during these difficult times.