Trending

Katharine Pettit Has a Solution for the "Dance Moms" Effect

Pettit (right) and Slater at Peridance Capezio Center. Photo by Kyle Froman

In a basement wood-floor studio at Peridance Capezio Center in New York City, Katharine Pettit starts her intermediate tap class with simple drills using the heel and toe taps. She incorporates weight shifts and gradually increases the speed to warm up ankles and brains, first hitting the quarter notes and eighth notes, then triplets and sixteenths. “Really fight for that specificity," she urges during time steps. She pauses to demonstrate the correct spot to hit the toe tap—in “the Bermuda Triangle" between the three screws. Her tap smacks the floor with a satisfying, crisp sound.


Currently known more for ballet and contemporary, Peridance hired Pettit in 2014 as part of its mission to bolster its tap program. Fresh off an observership with Susan Stroman on Bullets Over Broadway, she got right to work, emphasizing fundamentals in all her classes. Her background in musical theater draws a crowd of actors with dance experience hoping to refresh the skills they need to ace dance callbacks. “People who come to me are trying to get into audition after audition," she says.

One major struggle she sees students face—both her adults in New York and the tweens she coaches at a studio in Westchester—is a desire to do too much too fast. For younger students, she calls it “The 'Dance Moms' effect," or everyone thinking they can do everything. “I get young students who say they've had 10 years of tap, and they're 13, but they don't know how to separate a shuffle or differentiate between heel tap and toe tap," she says. For older dancers, it's a matter of patience. Even those who are classically trained have to accept starting with the basics before building up to more virtuosic combinations.

She gives them plenty to strive for. On a summer afternoon, there's a determined energy in the room as dancers figure out a combination that turns as it covers ground. Pettit has them changing their spot each time they do the phrase, traveling the rectangle of the studio perimeter. She uses the across-the-floor portion of class to build on the technical skills introduced during warm-up. She also nudges students beyond the pure steps to make it swing. “We're tap dancers, not tap stompers," she says during the next exercise, a walking five-count riff. “You want people to be able to groove to it."

Bio: As a child growing up in St. Louis, MO, Katharine Pettit got her start in ballet, tap and jazz at the local YMCA. At 8, she fell in love with musical theater and began performing in productions as a singer and dancer. By 10, she had added modern dance training to her routine at a studio that taught Graham technique. After graduating from Stephens College in 2003 with a degree in theater and a music (vocals) minor, she moved to New York City, where she began booking theater gigs as a performer and, later, as choreographer and director. In 2008, she began studying with Derick K. Grant at Steps on Broadway and started getting more teaching jobs. Most recently, she earned the 2014 Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) Observership with Susan Stroman for up-and-coming directors and choreographers. This gave her the chance to work closely with and assist Stroman during the creation and rehearsal of Bullets Over Broadway.

Meredith Slater has been Pettit's student for a year. She hadn't tap-danced since childhood when she returned to the studio to expand her skills as a singer, actor and comedian.


Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.