#LetUsLessonPlanForYou: A Tap Irish and Improvs for Hoofers of All Levels

Because an Irish has four sounds, American Tap Dance Foundation teacher Tamii Sakurai uses it to teach swing rhythm versus straight rhythm. Whereas a straight rhythm has four evenly spaced sounds ("Da. Da. Da. Da."), swing rhythm groups the first and second sounds together and the third and fourth sounds together, accenting the second sound ("Da-DA! Da-da.").

We've pulled together a series of exercises designed to help all levels of tap students find their voice: Getting Started • Just heels: A great way to get newcomers started is to limit their step vocabulary. Chloé Arnold, who directs the DC Tap Fest in addition to her own company, Syncopated Ladies, suggests a traditional improvisation circle, in which dancers take turns performing, but there’s a catch: “I tell them for this first round, you’re going to only use your heels. Then the next round, only your toes.” The goal is to be as rhythmically creative as possible while using only one part of the foot, or one simple step, such as a shuffle or a cramp roll. “Starting small, with just two to four bars of music (or 8 to 16 counts) per dancer, helps students realize that improvisation is less about steps and more about music,” she says. Photo courtesy of Andrew Nemr Intermediate Students • Three and a break: Because standard tap choreography often includes a step repeated three times followed by a break, Arnold has her intermediate students create a phrase by improvising a step and repeating it three times, then creating a new step for the break. “The challenge becomes: Can you remember what you improvised? And how can you work that into a phrase?” This also helps students internalize what eight bars feels like and improves their musicality. Advanced Tappers • Make a duet: According to Andrew Nemr, director of the New York City–based tap company Cats Paying Dues, “the final frontier of improvisation is that of a relationship.” Improvised duets are harder than they look, and they help students realize that their choices are going to affect someone else. “It always starts as a complete mess but slowly dancers realize, ‘Oh! I can’t do everything I wanted to do because there’s not enough space, so how do I find a way to contribute to what’s going on?’” Don't miss a single issue of Dance Teacher.
Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

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Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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