When tap dancer and “So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Melinda Sullivan walked away with the 2012 Capezio A.C.E. Award, she initially felt intimidated by the prize—she would be crafting her first evening-length show. By the time Gone premiered at the Ailey Citigroup Theater, though, she'd expanded her original five minutes of choreography into 50. Her go-to choreographic devices are closely aligned with music: When she's found a piece that she feels drawn to, she often listens to the song over and over again, focusing each time on a different instrument's rhythm. Another favorite trick is to start with one simple step—to keep the time to the music—and use that as a theme she can return to. “You don't need to do every step you know in a dance," she says. “It should be arranged and thoughtful. You need to keep in mind the overarching composition of not just the picture but the music, too."
In her tap classes at The Colburn School in Los Angeles and with the New York City Dance Alliance, Sullivan maintains a consistent vision: imparting the lineage of tap and reminding her students that they are musicians themselves. “A lot of tap that's done today is just about the show—and I'm all about the show, I get it—but you have these shoes on your feet that are instruments," she says. “If you're going to dance and not pay any attention to your instruments, you may as well just take off your shoes." DT
Artists: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
Album: Ella & Louis
“This album is really swingy, which is important, because swing is really hard to explain. I can write out the musical notes and the rhythm, but it's better to just feel it. Some of the songs are a bit slower, so I use it a lot when I teach adult tap."
Album: Days Are Gone
“This rock-pop band of three sisters from Los Angeles is super fun—and they play all the instruments themselves. I think it's important if you're a tap dancer to at least attempt another instrument. It really helps your craft. You can start thinking about music in a different way."
Artist: Emily King
“I teach a class called 'Untapped,' which is a soft-shoe class, to get dancers who aren't into tap exposed to basics like footwork and weight-changing. Emily King's vocals are so smooth, and the track is pretty open, so it's nice to pair that with the texture of the soft shoe brushing on the floor."
Album: Newsies movie soundtrack
“I know it's kind of cheesy, but I'm a cheeseball. I teach musical theater dance sometimes, so I love tracks that already have dance breaks in them. One of my first tap dances as a kid was to 'King of New York' from this soundtrack."
Artist: Nikos Syropoulos
“This composer wrote this original music for my show Gone, and I've been using it to teach. I have all of this choreography that I can pull from. It's a really beautiful score, and I like seeing how people react when they listen to it for class or if they choreograph to it."