Starinah Dixon

Music for tap

Dixon (right) teaching at a tap festival in
Florianópolis, Brazil

For Starinah Dixon, the most exciting skill to teach tappers is improvisation; it’s a practice she’s been polishing her entire life. As the younger sister of M.A.D.D. Rhythms founder Bril Barrett, she says, “He was teaching me to tap dance before I could walk.” In her Chicago classes, Dixon (who goes by Star) combines exercises she learned from her brother with other influences and her own ideas to take students through a challenging series of activities that test their musicality. In a game called “Make ’Em Work,” the next tapper in the circle must repeat the final bar performed by the dancer before her. It challenges the first dancer to come up with a tricky combination as much as it challenges the following dancer to repeat it, Dixon explains.

As essential as musicianship is to a tap performance, Dixon also coaches dancers to make moves look as good as they sound. How, exactly, dancers do that is largely up to them. “I don’t like choreographing arms, because sometimes what you do with your body helps you do a step,” she says. “I say just exaggerate what your body is doing to make it bigger. So if your arm comes up a little bit, bring it way up. Go all the way.” DT

Artist: Janelle Monáe

Song: “Metropolis”

“Great music to warm up to. She’s one of my all-time favorite artists because she has such a funky style, musically and fashionably. I love her use of real instruments, as well as abstract sounds. She’s definitely one of my most-played artists in class.”



Artist: Stevie Wonder

Song: “Pastime Paradise”

“Anything Stevie is going to get the class going. This is one of my favorite songs by him. I love the arrangement.”




Artist: The Jacksons

Song: “This Place Hotel”

“This was the first piece I choreographed to for M.A.D.D. Rhythms. It’s such a smooth song—great to vibe to. This is one of those songs that I felt down in my heart.”



Artist: Ella Fitzgerald

Song: “Lullaby of Birdland”

“This is one of my favorite jazz songs. I’ve choreographed and performed to it several times. I also like to use this song when I’m teaching more traditional steps and routines.”



Artist: Hiatus Kaiyote

Song: “Breathing Underwater”

“My fellow tap dancer Jumaane Taylor recently played this song for me and I instantly fell in love. The arrangement, the drum breaks, the lead singer’s voice—it just makes me want to dance.”



Photo (top) by Cristiano Prim, courtesy of Dixon

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

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Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

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Teachers Trending
Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

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