Tamii Sakurai: How I Teach Tap

Sakurai and Kris at American Tap Dance Foundation

“One-two-three. Clap-clap. Jump!” chants Tamii Sakurai to her 6-year-old tap dancers at the American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City. She demonstrates a tricky jump from one leg to the other, balancing with arms out to the side. The girls’ instincts are to wiggle, but she gently encourages them to try the balance.

The class introduces musical concepts one would expect to hear in a room of much older dancers: structure, different types of notes and swing rhythm versus straight rhythm. “I try to give them as much information as possible,” Sakurai says. She may set ambitious goals, but her tiny tap dancers are up to the challenge. When she asks the class to show her an Irish in a swing rhythm, the girls easily demonstrate the step correctly. Sakurai’s winning combination of high expectations, warmth and humor translates to smart, confident dancers.

Her students have a lot of energy, and occasionally she has to rein it in. “Frozen popsicle sticks!” she commands. Instantly, they stand at attention, arms glued to their sides. This kind of phrasing, as well as physical contact, goes a long way with this age group. “If they’re getting a little too wild, instead of calling their names I give them a hug or hold their hand,” she says. “It helps the kids understand that I need their attention.”

She alternates between standing in line with them and positioning herself in front of the mirror, facing the class. “For young age groups, I find it hard to connect through the mirror,” says Sakurai. “Instead, I do the steps mirroring them so that they can copy me.” When the mirror becomes too tempting a distraction for the young girls, she changes their facing in the room. The photos of famous tappers like Brenda Bufalino and Gregory Hines that line the walls of ATDF offer a natural segue to a mini tap-history lesson. “It gives them something to look at and somebody to dance for,” she says.

To make sure her kids understand the rhythm of each movement, Sakurai has them sing or scat the sounds with her. “Shuf-FLE-hop-step!” she says, emphasizing the second sound of the forward-traveling step. “They love singing the different tones because it sounds funny.”

As she reviews their recital dance—a surprisingly complex array of cramp rolls, riffs, Irishes, buffalos, shuffles and crawls—the girls tap along beside their teacher in near-perfect synchronicity. When class is over, she lines them up and gives each one a pop quiz before she exits. “Can you show me a cramp roll?” she asks one girl. Without a moment’s hesitation, the dancer tosses off a resounding toe-toe-heel-heel and shuffles out the door. DT

Tamii Sakurai grew up in Tokyo, Japan. At 16, she moved to New York City and began studying with Barbara Duffy, Germaine Salsberg and Michelle Dorrance at Broadway Dance Center. Sakurai joined the American Tap Dance Foundation’s Tap City Youth Ensemble as a founding member in 2006, becoming dance captain in 2009 and rehearsal director in 2011, a position she still holds. She graduated from CUNY Hunter College with degrees in dance and mathematics and completed ATDF’s Tap Teacher Training Certificate Program. In addition to youth classes at ATDF, she teaches gum-boot dance (a South African dance performed in Wellington boots) at P.S. 11’s after-school program and is a substitute teacher at Steps on Broadway and Peridance Capezio Center.

Summer Kris, 7, has studied tap at ATDF for one year.


Photos by Kyle Froman

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