Higher Ed

Op-Ed: Why Tap Classes Should Be Required in College Curriculums

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.

Right now, as dance departments throughout the country are figuring out how to decenter Eurocentric dance forms in their curriculums, let's not forget that tap dance has so often been overlooked in higher education.

This is a problem not only because dance students across the country are missing out on valuable tap training, but also because it neglects an art form that is both uniquely American and uniquely Black.

Watson tap dancers on an outdoors stage, wearing jeans and a long flowy white shirt. A singer stands beside her

Courtesy Watson

As someone who has served as a guest lecturer, a choreographer and an adjunct professor of tap dance, I can vouch for the benefits of tap for all college dancers, regardless of the genre of dance they are choosing to pursue. Tap provides a new understanding of musicality and rhythm, enhances dancers' storytelling abilities, and is a powerful example of how American history can be preserved through sound and movement. And that's just with having knowledge of the basics.

Plus, there's lots of misinformation and ignorance about tap's origins—even within our dance community—that needs to be corrected. The art form is often incorrectly linked to Irish dance, with the story of how William Henry Lane (aka "Master Juba") interacted with Irish immigrants through trading, as documented by Charles Dickens. While Master Juba was indeed one of tap dance's innovators, the origins of the form go back to enslavement: To the ring shout; to buck dancing; to the cabins where enslaved Africans would seek joy through song and dance. (In Brenda Dixon Gottschild's The Black Dancing Body, she explores how these dances were an early form of tap dancing, and how they can still be seen in the art form today.)

Tap also has a long history of being appropriated, whether through minstrelsy, which profited from a caricature of Black life through song and dance, or through the white-washing of Hollywood, where the contributions of dancers like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly were celebrated while those of Black tap pioneers like John Bubbles, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Alice Whitman were often lost or ignored.

Even today, some speak of tap as being "lost" or "dead" when in fact it is thriving—the world just chooses to turn its head in another direction.

Watson tap dances with three other dancers on raised platform in front of a drum set and some other instruments

Timothy Norris, courtesy of Ford Theatres

Something similar has happened in college dance programs, where tap is treated like an outlier, and is often only offered as an elective, if at all, while ballet is considered the foundation of training for all students. How is it that an art form that came from those who built this country isn't respected in the same manner as one that came from across the sea? How is it that an art form that originated in the sacred soils of the enslaved American South gets passed over in favor of a European court dance?

Am I saying that ballet needs to disappear from college curriculums? Absolutely not. But I am boldly stating dance programs should give tap dance the same value and respect they give ballet. Ballet is not the only standard for dance, nor is it the "foundation" of dance.

I'm also not saying that everyone needs to major in tap dance, or that everyone will end up performing tap in their career. But I am saying that at least one course of tap dance technique and one course of tap dance history should be required for every student seeking a BA or BFA in dance.

But let's not make this about checking a box. Dance departments should do their research to ensure they're hiring high-quality instructors who are armed with the history of tap, and that they are devoting the necessary resources—like a proper floor—to their tap program.

I know this is coming at a time when many departments are dealing with teaching virtually and potential budget cuts during the pandemic. I know many dance programs' aim at the moment is simply survival. (Please, don't make tap the first thing you cut when funding is in question.)

But the contributions of Jimmy Slyde, Bunny Briggs and Jeni LeGon deserve to be known just as well as those of George Balanchine, Agrippina Vaganova and Enrico Cecchetti. May we honor the contributions of Steve Condos, Lois Bright and Lon Chaney just as we do Martha Graham, José Limon and Merce Cunningham.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.