In the early days of college dance programs, tap wasn’t considered a suitable pursuit. Pioneer Margaret H’Doubler, who founded the first dance major in the U.S. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1926, specifically cited tap as not mature enough to be considered a fine art and thus unworthy of college study. More than half a century later, the Ann Lacy School of American Dance and Arts Management at Oklahoma City University was founded with the specific goal of legitimizing American dance forms, including tap, jazz and theater dance. Today, the department, which is rooted in musical theater, has one of the country’s most extensive tap programs: Dance performance majors are required to take at least six semesters of tap.
Ballet and modern still dominate the college dance landscape, but tap is making headway. Numerous dance departments now offer tap as either a required degree component or an elective. All dancers, regardless of focus, benefit from tap training. Students broaden their dance knowledge when they learn about tap history, which has its own distinct lineage, vocabulary and traditions. And the study of tap is inherently the study of rhythm, offering a unique mode of musical training. Here, a few college tap instructors discuss their approaches.
Theory and Practice
Margaret Morrison, adjunct professor at Barnard College in New York, teaches a course called “Tap as an American Art Form,” which covers tap history from its roots in the 1600s to the present. The class meets twice a week, and Morrison engages her students—a mix of experienced tappers and beginners, dance and non-dance majors from Barnard and Columbia University—using a dual format: During one period, she lectures; the other is spent tapping.
Early in the semester, for example, Morrison talks about the meeting of African-Americans and Anglo-Americans in North America. In the studio, she teaches the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson routine “Doin’ the New Low Down” from 1928. It opens with time steps, shuffles and flaps. Morrison’s less experienced dancers practice basic skills, while more advanced tappers hone their style and tonal quality, aiming to achieve Robinson’s beautiful clarity and precision. This routine, Morrison explains, “is an example of how tap dance had pulled itself away from the minstrel stereotype.” (Robinson, who was born in 1878, started in minstrelsy as a young boy.) This leads her back to her lecture material. “We deal very heavily with the racial history of tap dance and what’s going on in American culture during different eras.”
Watch and Learn
Like Morrison, Anita Feldman, an assistant professor at Hofstra University, strives to provide a comprehensive tap education in her two levels of technique classes. Her students learn various styles, including Broadway tap, rhythm tap and contemporary tap, and she complements their physical practice with research assignments. For example, when learning about different tap techniques, she asks her students to watch videos of at least three tap artists—her list of suggestions includes renowned hoofers like Gregory Hines and Jimmy Slyde, as well as more contemporary artists, such as Max Pollack and Roxane Butterfly. (Feldman recommends her students search for videos online.) She asks them to write a one-page analysis of the dancers’ performances, comparing their individual styles and identifying characteristics that would—or would not—fit Feldman’s definition of contemporary tap. Besides learning how to research and write about dance, this type of assignment familiarizes students with professional tap artists and their work.
At the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Jeannie Hill teaches tap with an eye—or rather, ear—toward jazz and tap traditions, emphasizing the connection between music and dance. Listening skills are critical in tap, says Hill. When teaching a new phrase, she starts by having her students vocalize the rhythm, sometimes with nonsense syllables, other times using words, which she says invokes the storytelling aspect of dance. For example, “I went to the store, I went to the store, I went to the store and I had to get more,” becomes “Shuffle shuffle step, shuffle shuffle step, shuffle shuffle step shuffle shuffle step step.”
Hill also actively involves John Strassburg, an accompanist who plays piano, drums and keyboard in her classes. Hill’s students frequently improvise to Strassburg’s live music. And she has the dancers “trade” rhythms with him. For example, the students will stand in a circle, each dancer taking a turn creating a two-measure rhythm. After one student taps, Strassburg repeats the rhythm back—or responds with a slight variation. This musical conversation hones the dancers’ listening skills and provides a deep rhythmic understanding that can be applied to any movement style.
Spreading the Word
Morrison, Feldman and Hill all hope that tap inspires their students, whether that means they delve deeper into the form or simply gain confidence expressing themselves. At Brigham Young University in Utah, Colleen West, who coordinates the dance department’s elective tap program, reaches beyond her classroom. After hearing from students who wanted additional outlets to practice and perform, West created Foot Poetry Tap Dance Ensemble, a community-based company. Most of the group’s 30 members are either current or former BYU students. West choreographs for the group and encourages the dancers to create works. And she hopes to launch a program that will take Foot Poetry into local schools. “I want them to fall in love with tap,” she says, “and I want to share my love of tap with them.” DT
Jenai Cutcher is a tap dancer who writes and makes films about dance. She holds an MFA in dance from The Ohio State University.
Photo: Tap students at Oklahoma City University (courtesy of Oklahoma City University)