Tapping Into College

Tap students at Oklahoma City University

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.


Listen Up


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)

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.

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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.

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