How I teach tap

Ray Hesselink and River Aguirre at Steps on Broadway in NYC

In high school, Ray Hesselink fell in love with the piano. But during his second year as a music major at UCLA, he auditioned for a musical—which required tapping. After a few lessons from a friend and classes at a local studio, he was hooked. “Just like playing the piano had felt natural, tap dancing came naturally to me, too,” Hesselink says. “It was an expected segue, since tap is music. I just make it with my feet.”

After 12 years of performing in Los Angeles, Hesselink found a new passion in teaching. “Sure, I like performing; but it’s so much more fulfilling for me to coach someone and watch them get better,” he says. And his musical background lies at the foundation of all his classes. “I definitely talk in musical terms,” he says. Just as a musician would count 16th notes, “I call out, ‘1 e and a.’”

When teaching a new step, Hesselink’s key is breaking it down with a swinging and an even rhythm, and then making students hum the melody. Similar to the way a voice student records her lessons to practice with over the week, Hesselink asks dancers’ parents to videotape their private lessons. “Then, the next time I see that student, we can build from there. That’s the fastest way these kids have progressed.”

Yet as much as Hesselink concentrates on rhythm and musicality, he also stresses attention to distinct arm motions, style and storytelling. Students need what he calls “the layering on top of the steps,” qualities necessary for performance. “When you go see a show, there’s only so much stomping and stamping an audience can take without feeling alienated. They need to identify with a character.”

Hesselink teaches regularly in New York City, and Broadway performers, Rockettes and musical theater dancers frequent his classes. He also works alongside the casting director of Billy Elliot: The Musical, assessing and coaching new Billys during audition workshops. Here, Hesselink and student River Aguirre demonstrate a grab-off, an intermediate-level tap step Hesselink says “you see plenty of in the Billy Elliot choreography.”

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Originally from San Mateo, California, Ray Hesselink began tapping at age 19. He received a BA from the School of Theater at UCLA in 1992. Hesselink’s tap style is greatly influenced by movie-musical dancers, including Bob Scheerer, Miriam Nelson, Rusty Frank and Tad Tadlock. In 1997, he originated the role of Bud in Batboy: The Musical, and in 2006, the role of Mr. Happy in Imagine Tap! A resident of New York City since 2000, he has directed and choreographed extensively, including work for the New York Musical Theatre Festival and Tap City Festival. He has acted as tap consultant to the New York City Ballet and is currently a casting consultant and coach for Billy Elliot: The Musical. Hesselink is on faculty at New York City’s Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center and The Juilliard School. 

River Aguirre, 10, lives in Manhattan and currently studies with Ray Hesselink. Recently, he performed in the off-Broadway production Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Public Theater in New York.

Photo by Kyle Froman at Steps on Broadway in NYC

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