How I teach tap

Standing before a group of curious tap dancers, Roxane “Butterfly” Semadeni is about to launch into an improvisational workshop at the American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City. But first, she takes a minute to place herself within the larger tap tradition. She explains that the concepts she teaches are inspired by rhythm tap legend Jimmy Slyde—her mentor in the 1990s. He’s the one who gave her the name “Butterfly” because of her buoyant tapping style and the way her fast feet seem to flutter across the floor.

A native of France who now lives in Spain, Butterfly travels worldwide teaching classes, setting work and performing with her company, Roxane Butterfly’s Worldbeats. Last year, she founded the Jimmy Slyde Institute Barcelona, a monthly tap conference where students and professional dancers jam together and exchange ideas during panel discussions and video screenings. Her style blends the cool be-bop tap tradition she inherited from Slyde with her own flamenco-infused and Mediterranean heritage.

The young Butterfly first discovered tap after seeing Slyde and Bunny Briggs perform at a jazz festival in the south of France, where she grew up. She studied tap at a youth center, though she says her teacher knew very little. “He gave me only the basics, like flaps, shuffles and ball-changes,” she says. “But he really loved jazz music and played a lot of it. My jazz education came from him.” The tap basics she gleaned from her teacher were enough for Butterfly  to start giving lessons in her school’s gym during the lunch hour.

After high school, she came to New York and began training with Savion Glover and Heather Cornell. At the time, Slyde and other tap dancers performed at the NYC jazz club La Cave. To pay for admission, Butterfly took a job setting up the club’s tables and handing out flyers  to promote the music and dance. One night, Slyde asked her to perform in the jam—which she continued to do every week for the next three years. “That was my first gig, and everything started from there,” Butterfly says. “That was my training. I was totally immersed in his artistry and saw how he worked 50 centimeters from my face.”

Because Slyde didn’t break down steps or rhythms, Butterfly’s tap education came by trial, error and observation. “I developed my craft in a real setting, with an audience and live musicians,” she says. At La Cave, tappers jammed with live jazz musicians, and everything was improvised. “[Jimmy] had such control of space and music, that every single time he performed, it looked like it was choreographed,” she adds. “I called him a spontaneous choreographer.”

Much of Butterfly’s improvisation class involves practicing familiar steps altered to fit unfamiliar time signatures or space parameters. “When we were in the jazz club, there was barely room to dance. The stage was so small,” she says. To compensate for the lack of side-to-side space, Slyde’s movement incorporated diagonal patterns, and he switched directions frequently. This created suspensions in his movement, causing him to rise and sink in place instead of traveling great distances. Butterfly adds that Slyde never moved in the direction that was expected; he would take a known pattern and alter it in slight but surprising ways.

Teaching improvisation, though, isn’t always easy. “A saxophonist told me that when it comes to improvisation, there are no mistakes, only better choices,” she says. “I share that with my students to make them feel more at ease. But improvising takes practice and it’s about finding what works for you.”

The element of surprise is a key factor in Slyde’s style. Here, Butterfly demonstrates a maxi ford sequence that includes a pull-back and an altered 5-count riff.

Originally from Toulon, France, Roxane “Butterfly” Semadeni graduated from the University Aix-en Provence, where she studied screenwriting and modern literature. Since her NYC professional debut in 1991, she has performed in Africa, South America, Europe and Russia. In 2002, she was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 To Watch,” and she served as talent coordinator for American Dance Festival’s Festival of the Feet in 2004. She is the founder and director of Roxane Butterfly’s Worldbeats and has taught classes at ADF, New York University, ImpulzTanz in Vienna, Austria, and the American Tap Dance Foundation in NYC. In 1999, Butterfly received the Bessie Award for Outstanding Creative Achievement.

Photo by Matthew Murphy at the DANY studios in NYC.

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