The Music Man: 2006 Lifetime Achievement Awardee LaVaughn Robinson

2006 Dance Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award winner LaVaughn Robinson believes feet are the greatest instruments of all.

In the mind of veteran tap artist LaVaughn Robinson, tappers aren’t just dancers—they’re also musicians. “I teach students to be musical with their feet,” says Robinson. “As a tapper, you are playing the floor. You use your instrument to tap out a tune.”

Robinson’s own career has played out like the sweetest of songs. After starting out on the Philadelphia streets, he graduated to the lively nightclub circuit, where he shared the stage with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane. Robinson’s unique brand of tap has since thrilled audiences around the world, and earned him honors such as Pennsylvania Artist of the Year and the National Heritage Award.

At the same time, Robinson has always shone as an educator. Throughout his career and, in particular, as a tap professor for 23 years at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, he has shared his legacy with students of all generations—and cherished the experience. (Robinson, now 79, retired last year from UArts, which honored him as a Distinguished Professor.) “Tap is one of the most beautiful, graceful artforms,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful thing you could ever want to hear.”

Dancin’ in the Streets

Though Robinson grew up to be a world-renowned tap instructor, he didn’t have the privilege of formal instruction as a child. Growing up in a family of 14 children during the Great Depression, Robinson first began to dance as a way of earning money. His mother had piqued his interest in tap by teaching him simple steps on the wooden kitchen floor. “My mother was always cooking apple cobbler and sweet potato pie, and I was always there to sample it,” Robinson says with a laugh.

After perfecting the time step, Robinson ventured out of the kitchen and onto the streets of Philadelphia—the corner of Broad and South Streets, to be exact. This intersection was a gathering place for Philadelphia’s top tappers to go busking. “I went every weekend,” he recalls. “In those days, when you danced on the street, you drew crowds and passed the hat around. That was how I helped feed my family.”

“Tap isn’t about feet first, but the mind . . .  There is always a story to tell.” —LaVaughn Robinson

Robinson soon realized that, for him, tap dance could be more than just a way of getting by. Aspiring to master the artform and rise to the level of famous dancers like “Stumpin’ Stumpy” and Bill Bailey, Robinson began spending a great deal of time at the local Earl Theater, where prominent tappers performed with visiting big bands. It was at the Earl that Robinson discovered Teddy Hale, who became a major inspiration throughout his career. “Everywhere [Hale] appeared, I would make it my business to watch and study him,” says Robinson. “You could hear music so tender coming out of his feet; he danced note for note. He was one of the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever seen.”

At the age of 18, Robinson landed his first professional gigs in local nightclubs. He and dance partner Howard Blow performed as the opening act for Cab Calloway, and headlined with jazz legends like the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and Maynard Ferguson. “Working with the great big bands was one of the highlights of my life,” says Robinson. “Dancing wasn’t something that I planned on; these things just happen.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Though tapping came naturally to Robinson, he has never been one to rest on his dancing laurels. Through his early observations of Hale and other tap greats, Robinson realized discipline and dedication were key to longevity. “I learned that you have to practice in order to master and control this artform,” says Robinson. “After you get through practicing, you have to practice again. And then you practice some more. And that is how you learn.”

In fact, he says, he first began teaching as a means of keeping his skills finely tuned. Despite a busy touring schedule, Robinson always made time to teach at jazz festivals and schools all over the world. When he began his stint at The University of the Arts in 1982, Robinson was thrilled at the additional practice opportunities it provided.

“Teaching helped me keep in shape and put combinations together,” says Robinson, who taught seven classes per week at the university. “It was essential to practice and teach if I wanted to live up to the expectations of professional tapping.”

Robinson was always diligent about passing on this strong work ethic to his students. According to Germaine Ingram, Robinson’s dance partner of 26 years and a longtime student, Robinson is quite “strict and rigorous” in his expectations. When Robinson first agreed to give Ingram private lessons, he asked her to meet him for weekly 6 am classes to make sure she was serious about learning. “[Robinson] taught me that tap was a disciplined process, not fun and games,” says Ingram.

Back to Basics

Along with imparting the necessity of practice, Robinson urged students to build a strong dance foundation. From his perspective, many contemporary tappers have lost sight of the primary tenets of tapping. “When I came up [as a young dancer], the first thing we learned was the basics,” remembers Robinson. “Today the youngsters are dancing, but seem to have forgotten about the basics.”

Robinson and his wife, Edna, in Philadelphia

In Robinson’s classes, students of all skill levels were taught to master the simple steps before moving forward. “After you take students back to the basics, they can use their minds to create their own combinations,” he says. “Tap isn’t about feet first, but the mind. This is not just stomping and making a lot of noise. There is always a story to tell.”

Robinson also encouraged students to use the whole body when tapping. He instructed them to use their arms to lift and maneuver their bodies, and to utilize facial expressions when appropriate. “LaVaughn’s focus is always on the taps telling a story with a clear beginning, middle and end,” says Ingram. “There are clear intersections that carry you through the various chapters of a piece. There is an intent that an audience should be able to understand, and it’s not just a barrage of sound.”

In a typical class at UArts, Robinson would begin with a brief tap warm-up, followed by a short across-the-floor sequence. He would then segue into combinations. Along with teaching tap technique, Robinson also regaled the students with stories from his professional escapades, giving them rare insight into the techniques of leading tap talents. Yet even though he worked with so many other masters, he emerged with an undeniable flair of his own. “Though LaVaughn was influenced by other dancers, his tap is not homogenized tap that represents a mish-mosh of styles,” says Ingram. “Those influences have merged into a sensibility that is distinctively LaVaughn’s.” He helps students find their own voices as well. Karen Cleighton, a graduate of UArts and Robinson’s student for the past 10 years, says he has helped her create her own special breed of tap. “LaVaughn taught me so much about the history of tap and about hoofin’,” says Cleighton, who is now a faculty member at UArts. “Before studying with LaVaughn, I was only familiar with Broadway-style tap. Now I’ve blended his teachings with that style to create a style of my own.”

Pure Sound

In Robinson’s early days of busking, street dancers tapped a capella or to the sounds of a tramp band’s homemade instruments, such as a washboard played with cymbals or a bazooka stuffed with cigarette paper. Learning to make do without instrumental accompaniment shaped the way Robinson eventually viewed and taught dance. “When we had the tramp band, it made us become more flexible with our dancing,” Robinson says. “Hollywood tappers like Fred Astaire had props and choreography that made them look better. On the street, we had to be quick with our ideas, and our combinations came from our own minds.”

Ingram believes this mentality has always influenced Robinson’s approach to tap. When Ingram and Robinson first paired up, they sometimes worked alongside live musicians for rehearsals or practice. However, with time, Robinson chose to go a capella. “LaVaughn’s inclination has always been to work without musical accompaniment,” she says. “To him, the taps must carry their own musicality and tell their own story.”

This raw approach is also reflected in Robinson’s teaching style. Instead of leading class with terminology or 8-counts, Robinson chooses to model the movement for his students. "LaVaughn demonstrates and expects his students to replicate [the steps]," Cleighton says. "When he teaches, he'll act as if his feet are talking."

A Living Legend

Although his tap career has given him the chance to see the world, Robinson has always stayed true to his Philadelphia roots. He and his wife still reside there, along with his three sons and their respective families.

Robinson's numerous accomplishments have put him in the esteemed company of the local tappers he once admired as a child—the Nicholas Brothers, Honi Coles and Bill Bailey among them. Along with representing the Philadelphia style, Robinson has made his own unforgettable contributions to the tap lexicon.

"LaVaughn has clarity about what makes for powerful performance and choreography, and he knows how to convey it in a compelling manner to his students," says Ingram. "When you watch him dance, you can't help but say, 'This is art.'" DT

Jen Jones is a dance instructor and freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

 

It Takes Two

Beautiful collaborations are often born of the teacher-student relationship, and LaVaughn Robinson and Germaine Ingram are one shining example. For 26 years, the pair has traveled the world, performing at concerts and festivals. From France’s International Festival of Dance and Film to the American Folk Festival in Washington, DC, Ingram and Robinson have become a familiar and revered staple on the tap circuit.

Their teaming began in 1980, when Ingram, then a practicing lawyer, met the master at a tap workshop for cloggers. She soon began taking private lessons from Robinson, who sensed inherent talent in the budding tapper. “Germaine was easy to teach because she knew music and could sing,” he says. “That made tap much easier for her to learn.”

Within three years of their initial meeting, Robinson asked Ingram to join him for some small local shows. In 1984, he recruited her for the Philadelphia Tap Dancers, a performance trio he was forming with Sandra Janoff. Though the trio was successful, the group disbanded in 1988, and Ingram and Robinson soon morphed into the duo the tap world knows today.

“Throughout the years, I’ve evolved from novice student to apprentice to protégée to full partner in the collaborative effort,” says Ingram of her journey with Robinson. “I’ve been exposed to a number of tap greats who were stunning on the floor, but not necessarily inspiring as teachers. LaVaughn’s contributions are as much [as] an educator as a performer."

Photography by Trevor Dixon

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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