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

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox