Thinking on Your Feet

Improvisation exercises for beginning, intermediate and advanced tap dancers

Annette Walker performing at a
jam in London

Improvisation. There’s no better word to send tap students into a panic. They can memorize choreography, perform in front of huge crowds and pull off crystal clear one-footed wings, but when faced with the prospect of making up steps on the fly, they freeze.

“Almost every student I’ve ever had has been terrified,” says Chloé Arnold, who directs the DC Tap Fest in addition to her own company, Syncopated Ladies. “So I tell them my stories, how many embarrassing moments I’ve had—publicly embarrassing moments, not just in a small studio but onstage. [Improvisation] is scary, but once you give it a try, you realize it’s the best thing that ever happened.”

As an artform, tap developed organically. It was more common to find tap on street corners and in nightclubs than in dance studios and on competition stages. Improvisation, jams and cutting contests became hallmarks of the discipline, passed down from one generation to the next. Improvising can help students understand the artform’s history and make them more competitive on the job market, but this doesn’t mean it’s an easy skill to master—or to teach. We’ve pulled together a series of exercises designed to help all levels of tap students find their voice.

Getting Started

• Just heels: A great way to get newcomers started is to limit their step vocabulary. Arnold suggests a traditional improvisation circle, in which dancers take turns performing, but there’s a catch: “I tell them for this first round, you’re going to only use your heels. Then the next round, only your toes.” The goal is to be as rhythmically creative as possible while using only one part of the foot, or one simple step, such as a shuffle or a cramp roll. “Starting small, with just two to four bars of music (or 8 to 16 counts) per dancer, helps students realize that improvisation is less about steps and more about music,” she says.

• Concentrate on accents: Annette Walker, a professional tap dancer who teaches the Renegade Stage session for newcomers to the London Tap Jam, likes to tie tap to its jazz roots. She asks dancers to create and repeat a simple four-count phrase that accents the two and the four of each bar. “As they get the hang of it, I slowly build up the layers of complexity to introduce multitasking,” she says. “For example, rest on one, accent the ‘and’ between two beats and include a turn.” She uses this exercise to help dancers become familiar with the underlying swing feel in jazz/swing music and more aware of changing rhythms. “It’s a concentration game aimed at staying in the present and letting go of past mistakes. Plus, it often ends with lots of laughter, so it’s a good icebreaker.”

Andrew Nemr teaching at his Tap Into Freedom intensive in New York

Intermediate Students

• The steps they know: For tappers who are more accomplished but still relatively new to improvisation, Andrew Nemr, director of the New York City–based tap company Cats Paying Dues, asks students to stick with basic steps such as flaps and shuffles. The restriction of vocabulary to steps they really know helps them gain confidence with making choices. “People get bored doing the same thing, but they’re scared to try something new because they’re afraid of making a mistake,” he says. “The trick is to build a context of practice for the circle that is encouraging of the mistake. We go around, starting with two-bar phrases, then four, then eight. If students stick with what they know until they’re bored, then eventually they’ll have to try something new.”

• Three and a break: Because standard tap choreography often includes a step repeated three times followed by a break, Arnold has her intermediate students create a phrase by improvising a step and repeating it three times, then creating a new step for the break. “The challenge becomes: Can you remember what you improvised? And how can you work that into a phrase?” This also helps students internalize what eight bars feels like and improves their musicality.

Advanced Tappers

• Make a duet: According to Nemr, “the final frontier of improvisation is that of a relationship.” Improvised duets are harder than they look, and they help students realize that their choices are going to affect someone else. “It always starts as a complete mess but slowly dancers realize, ‘Oh! I can’t do everything I wanted to do because there’s not enough space, so how do I find a way to contribute to what’s going on?’”

• String it together: Arnold encourages advanced dancers to experiment with the building blocks of improvisation on their own. “I tell them to start with a chorus, then two choruses together, then a whole song,” she says. She advises trying a new song each month or even each week. “They’ll start to really understand the music and hear things they didn’t hear before.” DT

Kat Richter is executive director of the Philadelphia-based Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble.

Photos from top: by Andy Field, courtesy of Annette Walker; by Sandra Moreta, courtesy of Andrew Nemr

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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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