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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