Tips for making the most of limited opportunities, plus Davis & Elkins College’s new percussive dance program

 

Emily Oleson (right) heads Davis & Elkins College’s new program in American vernacular dance.
 

With more than 600 college dance programs listed in the annual Dance Magazine College Guide, finding a dance program for the serious tap dancer should be a snap. But they’re “few and far between,” says Tony Waag, a founder and artistic/executive director of the American Tap Dance Foundation in New York City. “If one has a goal to be a tap dancer with a professional company, there are hardly any college options.”

ATDF’s education advisor Margaret Morrison concurs: “There are no programs that offer the comprehensive training that a professional tap dancer needs that would be parallel to what a modern dancer gets.” Aside from technique, composition and improvisation, tappers should be receiving an in-depth education about percussive dance’s rich historical and cultural legacy. Instead, classes are usually offered sporadically, often because of a lack of funding or a desire not to mar pristine studio floors.

How should teachers advise serious, college-bound tap students, particularly when tap is often given short shrift within most university dance programs? Prospective students should look closely at what each school offers and be prepared to think creatively if their options seem limited.

Taking the Initiative

While a number of college dance programs offer tap at varying levels and regularity, Acia Gray, who directs Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, Texas, notes that the training usually isn’t very broad, compared to what’s offered in the tap festival circuit. “They’ll almost have to start over, because many programs are for kids more interested in musical theater.”

Morrison, who teaches tap and the studio/lecture course Tap as an American Art Form at Barnard College in NYC, advises teachers to be realistic with their students. “I tell parents and teenagers that you have to be inventive and creative in your training and how you approach your college years,” she says. “Talent will not guarantee you a job.”

One option is to branch out beyond tap. Jo Rowan, chair of Oklahoma City University’s dance program, requires all 210 dance majors to take tap along with ballet and jazz. “We train our dancers to be triple threats,” she says. “They have to be singer/dancer/actors, and proficient in multiple styles of dance.” To that end, OCU offers 10 levels of tap, as well as rhythm tap, which emphasizes improvisation.

If there’s not enough tap on campus, find a dance community in the area. Supplement off-campus tap experiences with college courses in allied forms. Everything from ballet and modern dance to theater, jazz music studies and African dance and drumming classes can help enhance a serious tapper’s education. Waag notes that business and entrepreneurship courses also help, since most pro tap dancers must seek out and create opportunities for work. “We’re all surviving now through self-production,” he says.

A First-of-Its-Kind Program

Last November, Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, launched a first-of-its-kind program in American vernacular dance. The program, which includes tap, Appalachian clogging, flat-footing, Irish step dancing and urban dance, has recently begun auditioning and accepting students.

Program director Emily Oleson, herself a percussive dancer and co-founder of Good Foot Dance Company, calls the program a “tap-friendly vernacular dance program” and envisions between 30 and 50 dance majors within the next five years. Students can choose an emphasis in vernacular forms, sustainable dance practices or modern dance. “I’m here to prepare students to be empowered artists,” she says. “That means finding their own aesthetic preferences and making goals based on what they like.” She believes training dancers to be more fluent in related percussive forms will help them develop into versatile artists who can teach, coach and perform.

Oleson plans on inviting numerous guest artists to provide both inspiration and instruction to her students. After they leave, Oleson will continue coaching the dancers, encouraging them to be self-directed as they perfect the material they learned.

“The archive of tap is so rich and so available,” she says, “with wonderful biographies and film archives—tons of it available on YouTube. There are mentors who are still alive and happy to travel for residencies to share.” She wants her tap students to learn to utilize those resources through directed independent study and supervised research.

The College Debate

Waag remains wary of overemphasizing college study for tappers who want to go pro. “We’re grooming all these dancers, but where do they go?” he says, noting the few opportunities for full-time tap employment upon graduation. Gray, who helms one of the few pro tap companies in the country, echoes that concern, especially considering the heavy financial investment of college tuition. “What are we preparing them for?” she says. “If you’re a jazz musician, you can go to a jazz music conservatory and pretty much find work somewhere in your field. But I can’t say that about tap dancers.”

Oleson is more optimistic. “I think there are opportunities,” she says, noting that the key to a sustainable work life is finding, and making work for, the right community. “It may not be a fabulously extravagant living, but I think you can make a significant portion of it through dance if you want to and are clever about the business side of it.” DT

Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater and the arts from suburban Washington, DC

 

Photo by R.L. Geyer, courtesy of Emily Oleson

Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of the Academy for the Performing Arts

“Keeping agile" has taken on a whole new meaning for every studio owner and dance instructor since the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shuttered studio doors for safety's sake in March. Now is the time to show parents how you bring normalcy and positivity to their children's lives so you can retain tuition revenue until your doors reopen for business as usual.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Kerollis

I remember it like yesterday. Those days, when I could step to the front of my classroom and guide students through enchaînement—demonstrate the combination, offer tidbits of advice, cue my accompanist and walk around offering detailed corrections.

If you told me a month ago I would be forcibly holed up in my apartment as I led my first classes as a master teacher with Youth America Grand Prix, I might have looked at you like you had several heads. But when New York City began shutting down at breakneck speed, I knew I had to do something to protect my income. I dug deep into my toolbox and began developing online classes.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Photo courtesy of Academy for the Performing Arts

Between forced business closures and general fear of contracting the virus, some consumers have begun to ask for refunds of services that cannot be rendered or goods that cannot be delivered. In some cases, some of your customers may be submitting chargebacks on payments already made as a way to obtain their money back without having to contact you directly.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
This Bitter Earth. Photo by Sam Wootton, courtesy of NYCB

Create a Watch Party! Here are four free offerings from New York City's most celebrated arts organizations to share with your students and their families.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Misty Lown delivers a seminar in Austin. Photo courtesy of More Than Just Great Dancing

Business leader Misty Lown convened (remotely) more than 700 dance studio owners to create an action plan in response to COVID-19 studio closures. ICYMI, here are the takeaways:

  • Studios can deliver value to customers with online content.
  • Owners can preserve enrollment with caring communication.
  • The federal stimulus package is a strong short-term safety net.
Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Photo by Jason Hill, courtesy of Disenhof

When dancer Katherine Disenhof found out her company, NW Dance Project, would be shutting down indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic (on Friday the 13th, no less), she immediately went in search of ways to stay connected and in shape.

At that point, a few virtual class opportunities had emerged, so Disenhof decided to aggregate them on an Instagram account called Dancing Alone Together.

She launched the account that Monday, and by mid-week she'd also created a website. Now, just a few weeks later, Dancing Alone Together has 22K followers—and virtual classes are more than just a growing trend, but a phenomenon that has reshaped the dance world at an unprecedented speed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Getty Images

Dancers are resilient by nature. As our community responds to COVID-19, that spirit is being tested. Dance Teacher acknowledges the tremendous challenges you face for your teaching practice and for your schools as you bring your offerings online, and the resulting financial impact on your businesses.

Perhaps we can take hope from the knowledge of how we've managed adversity in the past. I'm thinking of the dance community in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I'm thinking of 9/11 and how that changed the world. I'm thinking of the courageous Jarrah Myles who kept her students safe when the Paradise wildfire destroyed their homes. I'm thinking of Jana Monson who rebuilt her studio after a devastating fire. I'm thinking of Gina Gibney who stepped in to save space for dance in New York City when the beloved Dance New Amsterdam closed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Kyle Froman
Update March 31, 2020: This article was first published in Dance Teacher, February 2009.

One of today's leading ballet masters, German-born Wilhelm Burmann exerts a magnetic attraction on the professional students he teaches five days a week at Steps on Broadway in New York City. “Taking Willie's class" has become a tradition for many top dancers of both New York–based companies and those simply passing through town.

Standing ramrod straight at age 69, Burmann embodies the authority and skills he acquired during an extensive global career. He was a corps member of the Pennsylvania Ballet and New York City Ballet, a Frankfurt Ballet principal dancer, Stuttgart and Geneva company principal and ballet master, and ballet master for The Washington Ballet and Le Ballet du Nord, among others. After he retired from dancing in 1977, Burmann took up guest teaching and is still in great demand at prestigious American and European companies and schools: This year he will teach in Florence and Milan, Italy.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Ahearn

Elizabeth Ahearn never imagined that she'd teach her first online ballet class in her kitchen. Adding to the surreality of the situation: Rather than give her corrections, her student, the director of distance learning at Goucher College, had tips for Ahearn: Turn the volume up, and move a little to the left.

Ahearn, chair of the dance department at Goucher, is among thousands of dance professors learning to teach online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The internet may be exploding with resources for virtual classes, from top dancers teaching barre to free warm-ups courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Foundation, but in academia, teachers face many restraints. Copyright laws, federal privacy regulations, varying tech platforms and grading rubrics all make teaching dance online a challenge.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Talia Bailes leads a Ballet & Books class. Lindsay France, Courtesy Ballet & Books.

Talia Bailes never imagined that her ballet training and her interest in early learning would collide. But Bailes, a senior studying global and public health sciences at Cornell University, now runs a successful non-profit called Ballet & Books, which combines dancing with the important but sometimes laborious activity of learning to read. And she has a trip to South America to thank.

In 2015, before starting at Cornell, Bailes took a gap year and headed to Ecuador with the organization Global Citizen Year to teach English to more than 750 students. But Bailes, who grew up training at a dance school outside Cincinnati, Ohio, also spent time teaching them ballet and learning their indigenous dances. "The culture in Ecuador was much more rooted in dance and music rather than literacy," she recalls. Bailes was struck by the difference in education and the way that children were able to develop and grow socially through dance. "It left me thinking, what if dance could be truly integrated into the way that we approach education?"

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Choreographer Molly Heller with musician Michael Wall. Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

Love electronic music? Calming notes of a piano? Smooth, rich trumpet? Want music in clear meters of 3, or in 7? This week is the ideal time to check out musician Michael Wall's abundant website soundformovement.com. I myself have enjoyed getting to experience his music over the past five years—whether to use in a teen class, older-movers class or for my own MFA thesis choreography.

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

On Wednesday, March 18, I was supposed to return to Juilliard and teach Pilates after a two-week spring break. Instead, I rolled a mat onto my bedroom floor, logged in to Zoom and was greeted by a gallery of 50 small-screen images of young ambitious dancers, trying to make the best of a strange situation. As I began class, I applied our new catchphrase: "Please mute yourself," then asked students to use various hand gestures to let me know how they are coping and how much space they have for movement. I asked dancers to write one or two things they wanted to address in the sidebar, and then we began to move.

This is our new normal. In the midst of grave Covid-19 concerns, dance professors across the country faced university closures and requirements to relocate their courses to the virtual sphere. Online education poses very specific and substantial challenges to dance faculty, but they are finding ways to persist by learning new methods of communication, discovering untapped pedagogical tools, expanding their professional networks, developing helpful new resources and unearthing old ones.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.