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

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