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What's These Two Tap Teachers' Mission? To Keep the Copasetics Alive

Margaret Morrison, right, and Susan Hebach, left. Photo by Kyle Froman

Margaret Morrison and Susan Hebach understand the value of a good teacher. As longtime faculty members at the American Tap Dance Foundation, they've spent their careers adhering to ATDF's noble mission to give tap a permanent and well-deserved place in concert dance, via education, preservation, new developments and presentation. In 2014, Morrison and Hebach capitalized on their joint (and rare) strength—teaching others how to teach tap—by founding ATDF's Tap Teacher Training Program. It's based on the work of the Copasetics, an ensemble of tap soloists from the mid-20th-century golden age of tap.

Unsurprisingly, their teacher training is intensive. For one week, teachers from all over the world spend all day in New York City at the ATDF studios, learning five classic dances from the Copasetic repertory with an eye to technique, musicality and style, and focusing on specific teaching goals. The week wraps with an informal showing, in which each participant presents the five dances they've learned. DT spoke with Morrison and Hebach about what makes their teacher training unique and how they keep the vibrant history of tap alive in it.


DT: When you say that there's a sense of accountability within your teacher training, what do you mean?

MM: One of the biggest dangers of having a teacher training was: How do you teach a curriculum and make sure the participants have it and won't misteach it? So we have a whole system of distance learning: Each person who comes to study with us is assigned a mentor from our faculty and, once the week is over, turns in assignments through video, so we can give feedback. "This is great, but I noticed you could fix that." It's a supportive mentorship.

DT: How does tap dance history make its way into your teacher training?

MM: I give a short history of tap dance, dating from before it was even called 'tap dance'—from early American dance, a combination of West African dance forms and Irish dance forms here in North America. The participants learn the Copasetic repertory: the Shim Sham, the Coles Stroll, the Copasetic soft shoe, Doin' the New Low Down. When they learn these classic dances, there's information about the background. They can bring that to their students. What people keep reporting back to us is that their students get super-excited when they know they're not just learning an arbitrary dance—it's a dance that's connected to all these other people and has a history.

DT: Why use the Copasetics' canon in your curriculum?

MM: This group of men, the Copasetics—tap dancers and jazz professionals [including original and subsequent members Dizzy Gillespie, James "Buster" Brown and Charles "Honi" Coles, mentor to ATDF co-founder Brenda Bufalino]—formed a social club in 1949 to honor Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who'd just died. When they'd perform, they would each do their own solos and high-level acts, but they'd also slip in historic material.

SH: These works are good foundational dances—I can see the value. They're easily used in presentation and performance, for various levels of students.

MM: The Copasetics understood that you had to educate the audience on the heritage of tap. It's not arbitrary—there's a reason these dances survived. The more we dance them and teach them, the deeper they get.

DT: How do you keep the improvisational spirit of tap alive in a codified teacher-training curriculum?

SH: Our teachers [in this training program] have some classes in improv, and we also give them ideas on teaching improv. Maybe you improvise, but you only use a certain handful of steps; maybe you improvise in certain amounts of time so you learn how to hear musical phrasing. In our youth program at ATDF, even the very youngest classes improvise. The Copasetic dances we teach give us something to deconstruct and pull apart.

DT: What would you say to a studio owner who's struggling to keep an interest in tap afloat at her studio?

SH: Tap dance is a deep art. It's not like ballet—it's for anybody, of any body type, any ethnicity, any height. There's a lot of room for individuality. You feel accomplished in a different way. Students might thrive, if they can't thrive in ballet or contemporary, and that doesn't make it any less important or valid or exciting

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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