Tapping Toward the Truth
I never learned to tap. I was one of those little kids who thought that ballet was beautiful and tap was just a lot of noise.
As I got more interested in adapting dance forms for students who might be in chairs, however, I saw that tap dancing was the perfect medium. You are basically having a conversation with your feet, and you can do that seated or standing. Also, tap uses every part of your foot and makes you responsible for keeping a beat, even if it's a cross-rhythm to the music.
When I had the opportunity to take a 3-hour tap workshop with Kat Richter (co-founder of The Lady Hoofers of Philadelphia), I thought twice, then once again, and signed up. You didn't need tap shoes, so I figured it couldn't be too advanced. And by now, I know how to gauge when I'm getting exhausted or need to modify steps or doing them half as slowly.
Forty-one people showed up on a rainy afternoon at the Koresh Dance Studio. Many had the right shoes; I brought tango shoes to get the sounds out since they have wooden heels. I scrambled without shame to the front of the room for a good place where I could see the teacher. I always do this, even if I know absolutely nothing about the class I'm about to take--at least I have the closest observation spot!
We started very slowly with toe and heel taps; then went on to shuffles and coordination of tapping a heel and stomping the other foot. We did sequences straight onto the mirror, then had to pivot a quarter turn each time to make a circle. We went across the floor in groups of 5; we made an improv circle and "passed taps" around to practice rhythmic patterns (something I could easily adapt for my own students!).
One of the gifts of having studied lots of dance as a child is that my body picks up what others put down--I have very little trouble grasping and repeating sequences of movement. And when they get really fast, I just do them half time! As a dance teacher with students who don't have this facility, I found it really impressive to look around at the people in the room, some of whom were obviously not facile with steps or rhythm, and see how they managed. There were very few who didn't keep up, and you could hear (because if you mess up with tap, you hear the mistakes) that most were right in sync with the teacher.
Not, however, with the music. The interesting thing about tap dancing is that it often runs as a counterpoint to whatever music is playing. We might do a sequence to "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," and then repeat the exact same steps to Pharrell's "Happy." You have to keep your own rhythm in your head while the accompaniment puts in whatever beats it's got, plus slows down or speeds up when the musicians choose. So you have to keep your taps in your head, and not get distracted by anything else.
Toward the end of the class, we learned the Shim Sham. This dance dates back to the 1920s and is often regarded as tap's national anthem, according to Wikipedia. Our teacher told us that the Shim Sham would enable us to go to any tap event, anywhere in the world, prepared to join right in.
The dance isn't particularly hard, but once learned, it is performed fast, and each time we did it, she added some extras for those intermediate or advanced students in class. The sound of all those feet! (When she wanted quiet in the room, she'd say, "Hold your feet, please!") Everyone also looked happy... there is something joyful about making noise!
I have to say, we didn't take many breaks. Luckily there was one bench in the room, and often, when she was teaching, I would go collapse on it. I swallowed some ibuprofen in the middle of class, and when I got home, I iced everything I could think of. Still, the next day, it was nearly impossible to get out of bed. I wrote down the sequences to the best of my ability because my body wasn't about to perform them.
A few weeks later, I attended a workshop-demonstration of a jazz group accompanied by some terrific break dancers. The teacher was inspiring, and also 20 years older than his dancers, so I emailed him that night to ask if he gave classes. I told him I couldn't spin on my head, but I would like to give the standing stuff a try. He wrote back that I wouldn't have to spin on my head, but my head would be spinning with all I'd learn. A very hip-hop philosophy, I'd say. I guess I'm crazy, but I just may try it.