Wow it’s been a while. Two hip surgeries (one on each side) in 9 months and a long diagnosis and recovery period have definitely given me a chance to think about where I am as a Tap dancer, teacher, and choreographer, and where I would like to go next. As part of my own recovery (I’ll be 100% totally good to go by September of 2015, but I’m well ahead of the game after only 6 months!) I have decided to join forces with the American Tap Dance Foundation in NYC and be a part of their first ever Tap Teacher Training Certification Program! It’s exciting for me because I love the history and music (jazz) that helped birth Tap into what it is today- and that’s exactly what I will be learning how to teach and teaching this season!
As part of my requirements I have to keep a log of things that I teach and how they incorporate the teaching goals I have been assigned so I thought it would be fun to post them here. I will be sharing some of the exercises I use in class because I feel it’s important that we keep the tradition of Tap alive, and if we don’t teach it who will? In the coming months I will be discussing exercises that focus on concepts that we sometimes forget to teach, for instance: counting, music theory, history, and freedom of expression (aka the dreaded word… improv). I find a lot of times (myself included) we spend most of class reviewing dances and choreography and our students don’t get to appreciate all that Tap has to offer. One of my goals this season is to bring that appreciation back. I’m using a lot of Jazz music- things my students may not listen to on their own but yet are vital to understanding swing as well as straight time rhythms- as my first step. I make sure to tell my students the name of the song as well as the artist (and the composer if I know) because names like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller, and Count Basie are among the great musicians that our “Founding Fathers” of Tap would perform with.
Today we will be talking about…….
It’s not as scary as you think…you just have to go about it the right way.
My favorite quote ever is from Honi Coles, who said “If you can walk, you can Tap”. I wholeheartedly believe in this theory.
Only one of my classes has ever really explored the wonderful world of improvisation with me, and that was an advanced class several years ago. This year, ALL OF MY CLASSES will be entering into the wonderful world of improvisation, they just don’t know it yet. The reason? I’m not calling it “improv”. Why? Because it’s a scary word. I don’t know why people are scared of it, but yet they are. You improvise every day with words, sports plays that go wrong, lies, etc…so why is it so difficult to do in dance class?
The way I decided to conquer it was to work with a “counting game”. This worked out very well with each class I tried it with- everyone was open to it and seemed to enjoy it, maybe because it was different than the regular technique exercises I usually teach. Here it is:
Pick some good jazz music that’s at a medium tempo. I like “Cool Struttin'” by Sonny Clark and “Staten Island Groove” by Down to the Bone. That one’s funky and they both are about 9 minutes long. We begin with showing and naming some single sounds together (stomp, heel dig, toe drop, scuff, toe knock, etc). Then I ask students if they can count to four. They all laugh and say yes so we count to four together (of course I start them on the 1 being sure 1 is always the downbeat that starts the bar- otherwise who knows what count they may start on!) We talk about bars of music (bars in Jazz, measures in Classical) and how in 4/4 time there are 4 beats to a bar, each one gets a number (1,2,3,4), and they’re called quarter notes. Next I ask them to find counts on their own. (We do everything together as a big group because it’s safe for everyone, especially those who aren’t strong counters.) Find the 1 and make a single sound on just that count. Every time the 1 comes around change the sound you make. Find just the 3. Find the 1 and 3. Find the 1, 3, and 4. And so on. We eventually end up making a different single sound on all the counts. And guess what? That’s improv! I tell them to move around the room and let the movement determine their next sound. Don’t think, just move. No matter what, you’re always right since there is no such thing as wrong in improv.
Then we go back to talking about bars- how many counts are in 2 bars? Can we make single sounds for 2 bars then hold 2 bars of silence? This really helps to solidify where the 1 is as they all have to come back in on time. From there I ask for a 2 bar phrase. It’s all quarter notes (1,2,3,4) so it’s not difficult and the right music will set them up for success. I give them a good amount of time to work it out and practice it. They should be able to repeat their phrase multiple times. We all share our phrases together and if the class is ready I have them share one at a time (so far all my classes have enjoyed this part- they have a sense of accomplishment that they made up their own step). In reality what they have is their very own time step!
Next what I would do is go into the 3 and a break structure and/or variations. I didn’t have time since I had other things I needed to teach but it’s on the list for the coming weeks. My plan is to alternate every other week with these types of music theory/improvisation classes because I find some students LOVE them while others who are used to the more common technique classes need to ease into this style, and it’s important to be sensitive to students’ learning needs.
I hope that this sparks some interest for you all out there to try something different (if you don’t already teach improv)! Happy Tappy =)
Concepts covered: Music Theory and Structure, Vocabulary, Improvisation, Movement Through Space
PS- With my Thursday advanced students at Uconn who needed a quick piece to perform in a pinch, I used the above exercise (and included eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes) along with the 3 and a break/variation concepts to give them each their own unique time steps. Being able to go in and out of a time step gives you the opportunity to build your improvisation easily and gives you somewhere to come back to. It also helps you create your melody based on the notes and sounds you put into your time step. It’s a win win!
From there you can easily put a piece together: Start with the Coles Stroll, throw in some improv (or go down the line of dancers each performing their time step in a 3 and a break format- it will always work if you stay in the same time signature), do the Shim Sham next (and you can deconstruct this into time steps to improvise over), then the BS Chorus as the big finish. Wha-la! You have just created a 2-5 minute performance piece. Yeay!