In Hollywood, auditions abound for jobs that require jazz and hip-hop prowess, leaving tap dancers feeling they don’t have a secure place in the working dance world. Numerous influential tappers, however, are trying to change that reality by making the entertainment industry aware of their artform. DS spoke with several of these high-profile tappers for their advice on going from hopeful hoofer to gainfully employed professional.
Tip #1: Sniff out the best fests. From the New York City Tap Festival to the St. Louis Tap Festival, opportunities exist across the country for tappers to converge and create. Even if a festival is not held in the city you want to work in, professionals working in that city are likely to be in attendance.
“Tap festivals make up our own circuit within the tap community,” says Emmy-winning choreographer Jason Samuels Smith, who, in tandem with Chloe Arnold, has co-directed the annual L.A. Tap Fest since 2003. “[Festivals] act as a great platform for young dancers who might not be seen in local studios to expose their talent and make the leap from amateur to professional.” In addition to performance opportunities, festivals also provide up-and-comers with opportunities to study under the tutelage of top talent and network with others who share their passion.
Tip #2: Persistence pays off. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up, and Samuels Smith agrees. After all, the bicoastal tap instructor and choreographer landed his role in Broadway tap extravaganza Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk at age 15 by observing rehearsals and shows every day until the show’s creator and star Savion Glover noticed him. “I was around the actors a lot, and lo and behold, Savion asked me to come in and audition,” says Samuels Smith. “If I hadn’t shown up every day, I probably wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity.”
Samuels Smith urges dancers looking for similar serendipity to frequent every available class and jam session in their local communities, adding: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and always be prepared with your tap shoes in case an opportunity does present itself.”
Tip #3: Know how to think on your feet. Improvisation is a highly valued skill both on set and at auditions. “A lot of times [on tap jobs], there won’t be a choreographer on set, so you need to be able to perform on the spot,” says Galen Hooks, better known as “Honeycomb” to her cohorts in traveling tap company Tapsounds Underground. “I get called for everything from 42nd Street–style tap to hoofing, and since the jobs out there are so limited, it’s important to be able to do whatever style of tap may be asked of you.”
Such finely tuned improv skills recently came in handy for Chloe Arnold as one of six featured female tap dancers in the upcoming Outkast film, Idlewild. (See next issue for more on this film.) Working under choreographer Hinton Battle, Arnold was asked to “take eight bars and go to town” at the end of the musical number, a request to which Arnold happily complied. “Being able to improvise is key,” says Arnold. “If you constantly live being told how to move, then you never experience the vitality of creating. It’s that strong sense of freedom that will help you get work.”
Tip #4: Realize that being a “teacher’s pet” isn’t negative. Taking a variety of classes and making effort to connect with instructors can greatly pay off down the road when those teachers take on choreography jobs. Most of the dancers Samuels Smith hires are former or current students, while studying with prolific dancers like Savion Glover, Debbie Allen and Buster Brown paved the way for Arnold’s professional career.
Tip #5: Think big and be proactive. While professionals like Arnold, Hooks and Samuels Smith all make a living in Hollywood, they remain realistic about current opportunities for tappers. “There is a huge void that exists as far as a market for tap,” says Samuels Smith. “I see possibilities in every realm of entertainment: on stage, in dance studios, and in film, television and music.” Arnold shares Samuels Smith’s view of the possibilities, and urges young dancers to take initiative by staging a local performance or starting tap jams where they take class. “If what you want to do doesn’t exist, you have to make it exist,” says Arnold, who by creating the L.A. Tap Fest has attempted to do just that.
Like Arnold, Hooks looks forward to the day when tap jobs in Tinseltown are plentiful. “I can probably count on one hand the number of jobs I’ve had to tap for,” she says. “I get hired to do sexy ‘hip-hop girl’ stuff, but tap is my refuge.”