Acing A Capella
Chloé Arnold (by Matthew Murphy)
You walk onstage for your tap routine—click, click, click—and take your opening position for a performance a capella (without music). You begin to dance, each tap breaking the silence in the theater all over again. Clickety-clack, ka-lack click, a-kik-kik-kik-kik clap…
Tapping a capella can be exhilarating, but with no beats to back you up, it can also be nerve-racking. It’s up to you to keep a steady pace—and the audience’s attention. Master teacher Gregg Russell of Tap Sounds Underground says your first a capella tap performance can be like a first bicycle ride without training wheels. “You’re not just dancing without a song,” he says. “You’re creating a song from scratch. With the true a capella masters, you feel their music. You can almost hum along with them.”
Keep It Interesting
There’ll be nothing to hum along to unless you inspire the audience with a broad range of textures, dynamics and changes in volume. Both Russell and Chloé Arnold, a dancer-choreographer who leads the all-female tap group Syncopated Ladies, recommend giving the steps you already know a good workout. Challenge yourself to choreograph a full minute of material using only heel drops, for example, and you’ll quickly find that you need to get creative. It might be useful to give your different types of heel drops nicknames and write them down in a notebook. Repeat the exercise with another step, such as paradiddles, and before you know it you’ll have page after page of secret weapons. The same applies to time signatures. (They’re the basic groove you’re working with, like a waltz, for example, or a classic 4/4.) Try to exhaust the possibilities in one before switching to another.
A capella tap is about knowing how to make each step come to life, Arnold says. “There are infinite variations on any theme. For a cramp roll, you can make the sound even, like a drum roll, or you can give two beats, hold back for the third, and hit the fourth a little later. You’ve got the steps; how do you take them and create musical patterns? That’s what’s going to be interesting.”
Go with the Flow
You’ll also have to make your own structure for each piece. Compose unique sections with smooth transitions, or bridges, between them. Pro tapper Anthony Morigerato thinks of a tune he likes—Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” is a favorite—and plays it in his head. “That gives it form, some rhyme and reason, rather than just a bunch of steps thrown together,” he says. Take mental notes when you hear a song that has a compelling beginning, middle or end. Ask yourself why it works and think of ways to create the same effect with your shoes.
“You’ll start to understand flow,” Arnold says. “You’ll realize how many different paths you can take to get from one place to another.”
Anthony Morigerato (by Laura Haley)
Step in Time
Just don’t take your eyes off of the “road”: your tempo. A capella tappers tend to accelerate, especially in front of an audience. That might make the most complicated part of your routine impossible to pull off once you get to it. Relaxing your upper body and remembering to breathe can act as cruise control.
Steady pacing becomes even more crucial if you’re sharing a stage a capella with other dancers. Ensemble choreography without accompaniment offers rich possibilities, like rhythmic counterpoint (different grooves layered on top of each other) and canon (the ripple effect sometimes called a “round”). Drift out of synch with your teammates, however, and that all falls apart.
Cartier Williams confirms that “the audience knows right away when you fall off time. It doesn’t sound right.” From age 4 to 10, the 23-year-old did almost all of his practicing without music. “I was just improvising, putting steps together on my own and figuring it out.”
He says two and a half or three minutes is perfect for a solo. “Get them excited, keep it short and sweet, and then get out of there.”
Whether an a capella number goes well or not, don’t let it show on your face, and know how to bring it home, Morigerato advises. Try putting your own spin on a classic ending, like giving the crowd three repeats of a short combination, followed by a fourth with a twist. (That’s called “three and a break.”) “Repetition is something an audience can really dig,” Arnold says. Another option is a fade-out or decrescendo. “Quiet doesn’t mean ‘without energy,’ ” she says. Keep your focus going until the very last moment.
If you’re serious about tap, being comfortable performing a capella is a must. Williams tries to tell a story; Arnold imagines being a DJ; Morigerato sings a song with his feet; Russell thinks of ways to echo certain rhythms with movements. But everyone agrees that the best thing about a capella tap is the ability to bring along an audience.
“Captivate them and take them with you,” Arnold says. “Make them sit up in their chairs.”
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.