Changing it Up
Every tapper has go-to improv moves, but the key to staying fresh is switching up the steps you lean on and finding new ways to think outside the box. Remember: You can always take new risks within the steps you already know. Dance Spirit spoke with five pro tappers who have found unexpected treats in familiar packages.
Jason Samuels Smith performing at the Joyce Theater in NYC (by Matthew Murphy/Divine Rhythm Productions)
Experiment with Melody
“You can use different parts of your foot to create a range of tones and volumes. For instance, there are a lot of ways you can use the hard heel—which is made up of thick leather and a metal tap—on a wooden surface. You can get either a deep tone with the heel tap itself, or a squeaking, high-pitched tone when the leather scrapes against the floor. Once you start messing with tones, you can create melodies, not just rhythms. Think about your feet as melodic instruments as well as percussive ones. It can push your art in a new direction.” —Jason Samuels Smith, renowned tapper who has performed at Jacob’s Pillow, in the Fall for Dance Festival and on “So You Think You Can Dance”
Alexis Juliano on "So You Think You Can Dance" (by Adam Rose/Fox)
Experiment with Tricks
“My thing is to get up in a toe stand and do some shuffle work while I’m there. I’ll also sickle my foot and balance on the sides of my tap shoe. I’m not really hitting the tap or getting a new sound, but it’s a cool look. People will think, OMG, she just fell on her ankle! But really, I’m just chilling. Then I’ll play with the taps on my other foot. It’s not just about the toe stand or being on the side of my feet, but about changing what I’m doing while I’m up there. Maybe I’ll do cross-shuffles, or jump on my toes or slide on the side of my foot. It’s always new.” —Alexis Juliano, Top 20 finalist on “SYTYCD” Season 10 and member of Hands Down Tap Project
Michela Marino Lerman (by Terry Marino Lerman)
Experiment with Pauses
“In the last couple years, I’ve been exploring the idea of incorporating space into my dancing as much as possible. Gregory Hines talked to me about including silence between phrases. You don’t just complete a series of steps and go directly into the next one. It’s like punctuation. If you speak in run-on sentences, people will lose track of what you’re saying—it’s hard to follow. If you use pauses and silences within your dancing as a form of punctuation, they can add tension or drama. The audience will hold on to what you’re creating and take it in.” —Michela Marino Lerman, faculty member at the American Tap Dance Foundation and host of a weekly jam at Smalls Jazz Club in NYC
April Cook in Michelle Dorrance's The Machine (by Propix/The Pulse On Tour)
Experiment with Weight Shifts
“I like playing with the weight behind my steps. I can get a deeper or stronger tone depending on where my weight is. For instance, if you’re doing a toe drop on the right foot, you tend to have all your weight on your standing left leg. But if you let your right side take some of your weight during the toe drop, it will amplify the sound.
This idea can completely change a step you already know well. Take paddle-rolls, which have four sounds—heel drop, dig, brush and step. You can do it evenly—‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and’—so the counts are all the same volume and tone. Or you can put more weight behind one of those four sounds, like the dig. Then you’d have ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.’ It’s the same rhythm, but by changing where the weight is dropped, the dynamic changes.”
—April Cook, tap teacher at Broadway Dance Center in NYC who has performed with Michelle Dorrance and Savion Glover
Nicholas Young (by Guido Mandozzi)
Experiment with Texture
“Technology has really taken my freestyling into a new frontier. Recently, I started playing with a loop pedal [which records and plays back the beats you make on repeat, so you can layer phrases or rhythms on top of one another]. It lets me create a whole composition by myself during a performance. You can do this with looping apps on your iPhone or iPad—my favorite is Loopy HD. Just hold the phone down by your feet and start by tapping simple steps that will repeat. First think about a bass line, then a simple drum beat, and then add different elements on top of that. Create a groove, and once you have that, solo to it.” —Nicholas Young, faculty member at Steps on Broadway in NYC and former cast member and rehearsal director for STOMP
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.