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.
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”
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
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
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
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