I'm with the Band

“Let’s kick it off with an eight-bar intro, and then go straight to the chorus. The instruments can solo on the verses—say, four bars each? We’ll throw in some stop-time after the second chorus, right before the bridge. You can trade with the drummer on the last chorus, and then we’ll go back to the head before we take it home. And—1, 2, 3, 4!”

If most of that didn’t make sense to you, don’t worry. Even the most talented dance students may not be familiar with musical terminology—especially if you’ve only ever danced to recorded tunes. But for tappers, learning to think and speak like a musician is vital. After all, “the origin of tap came from working with live musicians, and [the idea] that we are ourselves musicians,” says NYC tapper Michelle Dorrance, who also dances and plays bass with the band Darwin Deez. “In tap, your dancing creates music.”

Whether you’re jamming with a jazz band at a tap festival or performing an improvised solo with live vocal or instrumental accompaniment, communication with your musicians can make or break your performance. Read on for tips on creating a successful musical collaboration.

The Basics

What’s the biggest mistake a tap dancer can make when talking to musicians? Counting in eights. Musicians usually count in repeated bars of four (unless the music is in bars of three, as in a waltz, or a more unusual time signature, like bars of five or seven). So banish that “5, 6, 7, 8” from your vocabulary.

You’ll also want to learn some basic music lingo. Jazz musicians and vocalists often accompany tap dancers, and they use certain terms. For instance, the “head” is the whole song from the beginning, and “take it home” means bring the number to a close. In “stop-time,” the band will cut out for a few bars, only playing an occasional downbeat to keep the rhythm while you tap alone, or “solo.” “Comping” is similar to stop-time, but with more nuanced musical accompaniment, like what backup vocalists provide for a lead singer. As you improvise, you can also “trade” with a musician, taking turns playing off each other’s rhythms.

To get comfortable with all of this, listen to different types of music and break down the structure of the songs. “Find any song—pop, R&B, hip hop—and chart it,” Dorrance says. “Count the number of bars in the introduction, the bars in the standard verse, how many times the chorus, or hook, repeats, and determine if the song has a bridge, where the melody goes somewhere else.” Listen until you’re able to find and anticipate patterns even in songs you haven’t heard before. “The more you understand music, the more musicians will respect you,” says Ed Ornowski, a drummer who has accompanied Gregory Hines, Buster Brown, Brenda Bufalino, Max Pollack, Jason Samuels Smith and many other tap legends. “It’s all about the love between dancer and musician—especially the drummer and the tap dancer, because we’re doing the same thing!”

Do Your Homework

If you want the band to play a specific song or a new arrangement of a classic, show up to the rehearsal or jam session prepared. L.A. tapper Sarah Reich suggests approaching a composer or musician beforehand to help you make sheet music. “Print out a copy for each musician,” Reich says. “Remember that a drummer’s sheet is different from a piano player’s: You need to provide clear directions for all musicians.” Ornowski recommends bringing two or three song options, in case the musicians don’t know your first choice.

Work out your desired tempo before meeting with the musicians. “Set the tempo from the fastest step,” advises Margaret Morrison, an NYC-based choreographer and performer who teaches courses on musicianship for tap dancers.

Being on the same page as the musicians allows you to improvise within a framework. Even if you don’t know exactly what notes they’ll play, you’ll know the number of bars in each section and the tempo and structure of the song. “If you know what’s coming next, you can make choices in your improvisation,” Dorrance says. “For instance, you might think, ‘When this section breaks down into guitar, I want to do slide work.’ ”

Set Up Signals

If you’re in the middle of an improvisation and the music isn’t playing out the way you’d hoped, don’t panic. There are ways to get back on track. “There’s a certain sign language you can use,” Reich says. “Patting your head means ‘go to the top,’ while cutting your throat means ‘take it home.’ Thumbs up means ‘louder,’ and palm up means ‘faster.’ You can even snap your fingers on the 2 and the 4 while looking at the drummer to get the tempo where you want it.”

Become Music-Minded

Familiarize yourself with jazz music, tap’s historical accompaniment, by going to music clubs where you can soak in the rhythms and feel of jazz improvisation. If you can’t hear live jazz, watch music videos online and listen to the jazz station on the radio. Befriend the band kids at your school, and ask if you can jam with them. See if your teacher can bring a professional or college-level musician to your studio for a monthly tap jam. And try improvising to different types of music, to see how your groove changes.

Above all, commit to thinking of your tap dancing as music. “Learn how to listen to the music and your tap sounds at the same time,” Morrison says. “In class, in a jam or onstage, ask yourself, ‘Am I hearing the music, and is that at the forefront of my awareness?’ Move your feet as you listen to the music, rather than thinking in terms of doing steps.” Discover your inner musician and soon you won’t just be dancing with the band—you’ll be part of it.

Courtesy Counts

Just like any other performer, a musician deserves your courtesy and respect. Say hello and introduce yourself at the start of your session or rehearsal, and always thank the musician when you’re done. Voice your opinions, but listen to the musician’s expertise and advice as well.

If you’re feeling nervous about talking to a professional musician, remember that you’re dealing with a fellow artist. “It’s exciting to be creatively collaborating with another person,” says Margaret Morrison, a choreographer and performer based in NYC. “But it’s also more intimidating than performing to recorded music. There’s so much energy going through you because you’re interacting with a live human being who’s giving you a ton of rhythmic, melodic, dynamic and emotional information.” Harness that energy by creating a relationship in which you feel comfortable “playing” with each other.

Did You Know? The time step was invented as a way for tappers to count the band in. It has three repeats and a break to set both a rhythmic feel and the tempo for the dance ahead.

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