Melinda Sullivan's Gone (photo by Steve Gunther Photography, courtesy Sullivan)
Five women in leather-soled boots sweep their feet across a sand-covered stage, accenting the music in maraca-like rhythms. With its chugs, brushes, heel drops and slides, their movement looks a lot like tap dancing, but the sound is different—scratchier and rougher. This is sand dance. The scene described is from tap dancer/choreographer Melinda Sullivan’s 2012 video entry to the Capezio A.C.E. Awards, Gone. (She went on to win first place at the competition.) “Experimenting with sand dancing really changed the way I tap,” Sullivan says. “It’s like playing a whole new instrument.” Interested in giving sand dance a try? Before turning your dance studio into a private beach, read on for the need-to-know on this sub-style.
What is it?
“Sand dancing is tapping on sand, but your approach to the floor is completely different,” Sullivan says. Whereas much of tap choreography emphasizes distinct, crisp hits, sand dancing is more about sweeping, rubbing motions; the feet tend to spend more time on the floor. “Shuffles, flaps, slides, chugs and pull-backs work really well with sand,” adds L.A. tapper Kenji Igus, who was featured in Cari Ann Shim Sham*’s 2011 documentary SAND.
Traditionally, sand dance is a soft-shoe style, which means it’s performed without tap shoes. “The term ‘soft-shoe’ can be somewhat misleading,” Sullivan says. “We’re actually dancing in hard-soled leather boots.” Even though it isn’t necessarily traditional, Igus will sometimes use his tap shoes on sand. “In a noisy theater, taps can amplify the sounds and keep them from getting lost or muffled,” he says.
Tapper Kenji Igus dancing on sand (photo by Visionarrie Photography, courtesy Igus)
Where did it come from?
If you’ve never heard of sand dancing before, you’re not alone. “I like to think of it as the forgotten sibling of tap,” Igus says. Like tap, sand dancing is a distinctly American style, tracing its roots back to African slave communication. But sand dancing was never really codified, and its lineage is much more difficult to trace. “Most people associate sand dancing with Howard ‘Sandman’ Sims, from the ’50s and ’60s,” Igus says. “He wasn’t the first sand dancer, but his regular performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem really helped popularize the style.”
Who’s doing it today?
Sand dance has remained primarily a street style. Igus learned it from his father, Darrow Igus, who learned it from a New Jersey projects street performer named “T” back in the ’60s. “Melinda Sullivan is the only choreographer I’ve seen use sand onstage,” he says. “But I’ve seen it on the streets of New Orleans.” Sullivan was first exposed to the style in a class setting, with master sand dancer Guillem Alonso, of Barcelona, Spain. “I was hooked,” she says. “I started looking up YouTube videos of Guillem, and experimenting with the form.” She notes that other prominent tap choreographers are also using sand. “Michelle Dorrance has done some really cool stuff with it, and the Syncopated Ladies’ 2014 video to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ was all about sand dancing with a modern edge,” Sullivan says.
How do I get started?
It’s tough to find a class that specializes in sand dancing, for obvious reasons. “In the ideal world, I’d dump sand all over the studio,” Sullivan says. “But that isn’t exactly practical.”
But you can still try it on your own. Both Igus and Sullivan stress that the best way to learn is to experiment with your own body, using the tap vocabulary you already know. Sullivan likes to layer in elements from other techniques, like jazz, contemporary or hip hop. “The first step is just to take your toe and rub it in the sand,” Igus says. “Then start feeling it out and let your mind run wild.”
Because the sounds of sand dancing are much quieter than taps, picking the right music can be tough. But dancing a cappella is always an option. “Sand dancing is a sound that most audiences haven’t heard before,” says L.A. tapper Kenji Igus. “So hearing it on its own can be really captivating for them.” Tapper and choreographer Melinda Sullivan agrees: “A cappella sand dance can be complete magic,” she says. —MM
When we talk about tap, we often use the terms “tapper” and “hoofer” interchangeably—but the two aren’t really synonymous. “ ‘Hoofer’ is kind of a loaded term when we use it to describe today’s tappers,” says tap master teacher Derick K. Grant. It’s not unlike the term “ballerina”: You don’t call just anyone a ballerina, because a ballet dancer needs to have achieved a certain level of artistry to earn the status. “The title ‘hoofer’ deserves respect and care,” agrees tap icon Jason Samuels Smith. “It needs to be used delicately, and only in the appropriate context.”
So what does it mean to be a hoofer in the 21st century? Dance Spirit asked Grant, Smith and Michela Marino Lerman—three tappers with varying opinions on the subject—to weigh in on what “hoofing” really means.
Derick K. Grant (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Derick K. Grant
What’s a hoofer? “A hoofer is a hard-core, rugged, inner-city tapper with a ‘tap or die’ attitude. That idea comes from the original hoofers—Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde—who dominated the tap scene in Harlem, NYC, in the 1970s and ’80s. These cats had swag out the roof. Typically impoverished African Americans, they performed with the knowledge that every nickel and dime counted, and that sense of urgency informed their style.”
What does hoofing look like? “It’s aggressive, it’s sharp, it’s clever. It’s dancers stealing other dancers’ material and finding imaginative ways to switch it up. In terms of the nuts and bolts of the technique, it tends to be a flat-footed style that’s low to the ground—but that doesn’t mean it’s all one note. There are so many details between the toe and the heel of a tap shoe, and hoofers use weight to create all different shades and tones.”
Michela Marino Lerman (photo by Sally Cohn, courtesy Michela Marino Lerman)
Michela Marino Lerman
What’s a hoofer? “A hoofer is a person who tap dances—but it’s deeper than that. Being a hoofer is a lifestyle. It’s about sleeping, eating and breathing tap dance. To be a hoofer, you don’t just have a run-of-the-mill dance life. You hang out with your fellow tap dancers until the early hours of the morning, you go to jazz clubs, you jam with all different types of people and you know music as well as you know dance. Improvisation is central: What do you feel in the moment, and how can you convey that feeling through your sound and movement? How can you move the audience to go with you on a journey? That’s being a hoofer.”
What does hoofing look like? “Hoofing looks and sounds like freedom. It’s about getting in touch with that thing inside you just itching to get out. To be a hoofer, you have to be yourself—you can’t copy other people. Of course, you draw inspiration from
everything around you, but you must find your own voice. When you’re working with other tap dancers or musicians, it’s about having an open ear, listening and communicating with all the elements surrounding you and telling a story.”
Jason Samuels Smith (photo by AK47 Division, courtesy Divine Rhythm Productions)
Jason Samuels Smith
What’s a hoofer? “A hoofer is a tapper who’s achieved a certain level of wisdom and sophistication in his or her craft. Hoofers are masters of improvisation, with a heightened sense of musicality. They’re so dedicated to tap, they live it completely, to the point where it becomes not just a style of dance but a lifestyle. You can consider yourself a hoofer only after you’ve lived the life of one.”
What does hoofing look like? “It’s characterized by musical sensibility and approach. A hoofer doesn’t dance over the music, or use it as a metronome. He becomes a part of the music, another musician in the band.”
Tap dancers often focus on making impressive, intricate sounds. But sometimes, it’s nice to throw in a step that looks flashy, too. Next time you want to add a touch of pizzazz to your footwork, try incorporating one of these three tap power moves.
The counts included in parentheses are just suggestions—you can
incorporate these steps at any point in the music.
Don’t get carried away! Power moves are most effective when used sparingly within a larger rhythmic context.
(Photo by Nathan Sayers)
The Shiggy Bop (aka “The Shovel”)
How to do it: Begin with your weight in the ball of your right foot, and your left foot slightly lifted. Take off from the floor by scuffing your right heel forward and lifting your left foot higher (and). Land on the back edge of your right heel (a), then plant your left toe into the floor behind you (1).
Pro tips: “Engage your core, lean forward and use an upward motion of your arms to get the leverage to take the scuff off the floor.” —Martin Bronson, rehearsal director for Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s BAM!
“For successive shiggy bops, land on the ball of your back foot rather than the tip of your toe. Then transfer your weight to that back foot as you push it forward for the scuff of the next shiggy bop.” —MB
Fun fact: Tapper Mike Minery coined the term “shiggy bop” for the shovel step.
(Photo by Nathan Sayers)
The One-Footed Wing
How to do it: Begin on the ball of your right foot with your left foot slightly lifted. Bend your right leg without letting your heel touch the ground, and take off from the floor by scraping the outside of your toe tap to the right (and). At the same time, pull your left knee high to the side, slightly turned out. On the way back down, brush your right foot in towards your center (a) and then land on the ball of your right foot (1).
Pro tips: “Make sure you leave the ground with the scrape. The wrong way to do a wing is to hop off the floor, do a shuffle to the side and then land.” —April Cook, tap instructor at Broadway Dance Center in NYC
“The closer you can get your nonworking leg into your body, the easier it’s going to be to get off the floor.” —AC
(Photo by Nathan Sayers)
The Toe-Stand Double Shuffle
How to do it: Begin in a parallel position with your left foot in the air. Press the toe tip
of your left shoe into the ground (1). While balancing on the left toe, do two quick, small shuffles underneath yourself with your right foot (2-e-and-a). Jump back down
to the starting position (3).
Pro tips: “Practice double shuffles on the ground before you take them up in the toe stand, keeping your ankle loose to get the timing.” —MB
“Keep the double shuffle underneath yourself. This will help you make the sound with
the correct part of your shoe—the middle of the toe tap, as opposed to the side.” —MB
Click here to watch Marie perform these three steps.
We’ve all been captivated by dances that skillfully blend beautiful technique with an engaging storyline: classic ballets, rousing Broadway numbers, touching contemporary pieces, even lyrical hip-hop routines.
But what about tap? Sure, it’s got intricate melodies and flashy footwork, but can you use it to develop a character? Absolutely! Many people don’t realize it, but tap has unique tools for telling a story. DS asked three tappers known for their story-driven choreography for tips on conveying different personalities through rhythm.
Mark Yonally (left) and Rich Ashworth (Photo by Josh Hawkins)
Build Your Story
Don’t show off all your technical prowess right away. “Intricate footwork is detail in your story,” says Jeannie Hill, a former dancer with NYC’s Manhattan Tap and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project in Chicago. “If you spill too much detail in your story at once, it’s as if you’re speaking in monotone, and you risk boring your audience.”
Hill, who also teaches and choreographs at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, advises tappers to structure their choreography so that the footwork unfolds gradually—like a plot’s rising action—to keep the audience intrigued. “It also helps to place certain steps where your listeners won’t expect them musically, so they stay invested in your story,” she says. “Make your audience wait for your double-time figures, for example, and then surprise them.”
Keep It Clean
Trying—and failing—to execute steps that are too fast or difficult can distract from the character you’re trying to convey. “Flash steps call for more preparation and physicality,” says Melinda Sullivan, a Top 20 contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7. “If you do a five-count wing out of nowhere, it will feel out of place unless there’s real intention behind it.”
Jeannie Hill (Photo by Anna Marie Panlilio)
Play with Dynamics
The dynamics of your tapping—how sounds vary from loud to soft—can indicate the emotion your character is trying to express. “Imagine you’re an actor delivering lines,” says Sullivan. “If your dancing is louder or your rhythms are more intricate, you might be angry, excited or tense.”
Or maybe your character is so excited that she can’t find the right words to express it, so her taps are soft and subtle. This dynamic choice can produce a comedic effect, which will help keep the audience invested in your character.
Listen for Changes
Musical transitions can help guide your character’s emotional responses, says Mark Yonally, artistic director of Chicago Tap Theatre. Pay attention to shifts—such as changes in meter or the introduction of a new instrument—and use them as signals to convey different expressions.
“There’s an inherent emotional quality to certain rhythms,” Yonally says. “It’s nearly impossible to swing and be sorrowful, and waltz phrases are light and happy by nature. But a Latin or funk feel could convey frustration.”
Take Advantage of Pattern
Patterns can help an audience follow the story you’re trying to convey. In the traditional three-and-a-break structure, for instance, you repeat a phrase three times, and then finish with a different rhythm, either related to the original step or entirely new. The repetition allows you to develop your character, emotion or idea for the audience, and then the break adds new information, like a plot twist in a story.
“The rhythm becomes familiar and comforting,” Hill says, “and then when you change it, the element of surprise catches your listeners off guard and keeps them interested in who you are and what you’re saying. It leads into the next step and the next part of your story.”
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
Gregory Hines in White Nights (photos via Dance Magazine Archives)
L.A.-based tap dancer Melinda Sullivan has hoofed her way through tons of tap jams. But she recalls one particular jam session she attended as a teenager especially fondly, because of a surprise guest: tap legend Gregory Hines. “He just showed up at the old Debbie Allen studio and danced with us,” she says. “He was so famous, yet really down-to-earth, jamming alongside us, having conversations with his feet. During his last solo, he danced right out the door. It was a magical exit.”
Hines’ humility and charisma were only part of what made him such a legendary tapper, and the perfect role model for tappers today. This summer marks 10 years since Hines’ untimely death (he died of liver cancer at age 57), but many dancers still hope to emulate his success as a tapper, mentor and true triple threat. Incorporating Hines’ style into your own dancing is the perfect way to take your tapping to the next level. Read on for suggestions from the pros.
What Hines did: Hines pushed the athleticism of tap to a new level. His dancing was unpolished, grounded and free-flowing. “He flew through the space,” says Anita Feldman, assistant professor at Hofstra University’s Department of Drama and Dance. “He was really physical.”
Make it your own: Emulate Hines’ expressive movement style by putting as much energy into your upper body as your feet. And try to eat up as much space as possible.
What Hines did: Hines was always searching for new ways to connect with audiences, like embracing popular music. “In the movie Tap, Hines dances to rock music, not the typical tap music of the 1930s,” Feldman says. “Other times, he made statements by not using music at all.”
Make it your own: Next time you’re perfecting your tap solo, embody Hines’ artistically adventuresome spirit. Play something unexpected or go a cappella.
What Hines did: Hines’ tap prowess launched his career as a successful actor on film, television and Broadway. “Gregory Hines is why I crossed over into musical theater and TV,” says Sullivan, who’s toured nationally with Cats and competed on “So You Think You Can Dance” Season 7. “I try to be an entertainer like he was.”
Make it your own: Try adding an acting class to your roster. “It takes more than being amazing with your feet to have the kind of stage presence Gregory Hines had,” says NYC tapper Lisa La Touche, who was inspired by Hines to study acting. “Being theatrical makes you more marketable.”
Hines performing at The Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn
What Hines did: Hines used other styles to amp up his tapping. It wasn’t unusual to see him throw an impressive jump or pirouette into the mix. In a classic scene from White Nights, Hines even dances alongside ballet virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov using a blend of ballet, tap and jazz. “He epitomized the artistic extension of tap,” Feldman says.
Make it your own: When planning a tap routine, try thinking of your favorite moves from other styles. Adding a cabriole or even a layout can make your choreography more exciting.
What Hines did: Hines coined the term “improvography” to prove that tap-dance improvisation deserves the same respect as choreography. “He wasn’t happy that tap dancers weren’t always given credit for their work, especially if it was improvised,” Feldman says.
Make it your own: Sometimes, your best work can come when you’re just going with the flow, making bold, unplanned choices. The more time you spend improvising, the easier it will become.
What Hines did: Hines was a true role model, helping tap flourish by sowing seeds of encouragement. “He was a mentor to everyone, not just the best tappers,” La Touche says. “During a master class he once said, ‘All you need is a pair of tap shoes to be part of this community.’ ”
Make it your own: Share your love for tap with others. Ask to be a teacher’s assistant or to help out younger dancers at your studio. “He made me feel like I was a gift to tap dance,” La Touche says. “Now we’ve got to make each other feel that way.”
Hines’ Place in History
During the 1980s and early ’90s, Gregory Hines’ starring roles in major motion pictures, including The Cotton Club, White Nights and Tap, as well as Broadway’s Sophisticated Ladies and Jelly’s Last Jam, continued the revitalization of tap as an art form. Before the ’70s, tap hadn’t been in the spotlight since the big band era of the ’30s and ’40s. “After a gap in tap dance’s history, Hines helped bring it back into popular culture,” says tapper Melinda Sullivan. “He made it fashionable.”
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.”
David Alvarez in the title role of Billy Elliot (by David Scheinmann)
When 12-year-old David Alvarez walked into an audition for the original Broadway production of Billy Elliot, he was shocked to see other dancers practicing their tap routines. A student at The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, his only training was in classical ballet. “I had no idea what to do!” David, now 18, recalls. “I didn’t even know how to pretend to tap. I had to borrow another kid’s tap shoes.” But when he picked up the exercises quickly, the producers took a chance on the young ballet dancer. David went on to play the musical’s title role for more than a year. And he won a Tony Award for best actor!
David’s audition experience isn’t unusual. Many dancers are proficient in other styles but have little or no tap experience, and are nervous about having to tap at a musical theater audition. DS talked to some of the industry’s leading professionals for simple strategies and steps you can learn to make the tap audition process a little smoother.
Learn The Basics
Faking it till you make it is one thing, but the best way to learn tap essentials is to sign up for a beginner class. “Tap isn’t a discipline that can be faked well, because it’s a specialty,” explains director, performer and Tony-nominated choreographer Randy Skinner. But he also says that most Broadway tap choreography is relatively simple. “In some shows, there’s just one tap number, and in a routine with a large group of people, there’s more clarity of sound with basic steps.”
Skinner says the steps taught at an audition are often the fundamentals of the tap routine that will be in the show, so seeing a show before the audition is helpful. When he choreographed the Broadway revival of 42nd Street in 2001, much of the audition included time steps, which begin the show’s famous opening number.
Fake the Rest
The rest of the body can be just as important as the feet. Justin Greer, dance captain for the current Broadway revival of Anything Goes, says there are three key elements to notice when learning choreography: the shape of the steps, weight changes and body angles. “You can look like you’re doing the steps correctly if you do all the upper body movement confidently and change your weight at the right times,” he says. “If you perform and look like you’re enjoying yourself, people won’t be looking at your feet!”
Sutton Foster and company in Anything Goes (by Joan Marcus)
Choreographers want to see that you can make their style look good and that you have a natural sense of rhythm. “Try to imitate the style of the choreographer and his or her assistants, because that style becomes what we call ‘the world of the show,’ ” Greer says. And remember that you’re not just dancing, you’re playing a part. “Sometimes the best technical dancers aren’t necessarily right for the characters in the show.”
Ultimately, when it comes to making it on Broadway, there is no shortcut. “It’s not easy to get into a Broadway show, and the talent pool is becoming more and more skilled and competitive,” Greer says. “You have to be able to do it all—including tap.”
Still, persistence and a positive attitude can pay off. “I got through the tap audition by being open-minded,” David says. “I tried my best, and I didn’t give up.”
Tap at a Glance
Even if you’re a pro at other styles, make sure to have these tap steps down before your next big audition. According to choreographer Randy Skinner, they are the foundation for most tap choreography on Broadway.
1. Flaps & flap ball-change
A flap has two sounds (brush, step), usually repeats successively and can either travel or stay in place. Adding a ball change after each flap is a basic pattern that demonstrates how well you can make sounds and move through space at the same time. At auditions, Skinner likes to use flaps as part of a turn pattern across the floor—like flap, heel—which shows him how well dancers can spot their turns.
2. Rolling shuffles
Shuffles are made up of two sounds with the toe tap—a brush forward and a spank back. To roll your shuffles, alternate between hopping on one foot and shuffling with the other foot. Aim to maintain triplet timing: 1-and-a-2-and-a-3-and-a-4-and-a. “This step shows us your ear for rhythm, so keep it even. Remember that speed is a matter of practice.”
3. Waltz clog & Irish
These two patterns can move or stay in place. The waltz clog combines
a flap on one foot with a shuffle ball-change on the opposite foot. “This is done in 3/4 time, which is why it is called a waltz clog.” The Irish is a shuffle on one foot, followed by a hop on the other foot and step on the original foot.
4. Time steps
Time steps are repeating 4-count patterns that alternate between the right foot and the left foot. They consist primarily of hops, steps, shuffles and flap ball-changes. “Know the difference between a single, double and triple time step. A second flap is added to the single to make a double, and then a shuffle is added to make the triple.”
5. Double pullbacks
This advanced step is difficult to master. It involves springing from the floor and making two sounds as you pull (leave the floor), then two sounds as you land on the balls of your feet. The foot making the sound alternates: pull right, pull left, land right, land left. “Each sound must be clear and separate from the others.”
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