The Physics of Footwork
What is Loose-Ankle Tap?
Loose-ankle tap is perhaps one of the profession’s best-kept secrets. Mark Yonally, artistic director of Chicago Tap Theatre and a long-time loose-ankle specialist, explains that the technique “involves a completely relaxed ankle. The movement is initiated from the hip, with everything from the knee down hanging limp, like dead weight.” He demonstrates by flexing his hip and pulsing from the thigh, causing his foot to flop loosely. “The leg acts as a lever, with all the heavy work being done by the large muscles in the thigh and hip rather than the small muscles of the ankle.”
So how much of a difference do loose ankles make? “At the highest levels of tap, it’s hard to see what someone is doing,” Yonally explains. “However, you can often hear the difference between the two styles, and you can certainly feel it.”
Why Use Loose Ankles?
Relaxing the ankle produces a clean, light, open sound. Furthermore, loose-ankle dancers can typically tap longer and faster than working-ankle dancers, since they aren’t burning out the small muscles of the ankle.
Using a loose ankle can also expand choreographic choices. Acia Gray, executive and artistic director of Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, TX, says, “Because I’m not working from my feet, I’m able to travel more onstage. By working from your pelvis—like you do in ballet or jazz dance—you can engage the energy from your core and move more easily.”
Gray knows the differences in the two styles well, having started her career as a working-ankle, bent-knee dancer. She also discovered that loose-ankle dancing is easier on the body. After she learned loose-ankle technique from master teacher and choreographer Sam Weber, the chronic pain in her knees disappeared. Yonally, who also credits Weber as his mentor, also came to the technique after a knee injury.
Weber, who was taught to use relaxed, loose ankles from his first tap lessons at age 4, is an unabashed proponent of the style. “The only way a dancer who keeps the ankle rigid can reach a high level of technical proficiency,” he says, “is by learning to relax the ankle,” either consciously or unconsciously.
Some moves are simply impossible to do with an overly-tight ankle. For example, Gray’s hallmark “one-and-a-half” involves three sounds from a straight-leg shuffle and lift. Yonally’s dancers at Chicago Tap Theatre regularly perform ripples (“side riffs”) in unison, using a twisting motion to get three rapid-fire sounds while still retaining a sweetness and clarity of tone.
Other moves can be done faster with a loose ankle. For example, you can dramatically increase the speed of your nerve taps and running front shuffle-steps by relaxing your ankle.
Dancing With loose Ankles
Try a few basic steps:
- Shuffles: “Rather than swinging from your knee or lifting and releasing your foot from your ankle,” Yonally says, “try flexing your hip, relaxing your ankle and simply dropping the leg until the toe touches the ground and then lifting the leg up again. You get two clean sounds without ever having to engage your ankle.”
- Flaps: The first sound is the same as in a shuffle, but the relaxed foot slides along the floor until it’s time for the second sound. Yonally then gently snaps his knee straight, allowing the toe to pop up and down of its own accord. The resulting sound is warm and relaxed, rather than harsh and tight. When you feel like you’ve got the basic flap down, try running flaps across the room to see how much more you can travel with loose ankles!
- Ripples (for advanced students): Start with the leg elevated, bent and turned out. Make the first sound on the outside of the loose foot, and as the knee straightens and the leg turns into parallel, let your relaxed foot make two more sounds, one on the inside of the tap and one in the middle. Though difficult, the final effect is both mellow and impressive.
- Though most dancers don’t find loose-ankle tap until later in their careers, “beginners who are shown how to relax the ankle from the first lesson progress far more quickly than students who have been taught to hold the ankle,” Weber says. For those eager to improve quickly, there can be no better reason to take up loose-ankle tap.
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