Ray Hesselink teaching a class at Steps on Broadway (courtesy Hesselink)

Up in Arms: How Tappers Can Make Their Upper Bodies Sing

In "Sunday Candy," one of Caleb Teicher's popular "Chance Raps | Caleb Taps" videos, the Bessie Award-winning performer has as much to say with his upper body as he does with his feet. In one section, his hands whack the air in front of him as though he's at a drum set; in another, they point skyward to accent Chance the Rapper's lyrics with the precise lines of a jazz or musical theater routine. His arms help propel him off the ground for a one-footed wing, but also add style to a mambo-inspired step. The grace and musicality of his upper body in contrast to such busy footwork is a multisensory delight. It's also a lesson in how tap dancers can use their arms to their full potential.

With so much focus on your feet during tap work, it's easy to forget the importance of using your upper body properly. "You need your whole body in order to achieve the sounds you're trying to make," says Ray Hesselink, a popular teacher at Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway, and the Juilliard School in NYC. "When you dance, you're sending your energy in multiple directions, so when you don't use your arms, there's a certain heaviness, a slump, to your dancing."

Common Arm Conundrums

It's obvious a tapper isn't arm-conscious when you can see tension in the upper body or flailing arms. Jeannie Hill, a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, cites another frequent issue: limp arms that dangle by a student's sides. "I often suggest to my students that they pretend to conduct the music of what they are tapping," she says. "Use your arms to help you move your body through space, and use your hands to communicate the details of your idea."

But as you work on incorporating your arms fluidly, Hill cautions, don't do too much. "Never finding stillness in the motion of the arms and hands is akin to run-on sentences," she says.

Perfect Positions

Jeannie Hill at the Beantown Tapfest Faculty Showcase (photo by John Lohr, courtesy Lohr)

Hesselink, who teaches in a musical theater style, advocates for second position arms and other simple, classical jazz lines because they keep your spine and hips in alignment and help you initiate arm movements from your back. They also prevent your arms from flailing, especially during airborne steps like pullbacks and wings. "A simple second position keeps your arms involved and engaged," he says, "although I always recommend students keep their arms in their peripheral vision." If you hold your arms too far back, they could throw you off balance.

Hill points out that the stance for a rhythm tapper may be different. "If the footwork requires more toe drops and flat feet, the posture is more hunkered," she said. Rather than maintain the arms in a classic line, a tapper trying for more sounds and a contemporary style should focus on using the arms for balance.

Painting the Picture

Marshall Davis Jr. in a performance of "SIMPLY SAMMY" (photo by Gen Nishino, courtesy Davis Jr.)

Creating specific images for the steps you're doing can also help you use your arms, Hill says. Your arms should match your feet just as the illustrations match the words in a picture book. If you have a paddle turn in your choreography, for example, you might remember the step's traditionally straight, diagonal arms by imagining a soaring bird. Or you might keep your hands busy in another step by imagining that they're spreading a deck of cards on a table or frosting a large cake.

Marshall Davis Jr., a performer, educator, and choreographer often seen dancing alongside Savion Glover, also suggests using imagery. In order to help students find the connection between their footwork and upper body, he has them face away from the mirror. "That way, they're not caught up in just the visual, and they can understand the feel and the groove," he explains. As you become more connected to the rhythms you're making, you can think about how you want to present them in your upper body—how to "paint the picture," as Davis says.

Taking cues from the music you're dancing to is also important. "Your arms should move with the music organically," Hesselink says. "If it's a Latin song, a Latin style with your upper body, let the arms move freely and accent the rhythm. If it's a Charleston style, pin your arms close to your body." Davis Jr. agrees, saying that the pictures you create with your upper body should always reflect the story you're telling through the sounds of your feet.

A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Up In Arms!"

Latest Posts

Photo by Jayme Thornton

How Paloma Garcia-Lee Manifested Her Dream Role, in Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story"

On a rainy day in November 2018, Paloma Garcia-Lee got a call from her agent that brought her to her knees outside her New York City apartment: She was going to play Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.

The call came after a lengthy audition process with Spielberg in the room, and the role, originated by Wilma Curley on Broadway in 1957 and later portrayed by Gina Trikonis in the 1961 film, was her biggest dream. In fact, it's something Garcia-Lee says she manifested from the day plans for the movie were announced in January 2018. "I wrote in my journal: 'I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.'"

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo by @mediabyZ

Am I Less Committed to Dance Because I Have Other Passions? (Spoiler Alert: NO!)

Let's face it—dance is HARD, and in order to achieve your goals, you need to be committed to your training. "Still, there's a fine line between being committed and being consumed." Dancers can, and should, have interests outside of the studio.

Not convinced? We talked with dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements and two multifaceted dancers, Kristen Harlow (a musical theater dancer pursuing a career in NYC and Kentucky) and Kallie Takahashi (a dancer in her final year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts), and got the inside scoop on how having hobbies outside of dance can inform your artistry, expand your range and help prevent burnout.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo courtesy of Brittany Conigatti

Go Behind the Scenes of Annie Live! With Brittany Conigatti

Unwrap your candy canes, pour the hot chocolate and round up your fellow theater lovers: NBC is kicking off the Christmas season with its latest live-broadcast TV musical. Annie Live! premieres December 2 and features a star-studded cast, including Harry Connick Jr., Tituss Burgess, Megan Hilty and, as the title character, young phenom Celina Smith.

Luckily, people got a taste of what the special will entail when the cast kicked off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a performance last week. But since you’re never fully dressed without a Dance Spirit exclusive, we caught up with Brittany Conigatti, one of the young orphans and adult ensemble members in the show, to learn what it was like putting together a large-scale live production for the small screen.

The cast of Annie Live! poses for a group photo. The cast of Annie Live!Photo courtesy of Conigatti

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search