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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What’s in Your Dance Bag—Based on Your Zodiac Sign

Sometimes our dance bags feel like portals to another dimension—we have no idea what half the stuff buried in our bags even is. (Note to self: Clean out dance bag.)

But have you ever wondered if there's a method to the madness? We're pretty sure there is, and as always, we're pretty sure it's something to do with astrology. That's right, your resident Dance Spirit astrologers are back with our best guess at what you keep in your dance bag—based on your zodiac sign.

Aries

You're always going 100 mph Aries (or maybe even more), so it's pretty much a guarantee that your dance bag is fully stocked with snacks to power you through the day. Granola bars, trail mix, yogurt, fruit. It's like a Whole Foods in there.

You've also usually got about six different pairs of shoes in your bag. As an Aries, you love adventure, trying new things and, most of all, a challenge. So when it comes to classes, you're all over the map. Tap, jazz, ballet, character, modern—you'll try them all.

Something else you won't go without? Your signature red lipstick, obv. How else are you going to show off your fiery personality? (And look amazing while doing it, TYSM.)

Taurus

As a child of Venus, you always want to look your best, Taurus. So your dance bag is a hair salon/makeup station, all in one. If your dance besties need to borrow a hair tie, or are looking for a fun accessory to spice up their bun, they know you're the one to go to.

Also important to you? Smelling your best. Taureans love comforting, luxurious scents, so your dance bag is typically equipped with a favorite perfume or deodorant. (Or both.)

But what's most important is the bag itself—admit it, you've been using the same dance bag for years. We get it, Taurus, nobody likes change, and least of all the stubborn bull of the zodiac. But if your dance bag is really starting to smell like feet (or if your bobby pins are starting to slip through the holes in the bottom), you might want to consider investing in a new bag.

Gemini

Gemini, you love to switch it up. So you're pretty much guaranteed to have at least three different dance fits in your bag at any given time. And your dancewear is always on point. You love to keep up with trends and try edgy, new looks.

Ever the intellect, you usually have a book in your bag, as well. You're always making book recs to your fellow dancers, and you refuse to be bored between rehearsals or backstage.

Though you might act carefree, Gemini, we know that at heart, you're ruled by Mercury—and you have more in common with your sister sign Virgo than you'd like to admit. That's why you always have a toothbrush, toothpaste, and some floss in your dance bag. No way you're getting caught with food between your teeth (or bad breath during partnering class).

Cancer

Not to be obvious, but as a water sign, the first and foremost thing a Cancerian keeps in their dance bag? A water bottle, of course. (Preferably a Hydroflask, S'well or any bottle that comes in a fun color.) No dehydration here, please and thank you.

Your dance bag also functions as a de facto vending machine for your dance besties, since you always come prepared with the best snacks, and you're always willing to share. As a bonus, your snacks are almost always homemade, since you're practically a five-star chef.

And while we're wary of zodiac stereotypes, there is a pretty good chance your dance bag is stocked with tissues. And there's no shame in that—because, really, who can get through a performance of Romeo and Juliet without shedding some tears? Props to you for being in touch with your emotions, Cancer.

Leo

We'll state the obvious, Leo. You love to look at yourself, and sometimes the studio mirrors just aren't enough. So, naturally, you always keep a compact mirror in your dance bag, just in case your makeup or your bun needs an extra touch-up.

You also love bright colors, and you're not afraid to wear more daring dancewear than any of your besties. You've usually got a couple of leotards packed in your bag, just in case you need to make a fashion statement, and they're always fun. Bright colors, loud prints, stylish necklines—you'll try anything.

But something not everyone knows about you? You're an amazing friend, and incredibly loyal, Leo. That's why you've usually got something in your bag for your dance bestie, be it her favorite brand of granola bar, a fun sparkly pin for her hair, or a note reminding her she's a star, on and off the stage.

Virgo

You're incredibly hardworking, Virgo, so you've always got the tools for success in your dance bag. TheraBands, foam rollers, tennis balls—you're the one dancer your teacher can always count on to be stretching between classes.

You also love to be prepared, so you've usually got a makeshift first-aid kit in your bag. The thought of suffering a blister or floor burn without the appropriate salves or bandages makes you shudder, and, hey, it's always better to be overprepared, right?

What's most noticeable about your dance bag, though, isn't what's inside of it. It's what it looks like—your bag is pristine. It never smells like feet, and you've got a hard-core system for what you keep in each little zip pocket or compartment. And TBH, all of your dance friends are jealous, though they'd never admit it.

Libra

Like your sister sign Taurus, appearances are important to you, Libra. You like to look good (no shame in that), so your dance bag is always stocked with the essentials: extra hair spray, lip gloss, concealer, bobby pins and a spare leotard, in case you get just a bit too sweaty.

You also love to socialize, so if this were the 1950s, we would say that you always keep your date book in your dance bag. As it is, you always have your phone with you, and it's usually blowing up with texts from your dance besties asking to make plans.

Your dance bag wouldn't be complete without your secret supply of chocolate. But to be clear: This isn't your average Hershey's bar. Libras aren't afraid to indulge, so you keep a bar of luxury dark chocolate tucked away for when the cravings hit.

Scorpio

You can't fool us, Scorpio—the contents of your dance bag aren't some big mystery, like you'd like us all to believe. In fact, they're pretty basic: For starters, you always have a black leotard or two in your bag. After all, black is your signature color.

One thing that isn't in Scorpio's dance bag? Toe pads. You love to look tough, so you'd never be caught dead wearing toe pads with your pointe shoes. However, this does mean you need a hefty supply of Band-Aids for the inevitable blisters.

You also love all things mystical and, dare we say, witchy. You're the Halloween queen of the zodiac, after all! So it's no surprise you always have a crystal or two in the front pocket of your dance bag. Let us guess…moldavite?

Sagittarius

You're an explorer, Sagittarius, and that applies to your dancing. You're always trying new dance styles, and that's reflected in your dance bag. You always have the trappings of your latest obsession in your bag: heeled shoes for ballroom, kneepads for contact improv, sneakers for breaking, the list goes on and on.

But on all of your adventures, there's one consistency: You love making memories. And that means literally—you document everything. At each performance or recital, you're bound to be the one with a Polaroid or disposable camera in your bag, and you can usually be found snapping backstage candids of your dance besties.

Your other favorite form of documenting? Writing it down. You love to learn, so you're always taking notes. You can usually be found after class scribbling down your dance teacher's latest piece of wisdom. Your dance bag is crammed with half-filled notebooks, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Capricorn

You like to be prepared, Capricorn. And we mean prepared—for every bad scenario imaginable. That's why your dance bag is a mini survival kit. The first Capricorn dance bag guarantee? A stitch kit, of course. Losing a ribbon on your pointe shoe mid-rehearsal is your worst nightmare.

You also always have at least three spare leotards handy. After all, what if you spill something, or get too sweaty or, worst of all, show up to an audition in the same leotard as your dance rival? No, thank you. As a Capricorn, you're expecting the best and preparing for the worst.

Another key to your survival kit? Headphones, so you can drown out the noise around you and focus on your dancing. And before anyone asks, the answer is yes, you have the perfect playlist—for each and every occasion.

Aquarius

Aquarius, you love helping others. That's why it sometimes seems like your dance bag isn't even for you—it's filled with stuff you bring for your friends. Snacks for one dance bestie, Band-Aids for another, and tampons, of course, just in case anyone needs one.

But when it comes to you, you're all about originality. That's why you always have tons of fun accessories in your bag: striped legwarmers, colorful socks, tie-dyed sweats and more than a couple of fun additions to your ballet bun, just to make it a little more interesting.

You're also a rebel at heart, Aquarius, which is why there's usually something in your dance bag that just borders on breaking the rules. Maybe your studio is strictly black leotards only—and yours is gray. Or phones are completely banned—and you just put yours on vibrate. We see you.

Pisces

Like your fellow water sign Cancer, you're big on hydrating during dance class. But as a Pisces, you're a little more imaginative (and a little less practical), meaning you're usually carrying your water in something aesthetically pleasing, like a mason jar, a tumbler, or one of those fancy water bottles with a crystal in the base.

Unlike Cancer, you're a mutable sign, meaning you can adapt to just about any situation. Counterintuitively, this actually means your dance bag is pretty sparse. Unlike other zodiac signs who feel the need to overprepare in case of disaster, you're comfortable in most situations, and your dance bag reflects it. You like the basics, nothing else.

Something most people might not know about you, though, is that you get cold easily. We're not sure why, but it's a Pisces staple. That's why if you keep anything in your dance bag, it's the coziest of warm-ups.

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