Tap

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.

The Conversation
Health & Body
Via @chelshightower on Instagram

From competing on "So You Think You Can Dance" to performing on "Dancing with the Stars" for seven seasons (and earning an Emmy nomination for her work on the latter), Chelsie Hightower has lived the pro dance dream. Though Hightower retired from "DWTS" several years ago and now teaches and choreographs in her home state of Utah, she admits that her dance career exceeded even her own high expectations. "I've accomplished things that I didn't know were possible," she says.

But most fans of "DWTS" would never have guessed that while filming, the talented and seemingly fearless ballroom pro was facing her fiercest competitor off-camera. Hightower has struggled with anxiety for most of her life, but the issue became especially severe during her years on the show.

With the help of therapy and other coping exercises, Hightower has found healthy ways to manage her anxiety. Now, she hopes that sharing her experience will inspire other dancers struggling with mental illness to get help.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Past "SYTYCD" hopefuls at The Academy (Adam Rose/FOX)

More fabulous TWall routines. More passengers on the Hot Tamale Train. MORE CAT DEELEY BEING DELIGHTFUL.

That's right, y'all: "So You Think You Can Dance" was just renewed for a 16th (!) season, to air this summer on Fox. And audition dates have already been announced.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
It includes this familiar face! (Erin Baiano)

Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?

Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.

Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Dancer Tony Bellissimo on the field at Super Bowl LII (via Instagram)

The Super Bowl is America's most-watched television event. Last year, when the incomparable Justin Timberlake took center field for the halftime show, more than 106 million viewers were watching his every move—and that's not even a record!

What's it like to perform for such an incredibly huge audience? Dancer Tony Bellissimo has plenty of experience with high-pressure dance gigs, having worked with artists including Rihanna, Britney Spears, John Legend, and Chris Brown. But stepping out alongside Timberlake during last year's halftime show was a next-level experience. We talked to Bellissimo about how he scored such a coveted job—and how he handled the pressure.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
screenshot via @donte.colley on Instagram

Y'all, it's time to call a spade a spade: The first month of any New Year kind of sucks. It's way too cold, you're probs failing at one or two of those ambitious resolutions, and spring (with its exciting performing opportunities) feels so very far away. And yet, in the midst of so much darkness, a hero has emerged. His name is Donté Colley, and you're about to double-tap every single thing he's ever posted.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Photo by Joe Toreno

It's almost 2019 and the ballroom dance scene is positively booming! From prestigious world championships to TV shows, kids are at the core of all this hip-shaking action—and we're so here for it. These eight up-and-comers in particular are shaping the field. They're the next generation of superstars to make the leap from technically exquisite ballroom-ites to bona fide celebrities.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun

Everyone loves a good meme, and dancers are no exception. Here are 10 of the best dance memes on the internet.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher
Joanne Chapman teaching turns (photo by Dan Boskovic, courtesy Joanne Chapman School of Dance)

Think back to your newbie dancer days. Can you remember your introduction to spotting? It might've involved staring hard at your own reflection in the mirror as you wrestled with your first pirouette. Or maybe your teacher had you put your hands on your shoulders as you attempted a series of half-chaînés across the floor.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun
Thinkstock

Dance teachers have to deal with a lot. While open communication with your teacher is obviously key, lame excuses for less-than-great behavior are guaranteed to get on her nerves. Always avoid these seven excuses that will 100 percent get your dance teacher's blood boiling.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
It includes this familiar face! (Erin Baiano)

Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?

Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.

Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for Fun

Everyone loves a good meme, and dancers are no exception. Here are 10 of the best dance memes on the internet.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
via @dynamicdancestudios on Instagram

There are dance routines, and then there are dance routines. Andrew, a 21-year-old dancer with Down Syndrome, performed the latter on the new British reality dance show "The Greatest Dancer." He brought the audience to tears as he unabashedly freestyled to Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop The Feeling."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
The Broadway cast of Hamilton (Joan Marcus, courtesy Sam Rudy PR)

Today, January 11, is #AlexanderHamiltonDay: A very happy 264th birthday to Alexander Hamilton! Thanks to this most unlikely of Founding Fathers—a brilliant and ballsy orphaned immigrant who dramatically rose, then fell, then rose again—we have possibly the most successful musical of all time. We also, of course, got priceless GIFs such as this one:

*When your crush walks over and you're trying to act natural but your friends are all like*

Aaaaaaaaaaanyway, while we can't get you "in the room where it happens" with tickets to the show's current Broadway, touring, or Puerto Rico productions—the last of which opens tonight!—we CAN offer up some fun ways to fête A.Ham's day of birth. Just you wait:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by 4Star Productions Courtesy Spirit of Dance Awards

The second round of 2018 Future Star winners showcases dancers with singular talent and ability. We're thrilled to celebrate their success!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
Screenshot via YouTube

Every once in a while, the stars align, things fall precisely into place, and the perfect marketing campaign is born. Such is the case with New York City Ballet's new trailer for their upcoming run of The Sleeping Beauty, which was conceived and directed by company soloist Sean Suozzi.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Videos
via @torysport on Instagram

Washington Ballet's Nardia Boodoo is turning heads these days, and not just at the barre. The brilliant ballerina shines in Tory Sport's latest commercial and we can't help but feel a little bit of pride as our March 2018 cover star brings ballet to the masses. What better way to show off stylish and comfy athletic wear than with Boodoo's strong and luminous dancing?

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer
Hall works with students at Dance Conservatory of Charleston. (courtesy Dance Conservatory of Charleston)

As the name suggests, summer intensives are, well, intense, encouraging you to eat, sleep, and breathe dance for a significant chunk of the summer. But they're not for every dancer—or every summer. Maybe you're not ready to be away from home just yet, or you want to spend your last summer with family before going off to college. Intensives can also be expensive, and not every household has the financial flexibility to cover the high cost of auditions, travel, room and board, and tuition. Whatever your reasons for seeking alternatives, it's important to recognize that, when it comes to summer study, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. "The most important thing is to keep dancing," says Lindy Mandradjieff, owner of the Dance Conservatory of Charleston in South Carolina. "Without the added stress of school, you can improve as much in one summer as you would in an entire school year." Here's how to keep up your training even if you don't plan on attending an intensive.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Video

mailbox

Get Dance Spirit in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways