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.”