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.

Latest Posts

Because you know you've always wondered... (Getty Images)

Sounding Off: Here's What Your Favorite Musicians Think of Dance Routines Set to Their Songs

In the competition world, a small group of musicians has attained almost cultlike status, with choreographers turning to their tracks over and over. We know how we feel about these bangers—there's a reason we can't stop dancing to them—but how do the musicians feel about us? We caught up with three contemporary artists whose music has dominated the competition scene recently, and gauged their reactions to the dances set to their life's work.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Jordan Fisher (center) in a dance scene from Work It (Brendan Adam-Zwelling/Netflix)

Here's Why Jordan Fisher Thinks You Should Be Excited for Netflix's New Dance Film, "Work It"

If you're looking for a sign that 2020 might *just* be turning around, look no further than Netflix's new dance-centric film Work It. The movie comes out this Friday, August 7, and the hype is real. ICYMI, the film follows high school senior Quinn Ackerman, played by none other than Sabrina Carpenter, as she attempts to lead her dance team to a competition win in order to bolster her chances of being admitted to the college of her dreams. One small challenge: Quinn isn't a dancer.

Enter Jordan Fisher as Jake Taylor, a talented-but-troubled choreographer and dancer, to help Quinn lead the team. We had the chance to speak with Fisher about his experience on set, and why Work It just might be the dance movie we've all been waiting for.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Including this incredibly powerful piece by Travis Wall for "So You Think You Can Dance" (Adam Rose/FOX)

Here Are the 2020 Emmy Nominations for Outstanding Choreography

Our favorite season? Awards season, of course! Congratulations to the six choreographers who received Emmy nominations for their fabulous television work. This year, the Emmys thought outside the usual "So You Think You Can Dance" and "World of Dance" box, and we're delighted to see some of our fave choreographers getting recognition.

Here are all the works up for Emmys this year:

Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

Enter the Cover Model Search