Knock On Wood’s way with rhythm tap
By Lisa Traiger
Plenty of dance teachers can get a 6-year-old to master a shuffle-ball-change. And with enough repetitions, the kid might even smile while doing it at the end-of-year recital.
But when it comes to teaching tap, among the Washington, DC, region’s best-kept secrets is Knock On Wood Tap Studio, nestled in the basement of a building filled with doctors’ offices. The studio, in a former jewelry store where costumes and a tap shoe bank now line the shelves of the old vault, is a cozy beehive of rhythm, with a touch of funk and jazz tossed in for good measure.
The studio’s founder and master teacher, Yvonne Edwards, affectionately known far and wide as “the Tap Lady,” and a cadre of experienced tap instructors work magic in a few windowless basement studios just a hop, skip, and jump over the District line in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The specialty: rhythm tap. Edwards and her crew pass on more than steps; they train students to fully assimilate musicality and gain confidence in improvisation. Here tap is serious business, even when the kids gambol out of class smiling. At Knock On Wood, from the littlest 4-year-olds to the hesitant adult beginners, from the gawky pre-teens to the fearless advanced teens in the critically acclaimed youth ensemble, Tappers With Attitude, improvisation rules. It stands as a core principle in the school’s thoughtful syllabus, developed by studio director Edwards (who co-founded Knock On Wood with Renee Kreithen) and executive artistic director Victoria Moss.
In a Saturday morning class with a group of wiggly 5-year-olds, you can hear their thin voices chanting, in singsong, “Jack and Jill,” which accompanies their tiny tapping feet. Moss explains, “First we learn the words. Then we learn to clap it. Then we learn to snap it, and that’s fun because most 5-year-olds can’t snap. Then we learn to count it. They don’t necessarily understand it, but they all learn it: 1 and 2 and 3. Then they learn a step: shuffle, step, shuffle-ball-change, flap flap, flap. Then they learn to sing the words of the step as well as to do the words of the step.”
Ultimately, by the end of term they’ve learned six or seven ways to think about the material, Moss says. “Then,” she smiles, “I blow everybody’s mind when they go to the studio’s open-mic night and they do it all. Sometimes they do them all at once: One sings, one claps, one snaps, one taps, one counts, and the grownup dancers in the audience who understand how really difficult that is, they’re blown away. The kids? They don’t know that was difficult. They just know it’s ‘Jack and Jill.’ ”
The syllabus expands from there, as children enrich their tap vocabulary, moving from single-sound steps to double-, then triple- and four-sound steps. But they also continue to practice improv, from clapping their names rhythmically to pounding out a phrase that illustrates being angry with Mom. It all counts in building confident and independent tap dancers who, Edwards and Moss hope, can one day hold their own in the center of a jam circle. And Edwards says that no teacher worth her salt would let a kid finish out a semester without mastering the fundamentals of the shim sham, tap dance’s national anthem.
Knock On Wood’s teachers use the syllabus as a guide, not a mandate. It doesn’t contain any specific step combinations; instead it’s a compilation of expected skills, movement vocabulary, and other tap information that students should master. Teachers also continually work on dynamics, timbre, clarity of tone, basic body alignment, and presentation skills with their developing dancers. After completing level 3, which could take three to six years depending on the age the child started and his proficiency, a student should understand musical structure and rhythm, be comfortable with improv and jamming, pick up steps in a master class quickly by ear and by sight, dance at a variety of tempos (including very slowly), understand how to maintain balance, be able to shift weight quickly, and maintain a strong working core.
On top of that, Edwards and Moss feel strongly that tap history receives its due in every class. Big names from tap’s heyday—Bunny Briggs, Charles “Honi” Coles, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Buster Brown, and Jimmy Slyde, to name a few—aren’t forgotten, they’re honored. Each semester students learn about one or more master artists through personal stories recounted by Miss Yvonne, as well as video and exercises replicating masters’ signature steps.
Finally, nobody gets through the full syllabus without learning four specific dances. In level 1A, it’s the basic shim sham. In 1B the students complete the shim sham, with more emphasis on ear training and finding the “1” in music. In 2A, they learn the Honi Coles stroll/walkaround, another 20th-century tap dance classic, and continue refining and expanding on the shim sham by adding breaks. By 2B, students expand their proficiency, learning the buck-and-wing time step with complete break, refining turns, and learning Edwards’ own Ain’t She Sweet, a more complex dance. In level 3, the step complexity increases with wings, pickups, trenches, complicated turns, and the final dance in the basic Knock On Wood repertoire, Baakari Wilder’s My Blue Heaven, which introduces contemporary rhythmic syncopation and a funkier, earthier style of tap.
At this point Edwards and Moss don’t care whether students progress to levels 4 and 5, which concentrate on fine-tuning rhythm tap, improvisation, and performance. Many, in fact, choose to remain at level 3 for further mastery.
Between them, Edwards and Moss have nearly 100 years of teaching experience. Edwards, now 74, has been at it for 61 years. She started as a student at Doris Jones Dance Studio in Washington, DC, one of the few places in the country at that time that taught classical ballet to African Americans. She and legendary singer-dancer-actress Chita Rivera sometimes took classes together.
Soon Edwards joined up with her sister-in-law, Chloe Price Shepherd, a dance teacher in Atlantic City, where the two taught children of the casino owners and workers. But Edwards also soaked up the style of old-time hoofers like the Nicholas Brothers and Sammy Davis Jr., who played the casinos. “Sometimes I didn’t know what they were doing, but I was trying. I learned a lot from just improv-ing with them,” Edwards recalls.
Moss grew up in Chicago, assimilating a smattering of many dance forms from Irish to tap, ballet to hornpipe, hula, and modern in her weekly dance class. At Knock On Wood she put her early training to good use in devising the detailed syllabus that takes tap students from rank beginner to pro. It’s a systematic method that focuses on the fundamentals and allows for multiple paths to learning: visual, aural, through counts, songs, patterning, art projects, and a dozen other tried-and-true tricks.
‘We want to give our students their own voices, and the only way you can develop your own voice is by having exposure to lots of different people.’ —executive director Victoria Moss
“We want to give our students their own voices,” Moss says, “and the only way you can develop your own voice is by having exposure to lots of different people. Otherwise they all turn out looking like ‘Miss Suzie.’ And she might be a great dancer, but it’s not our goal to re-create Miss Suzie.” Instead, the school’s teachers include a master Irish sean-nós dancer, a tapper with jazz experience, a Broadway hoofer, and a few rhythm tappers, along with Edwards and Moss. But they also continually bring in guest and master teachers from around the country and the world. They also invite modern dancers, bharata natyam specialists, salsa and flamenco teachers, a South African gumboot dancer, and others for enriching yearlong and summer workshops.
No matter that not everyone turns pro. Edwards says, “I just love to teach. I love to go into the room and look at the kids and teach. Not all of them are going to be dancers, but I don’t think of them as not being dancers. I try to give [them] the same focus and interest as I do to the members of the [Tappers With Attitude] company. They may never become dancers, but I want them to be able to appreciate the art of tap dancing, to become good audience members.”
Yet more than a few alums have found success with a pair of tap shoes. Among them are Baakari Wilder, who danced in the cast of Savion Glover’s expansive survey of tap in America, Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk; Cartier Williams, another Glover protégé, who while still in high school appeared in Noise/Funk and toured with Glover’s group, Ti Dii; Chloe Arnold, a body-double dancer for Beyoncé in Idlewild; and R&B singer Mya.
“One thing that’s great about tap in general and about the way Knock On Wood approaches tap,” says recent graduate Lena Solow, 18, “is that anybody can do it. That made it easy for me, a kid who didn’t have an easy time with ballet. Tap was something I could definitely do.” Currently a freshman at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Solow started tap at 5. “From a very early age [there] you have to do improv and make up your own rhythms to go along with the music,” she says.
“And because you’re not in a kick line or all doing the same exact arms and faces,” continues Solow, “you have to learn how to develop your own personality onstage, and that’s something that my teachers always talked about: how to portray yourself onstage. Tap is not about your feet; it’s really about your full body.”
As for the school’s success, Moss and Edwards attribute it to being invested in the dance community at large. Neither of them worries when students take classes at other studios. In fact, they might send an intermediate or advanced student off to study ballet or modern if they believe the additional training will improve the kid’s tap. They open all master classes to the public and encourage their students to attend other studios’ master classes when appropriate.
“While there are only so many students to go around,” Moss says, “I think over time people here [in the DC area] have worked really hard to play well with others. In my mind it’s not only best for dancers, but it’s best for us as an industry: to learn to be open to each other, to learn how to use each others’ expertise, to not be afraid of losing something. I might temporarily lose a student, but if that student grows, then they’re ready for their next phase. It’s that law of karma.”
“I was always taught that the most important thing is that you have to listen to the music, go along with the music and not just do a really flashy step,” says lanky Baakari Wilder, 32, an alum who started dancing at 3 and now teaches the advanced Monday night class at Knock On Wood. “You have to learn when to fall and, when you make mistakes, how to pick up again,” he says. “When I teach improv, it’s about getting people to focus on the timing and keep it basic. I want my students to dance within the meter—if they do nothing else, keep it in the meter.”
Edwards says that’s what she tells her students also. Tap is, first and foremost, about rhythm. She believes that learning tap is akin to learning a musical instrument and even encourages students to practice, at minimum, 15 to 20 minutes a day, just like any beginning band student.
“We’re trying,” Edwards says, “to keep tap alive. Then it’s your job to make it your own.”