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Let Your Tap Creativity Flow

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Traditional steps are a guide, not a gospel, in the classroom

By Diane Gudat

Tap dance is an infant in the scope of dance history. Unlike ballet, which has traveled to us through at least 200 generations of teachers, tap can claim only four or five generations of structured teachers in its history. It’s humbling to think of how much influence we have as teachers of this genre, and what we might do to advance the art form. I am lucky enough to have made a teaching discovery that altered the path of my career and, I hope, chipped away at some of the rigid ideas about teaching tap.

Teachers at the 2009 DanceLife Teacher Conference put down their notebooks to try Diane Gudat’s tap teaching method. (Photo by Theresa Smerud)

Many years ago, in a master class taught by Bo Wagner at a teacher training school in Florida, I realized that our job as today’s tap teachers and choreographers is to take the traditional “named” steps—which I now like to refer to as “stencils”—and embellish them with as much color and texture as possible. The tried-and-true framework of steps such as buffalos, cramp rolls, time steps, drawbacks, and waltz clogs is only a guide for us to use in building thousands of new and challenging steps.

This was a revelation to me. As a young tap teacher, I was obsessed with trying to find enough steps to fill my studio syllabus and make myself feel competent to teach class on all levels. I attended countless classes, workshops, conventions, and training schools. I memorized and imitated other teachers’ combinations, bought dance videos, and read every book I could find on the subject. Still, as a dancer who didn’t begin putting “metal to wood” until age 15, I felt that my tap vocabulary was sorely lacking.

That one class with Wagner changed the path of my teaching career. I learned that I was not just allowed but expected to alter the traditional steps. There was no secret source for collecting all the “good” tap steps; instead, as a teacher, I could make the most of what I already knew. That day I received permission to be creative.

A simple concept
Wagner’s approach involves a unique way to apply the concept of single, double, and triple to the standard structure of the time step. Not only can the sounds following the hop sound in the traditional time step be changed from single to double and double to triple, but the next sound (traditionally the flap) can be a single or triple sound as well.

Consider what happens when this concept is applied to other tap steps. Within any tap combination containing the word “step,” the traditionally recognized single sound, the step can be transformed to a double or triple version of itself by removing and replacing that sound. (For example, a buck time step: stomp, spank, hop, step, flap, step.)

If that’s true, any tap combination that contains the word “flap” (the traditionally recognized double sound), can be done as a single or triple.

Singles can be doubles. Doubles can be triples. Triples (traditionally the “shuffle step”) can be singles, and on and on. Moreover, not only does this concept apply to time steps, but it also applies to virtually every tap step that exists. The only real rule is that the replacement sound must fit into the original space without affecting the overlying rhythm of the step in its original form.

Endless possibilities
Now I refer to myself as a “variables” teacher. I use more than 13 different methods for manipulating “stencil” steps, including shuffle replacements, hop replacements, shifting techniques, prefixing, suffixing, sandwiching, and adding extra sounds such as heel and toe drops. For example, consider ways to replace the hop in a basic traditional Irish (shuffle hop step). Have students try a heel or ball drop (shuffle drop step); or, for more advanced tappers, a single wing or single toe stand (shuffle wing step).

Or you can apply what I call my “shifting technique” to that same Irish. Number each of the individual components (shuffle is 1, hop is 2, step is 3) and then rearrange them (for example, 2-1-3, or, hop shuffle step).

Remember, there is no “tap police.” As long as we work within healthy guidelines for the physical structure of the foot and leg, all things are legal with rhythm and tap.

Beyond the familiar basics of single, double, and triple, there are also quadruple sounds (shuffle R, step R, heel drop R), quintuplet sounds (double shuffle R, step R, heel drop R), sextuplet sounds (double shuffle R, step R, heel drop L, heel drop R), and many more.

Offering variables without changing rhythm patterns can either simplify or complicate the steps. This allows students of different levels and talents to work side by side in the same class. My advanced students more easily assimilate new material from unfamiliar teachers because they recognize almost any step as a variable form of a stencil step they have already learned. I can also call out a step, instruct them to double it, and they can figure out variations on their own.

Rhythm and history
Another dance educator, Beverly Fletcher, also inspired me to think differently about the musicality and history of tap. By taking class with Fletcher and studying her book Tapworks: A Tap Dictionary and Reference Manual, I filled in the gaps in my knowledge and application of music theory and tap history. I learned that changing the accent or shading of a step allows it to speak in a different voice or to say something completely different. I now manipulate the rhythm of steps with confidence. Knowing who created these tap steps and how they evolved, and conveying that to my students, allows my teaching to grow in depth and flavor.

I take great pleasure in finding new ways to alter classic steps while still paying homage to them and their creators, and helping others to make their own discoveries. Remember, there is no “tap police.” As long as we work within healthy guidelines for the physical structure of the foot and leg, all things are legal with rhythm and tap. The creativity that we inspire in the next generation will help to mold what tap dancing will become as a dance form.

Sample Variations

Buck time step with variables
Give it a try. Remember, a single sound is a step. To double that, use a flap. For a triple, use a shuffle step. You can pick any of these three variables in any combination.

Stomp R, spank R (8&)
Hop L (1)

First variable (choose one of the following):
Step R (2)
Flap R (a2)
Shuffle step R (&a2)

Second variable (choose one):
Step L (3)
Flap L (a3)
Shuffle step (&a3)

Step R (&)
Reverse

More information on this tap method can be found in Variable Techniques for Teaching Tap by Diane Gudat (available by emailing gudatbooks@gmail.com) .

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