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Ambassadors of Tap

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What adult tap classes do for students and schools

By Gregg Russell

What do a singer/songwriter, a mom of four, a CPA, a 911 dispatcher, and a clinical dietitian all have in common? If you guessed that they love tap dancing, then you should play the lottery.

Adult students in Russell's tap classes find tap dance mentally stimulating and challenging. (Photo by Zac Rupprecht)

I recently began teaching an adult tap class at California Dance Theatre in Agoura Hills, California, on Wednesday mornings. The students, both men and women, range in age from their late 20s to 50s. I have been pleasantly surprised by their attitude and commitment. Each week they demonstrate more devotion and better concentration than that of most high school advanced dance competition teams. As I thought about why this is so, I came up with some ideas about how dance studio owners could benefit from adult students’ dedication and help such programs grow.

Why tap?
First I asked the students how long they have tapped and why they chose it over other art forms. Heather Ling-Isroelit, who has been tap dancing since her early teens, says she does it “because I don’t have to be young and in the most incredible shape, with a perfect dancer’s body, and I feel like I am still dancing.”

I found that most of my students have danced on and off throughout their lives, but because of past injuries and a desire for less physical intensity than jazz, hip-hop, or ballet require, they now only take tap. That’s important knowledge for studio owners to consider in marketing tap classes to adults. The idea of getting a low-impact workout without risking a severe injury is appealing to many adults.

What does tap give them?
I also asked the students why they love tap and if it helps them with their profession and/or everyday life. A common response was that taking tap is mentally stimulating and challenging.

“Tap helps keep my brain stimulated and my memory intact,” says Cheryl Manoly, a 911 dispatcher.

“Tap is a huge stress reliever for me. An hour of tap class is like therapy,” says Andrea Roschke, a CPA. “When I leave class, I feel energized and ready to face whatever life is throwing at me.”

“It helps me in my profession as a clinical dietitian, because I am always encouraging people to incorporate exercise into their lives in a way that keeps them motivated and interested, as tap has done for me,” says Valerie Gardhouse, who has been dancing for more than 30 years.

They also appreciated the ability to see progress quickly and recognize their mistakes. “Even the untrained ear can pick up on the slightest mistake,” says Jessica Gorman, who has been tapping since age 6. “It keeps you honest and on your toes.”

My biggest discovery in taking on this class was how much the students value the camaraderie and community aspects it offers. Many of the dancers often stay after class to write down steps, practice routines, or get coffee and discuss life. Impromptu discussions sometimes break out, which normally don’t occur in classes with younger students. These moments allow them to connect on a more personal level and enjoy their time together.

“What I love about tap are the intriguing rhythms, fun movement, and good friends I see every week,” says Hap Palmer, who produces, publishes, and performs educational recordings for young children.

And Krysten Johnson, a freelance graphic designer, says the women in class “who are newer to tap inspire me. I have enjoyed watching them grow and get better year after year.”

Taking those feelings to heart
Studio owners can learn a lot from such comments. To help create and continue the “family” feeling my students appreciate, you could offer a morning breakfast-and-tap class once a week, or set up a monthly luncheon after class (include the cost of the meal in the tuition fee).

Other fun ideas include setting up a “field trip,” where everyone gets together to see a professional show like Tap City or 42nd Street, or perhaps plan a video viewing night. Turn on an old musical and settle in (wine optional, of course!). “Watching any Fred and Ginger movie or any of the old movie musicals is enough to make you want to ‘pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and start all over again,’ ” says Lisa Auerbach, a professional actress, singer, and dancer.

Push their boundaries
Giving students more of what they want is great, but I would expose them to up-to-date styles and music too. When they can leave class feeling rejuvenated and inspired, it’s an incredible reward that can’t be replaced. That’s true for Auerbach, who says, “Tapping to contemporary music is so different and fun for me.”

Borrowing from younger students’ classes also helps students who are parents and have children who also take classes at the studio. Sharing a common step, combination, or song can work wonders in developing appreciation and confidence. And it can show the younger dancers that having a good work ethic is always important, regardless of age.

“Tap is a huge stress reliever for me. An hour of tap class is like therapy. When I leave class, I feel energized and ready to face whatever life is throwing at me.” —Andrea Roschke, tap student and CPA

Mother of four and part-time dance teacher Jennifer White started tapping “simply because it looked like a lot of fun and I wanted to try something new,” she says. Her inspiring and fearless attitude led one of her daughters, Zoe, to push herself outside her comfort zone.

Zoe has progressed to a high-level tap class in less than a year. She beams with the same uplifting attitude her mom has and says she loves it when they both have the same step to practice. “We can practice it together and challenge each other,” she says.

Tap is for anyone and any age
Teaching tap for more than 25 years has taught me that tap dancers are a unique breed that constantly seeks to create a community of tradition, commitment, and sharing. I think the biggest aspect of promoting an adult tap class is getting out in your community and showing other adults that dance is possible for them. Adults get inspired when they see people their age or older doing what they might not dare to try.

“Who inspires me?” says White. “It’s those little old ladies who are like 80 years old, called the Rockette dancer group, I see performing everywhere. If I can be 80 years old and still wear a short little dress, put my tap shoes on and perform and have a blast doing it, that’s what I want to do.”

Roschke started tapping when she read an article in the local paper about the Razzmatappers (an adult tap company) about 10 years ago. The article “mentioned that California Dance Theatre is where they train and rehearse, so I thought I’d check out their adult classes,” she says. “I never left.”

That’s a common theme among adults new to dance—seeing an older tap group perform in the community or movies or on television and getting inspired to start taking class. Shows such as So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew are wonderful, but even after 10 seasons, ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, on which most contestants are older, still ranks as one of the most popular (24.2 million viewers in its 2010 season premiere, according to the Nielsen ratings). Seeing that age doesn’t matter makes people realize that dance is accessible, and having a show or recital to work toward gives them an attainable goal.

“I love what I am modeling for my kids,” says Hillary Felker, a mom of four. “I performed in my first recital at 43. It was both scary and thrilling. Tap has given them and me something to be proud of.”

Tap ambassadors
I have heard about many dance studios throughout the country that have adult tap groups that are ambassadors for the studio. Think about the positives: older dancers are committed to practicing, can rehearse longer as tappers because of less strain on the body compared to other genres, and want to fulfill their dreams of entertaining and dancing onstage. They also tend to be responsible about showing up on time and behaving professionally at events. Local schools, nursing homes, and festivals are always looking for entertainment, and what better way to get your studio’s name out there than with a performing group you don’t have to worry about?

A strong adult tap program can benefit your studio tremendously. It’s a great low-impact workout that allows adults to challenge themselves mentally and create a “family” with common goals and interests. Such dancers can represent your studio with integrity in the community.

“People in the classes I’ve taken have been so nice—real people with real lives who are welcoming and supportive of each other. Nobody points and laughs when you trip around for the whole lesson,” says Ann Marie Ashkar-Feiss, a freelance graphic designer and mom.

By promoting adult tap classes, you can show the world that there’s no age limit on loving dance. Or doing it.

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One Response to “Ambassadors of Tap”

  • Bruce L. Warner:

    Hi-
    Last nite,waiting for my daughter (12) to finish her tap class, I read your current article “Ambassadors of Tap.” I am currently in my third year of Tap at “A Class Apart” studio in Deltona, Fl, and can’t remember when I’ve had more fun. Tap is something that always enthralled me– I’d even watch Lawrence Welk because he sometimes featured Tap numbers. When I found the opportunity to begin, my daughter came along so she could laugh at dad, at Miss Heather’s invitation, she tried it too, and she’s in two classes, one at her age group, and in the adult class with me. Given our age difference, it was awesome to find something we could do and enjoy together. Thanks for your article. It’s nice to know there are other “adults” out there making music with their feet . . . I’m 63. I expect I’ll tap ’til I die!

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