by Thelma Goldberg
Tip 1: For a well-organized class that moves smoothly from one activity to another, create a set playlist that complements your lesson plan.
Tip 2: Choosing appropriate music for tap performances can be challenging.
Read 2 great tips for tap teachers from the legendary Thelma Goldberg, teacher and director of The Dance Inn in Lexington, Massachusetts, since 1983, who is the author of Thelma’s Tap Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teaching Tap: Children’s Edition.Read More
by Thelma Goldberg
Tip 1 Small, stationary footwork is important to master, but it’s equally important that tap dancers learn to move rhythmically across the floor and around the room.
Tip 2 Moving side to side, forward and back, or in circles and squares will add variety and fun to your tap classes and help keep your students on their toes.Read More
by Thelma Goldberg
Once students have a variety of basic tap skills, start introducing combinations that challenge them to connect short ideas into complete phrases of 4 to 32 counts.
You can also increase a combo’s complexity based on the students’ level.
Building a strong foundation in tap basics enables your dancers to make steady progress in acquiring new skills. Begin with mastering the single sounds of tap, heel dig, toe dig, step, brush, spank, tip, toe drop, heel drop, and heel stand. Whether beginning or advanced, all students will benefit from combining these single sounds into various quarter-note phrases.
Once they’ve mastered single sounds, students can progress to playing eighth notes, both straight and swinging (1&2& and a1 a2). Shuffles, ball changes, double heel drops (such as press or traditional cramp rolls), and slaps and flaps add challenges for dancers who have a strong single-sound foundation.
The start of a new dance season is a perfect opportunity to spice up your tap program with new ideas that will reinforce your lessons and inspire students to practice.
Flash cards with one-bar rhythm phrases can provide a wealth of teaching moments. Whether dancers are novices or experienced tappers, the clarity of their sounds depends on their ability to reproduce specific rhythms, and seeing a phrase in addition to hearing and doing it will help bring success. In particular, when dancers see the rests, or silent notes, in a rhythm, they are more likely to respect them and produce accurate footwork.
There’s nothing like a flag-waving, rhythmically precise tap dance to lift spirits and boost interest in tap. In 1904, George M. Cohan danced the buck and wing to his song “Yankee Doodle Boy” to embody his proud American heritage. During World War I, Broadway chorus girls danced “soldier” numbers that integrated tap and stepping sounds. Later, movie musicals like Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), featuring Busby Berkeley’s amazing formations, and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), with James Cagney’s patriotic strutting, helped introduce military-style tap to a larger population. With their precision and fast footwork, traditional military routines are still a hit. For music, try a version of “Yankee Doodle,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” fife and drum tunes, military anthems, and armed forces medleys.
Though military tap can be challenging, beginners can combine marching steps with single sounds, hops, ball changes, and shuffles in straight quarter- and eighth-note time. Add simple but precise formations with quarter- and half-turns; use an upbeat tune like “MacNamara’s Band” to inspire students to dance like they’re in a parade, lifting knees high and moving with pride and joy.
Tip 1 Merriam-Webster defines counterpoint as “the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character.” How can we use counterpoint in our choreography and classroom exercises?
Tip 2 For advanced dancers playing more complex rhythms, make sure the volume of each counterpoint section is equal—otherwise one rhythm will drown out the other.
Pickups are sometimes called pullbacks or grab-offs. For many teachers, “pickup” best describes the action of spanking up, not back. With weight on the ball of the action foot, the toe tap spanks (brushes) upward before landing back on the ball.
There are three basic types of pickups.
Students love to do riffs! Whether simple (two sounds) or complex (12-plus sounds), the riff is an important staple in a tap dancer’s repertoire. Once students can distinguish between a scuff and a brush, they can learn the two-count riff.Tip 2
Try these tips for using riffs in class
The paddle and roll (or paradiddle) is a popular small-footwork movement that combines four basic ideas: heel dig, spank, step, and heel drop. First done in vaudeville and at the Hoofers Club by tap luminaries such as John Bubbles (the father of rhythm tap), Honi Coles, and Steve Condos, the paddle and roll is now a staple of most tap artists’ repertoire, with young artists competing to have the fastest, most articulate footwork at cutting contests around the world.
Try these tips for varying the paddle and roll’s basic four-sound series, which usually starts with either the heel dig or heel drop.
Heel drops are among the first skills a tap dancer learns, and they add a unique percussive sound. Initially, students can build strength by dropping the heel without a weight shift. For beginners, drop the heel in quarter-note or half-note time with a strong toe dig pressed into the floor. For more challenge, combine quarter and eighth notes, keeping the toe dig pressed and using one heel.
Toe drops produce a very different sound from heel drops and add variety and challenge. Practice repetitive toe dropping on one foot in different rhythmic combinations to build strength and clarity. Initially, this may be difficult—shin muscles tire more easily than the larger leg muscles—so don’t overdo these drills.
It’s important to teach an awareness of sound quality as well as rhythm clarity. Once students demonstrate good technique in basic movements, challenge them to explore varying volume and tone. Even beginners can learn to regulate volume.
Using different parts of the tap also affects sound quality. In shuffles, for example, we can choose to produce a full-bodied brush and spank with the full toe tap; a light, high sound with the toe tap’s front third; a sharp, striking sound with the toe tap’s inside or outside edge; or a scuffing sound with the heel edge.
The joys of teaching adults far outweigh the challenges. To develop and maintain a strong adult tap program, try these classroom tips.
- Establish a welcome walk-around to connect students with one another and disconnect them from the outside world of cellphones, work, and family.
- Acknowledge students by name, give positive feedback, and use age-appropriate music played at a reasonable volume.
- Focus on a fun, rhythm-based approach. Adults, especially in a mixed-level class, will benefit from mastering simple ideas in quarter-note time before attempting double-time or triplet phrases.
- Build on simple, weekly exercise patterns that will become familiar and are easy to practice at home. Share specific goals so adults can see progress in skill areas like shuffles, small footwork, and paddle and rolls.
- Be sensitive to aging joints by limiting hops, leaps, and jumps.
- Invite a young teacher or assistant to model the beginner variations during mixed-level classes. Sharing videos of the combinations online helps too.
- Teach the shim sham for a fun end-of-class experience.
Adult performers bring great energy and variety to recitals. Select fun music that will have the audience tapping along. Costume adults in everyday clothes, and put as many of them as possible in the routine—the more the merrier. Keep the choreography interactive and relatively simple so that students can share the joy and rhythm with each other as well as with the audience. If combining mixed levels, let dancers strut their stuff in small groups. Staging ideas like circles and kick lines will bring thunderous applause and have your adult performers smiling and coming back for more.
Clear weight shifts are essential for strong and articulate footwork. A dancer needs to have one foot released, relaxed, and ready for whatever step is next. A brush, spank, step, stamp, stomp, tap, toe dig, heel dig, or toe tip, for example, requires a 100-percent weight shift to one foot, over the arch, and with the shoulder stacked over a relaxed hip, knee, and ankle. In contrast, only a partial weight shift is needed to produce a strong heel drop or toe drop.Read More
Teaching students to respond to and connect with music is as important in tap as it is in other forms of dance. As tappers, our students are “joining the band,” and each sound they make adds to the overall musical arrangement.Read More
Soft shoe should be integral to all tap curriculums. Appropriate for all levels and ages, studying soft shoe increases awareness of tempo, tone, and placement. Originally done in soft shoes, sometimes on sand, this style is known for a slow, dignified, and graceful approach, made popular in the vaudeville years by George Primrose and in the 1930s and 1940s by the artists known as “class acts.” A famous routine is Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins’ slow soft shoe, known for its beautiful precision and incredibly slow tempo.Read More
We may try to keep our classrooms homogeneous in skill level, but we’re still likely to end up welcoming new students into classes for which they don’t have all the prerequisite skills. In tap classes, this is especially challenging. Emphasizing all teaching modalities to reinforce new vocabulary and skills will help all your dancers succeed.Read More
Time steps are a pattern, usually reversed every 4 counts, used by vaudevillians to help set tempo for musicians. In Over the Top to Bebop, a filmed discussion of tap with Jazz Dance author Marshall Stearns, Honi Coles talks about time steps being the “ABCs” of tap dance, and he and Cholly Atkins vocalize a ditty about a buggy ride to demonstrate simple to more complex rhythms. (Portions are on YouTube.)Read More
The back brush is often called a spank; beginning students learn this as the second sound of a shuffle. The spank that starts from a flat foot on the floor and is used in time steps, drawbacks, and crossover steps (to name a few) is much more challenging and can be introduced once students have strong basic skills and are dancing in eighth-note triplets (because the spank often happens on the count “a”).Read More
A slap is a combination of a brush forward and a tap without weight. Teach them once dancers are 7 or older and have mastered all single quarter-note movements.Read More
Tap improvisation is the act of spontaneously creating a musical phrase in response to music or to another tapper’s phrase. Improvisation is an essential part of any tap curriculum. As the dancers’ technique and listening skills improve, their ability to improvise with clear and concise rhythms will also improve. Regardless of level, students of all ages will benefit from the increased opportunity to communicate and create with their feet.Read More
Dance education goes well beyond teaching steps and technique. Students of all ages benefit—and gain appreciation for the art—when the history behind the traditions and choreography is shared during classes.Read More
The traditional cramp roll combination of step, step, heel drop, heel drop in the basic RLRL or LRLR pattern is an important staple in many dance routines. Consider the following ideas to add variety and new challenges for your students.Read More
A shuffle, an important part of a tap dancer’s repertoire, is often one of the first movements learned by young tappers. When teaching shuffles, it’s important to emphasize the separate brush and spank movements so that dancers gain the muscle strength to control each action. To strengthen the individual brush and spank sounds, try a pattern of shuffles that alternates ending on the brush or the spank in either of the following two rhythms: (1&2, 3&4, 5&6&7&8) (a1&a2, a3&a4, a5&a6&a7&a8).Read More
Rudiments are a series of exercises that build speed and precision in small footwork. These two challenging small footwork rudiment patterns (one stationary and one traveling) are good for warming up.Read More
How many times have you said “Slow down!” to your students? Helping dancers stay in sync with the music is a challenge every tap teacher faces. To improve timing at beginner/intermediate levels, have dancers listen to the music and identify the quarter and eighth notes before dancing; they can do this by clapping, playing drumsticks, or simply walking in time.Read More
Many trick steps stem from a basic tap step learned early in a student’s training. One reason students should master the basics is that they can learn harder variations or trick steps quicker. As teachers, it is our responsibility to show students the connection between basic steps and more advanced trick steps. Often, I see students stress out when they see a trick step in choreography, but once I show them the basic step it is based on, they calm down and achieve their goal faster.Read More
One key to success for tap dancers is recognizing and mastering patterns. The teacher’s job is to find ways to communicate these patterns to students in a simplistic manner. One suggestion is to use numbers during the breakdown. For example, say you’re teaching this combination: step shuffle ball change, shuffle ball change ball change, shuffle ball change, shuffle ball change ball change, shuffle ball change step clap. Try teaching it as: step 1, 2, 1, 2, 1 step clap. (The numbers represent the ball changes after the shuffle.) The students will find the pattern and master the combo more quickly.Read More
Time steps are essential tools in a tap dancer’s repertoire. Make sure your students have basic knowledge of them. Most important, a true time step starts on count eight. A traditional one starts with a shuffle, and a “buck” begins with a stomp or stomp back brush. Determine whether the step is a single, double, triple, or quadruple by the number of sounds made after the hop: a step (single), flap (double), shuffle step (triple), and shuffle step heel (quadruple).Read More
Teaching tap slides can be trickier than you think. Most students like to lift their heels off the ground and straighten their legs when they slide; however, doing this makes it harder to control the slide and maximize its length. Three rules to guide them: feet flat (helps maintain balance); plié (makes sliding on a challenging surface like marley easier); and weight evenly distributed (helps with connecting the slide to the next step).Read More
Challenging your dancers to tap to different time signatures and meters will help develop their musicality. (Often simply finding count 1 can be tricky.) This challenge will allow them to understand and master more complex rhythms and patterns. It can also expand a teacher’s creativity with choreography. Some suggestions for popular songs in various meters include “Hey Ya” by Outkast (11/4), “Dreamworld” by Robin Thicke (6/8), and “15 Step” by Radiohead (5/4).Read More
When your students are trying to do a bombershay (left step, right toe tap, right heel dig), tell them to be careful not to force their turnout. The best rule of thumb is to have the students stand naturally and start the step from that position of the feet. Also, to build speed, they shouldn’t have their feet too far apart, and they should try not to force the right foot to swivel like a jazz Suzy-Q. Less movement leads to a faster pace.Read More
What’s the difference between a shuffle step and a shuffle toe dig step? Easy question to answer, but harder to accomplish. When adding extra sounds to basics such as a shuffle step or a pullback, be careful not to change the technique of the basic step to accommodate the extra sound. Don’t change the original step; simply find where to add the extra sound. This makes learning the new version easier.Read More
Isn’t it funny how when you add a turn to a basic step (Irish or Buffalo, for example) students miss their sounds? Try having them face the mirror, step toward it and open their arms to second (seeing both arms in the mirror), shuffle to the side of the standing leg, then turn the hop or jog. This method will keep the shuffle consistent, so that the turn doesn’t affect their technique. Remember, it is easier to turn during a hop or jog than during a shuffle.Read More
You can’t do the second shuffle before the first. That sounds like simple logic, but many students tense up and try to do both at the same time. To teach them to do a clean double shuffle, have them finish the first shuffle off the ground and then start the second one. Let them hear the rhythm of the four sounds (five for double shuffle step), and remind them that a basic shuffle starts and ends in back. For a quicker shuffle, do it on the inside of the foot.Read More
It’s easy for intermediate/advanced students to become overwhelmed with numerous steps and patterns. One trick I use to simplify things is to state the step without including which side to do it on. Of course, with younger students, explaining whether to start on the right or left is important, but as they get older they will naturally follow you to figure this out. Doing the sequence on the other side is easier for them because they are thinking only of the steps. This also improves their terminology.Read More
The 8-count is the most basic counting method used by teachers, and the easiest for students to learn. Teaching young children how to count, in tap dance especially, is sometimes difficult; however, if you start them young, it will help them to stay on the music as they get older. Having the children count out loud together and breaking down the steps into syllables during the class helps. Have them attach a syllable to a count: shuf-fle ball-change shuf-fle step (1&2&3&4) or par-a-di-dle (1e&a).Read More
Tips for improv in your program.Read More
Improv in tap dancing is something that doesn’t come naturally. A lot of students are afraid to experiment; however, that’s exactly what you should ask them to do. The more tap vocabulary they have, the easier improvising will be. It’s all about making phrases and trying different things, such as starting with easy steps they’re familiar with and building on them or matching song rhythms with their feet.Read More
Tip 1 When dancers reach the advanced level, it is always helpful to introduce a “show and tell” exercise that gets them used to adding 8 counts of their own steps to small pieces of choreography. For example, one student might do flap flap cram proll, shuffle step heel stomp, shuffle step heel stomp; another might add riff back flap heel tap heel stamp, stomp back flap, stomp back flap stomp. Keep this going in a group with four or five kids and they will have made a dance in no time.Read More
To introduce students to the advanced level, give combinations that involve intricate footwork and coordination skills. I often use a combo that is tricky yet fun for the kids to figure out.Read More
The proper way to perfect a wing is starting at the barre. Have students stand on the balls of their feet with the feet together, and slightly bend the knees.Read More
At the intermediate level, the overlapping of rhythm patterns and an introduction to accenting and shading are important.Read More
Once students reach the intermediate level, it’s time to make the warm-up and across-the-floor exercises more challenging.Read More
Teaching basic skills at the barre helps young dancers learn to use both feet and change weight; you can use this method for preschoolers to advanced dancers.Read More