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Tapping in Gilbert’s Footsteps

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Becca Retter helps keep the master tap teacher’s legacy alive

By Gina McGalliard

For one day, Retter’s Academy of Dance in Agoura Hills, California, became a film set, complete with bright lights, film equipment, and a silver curtain backdrop. Three young studio dancers tapped away, guided from behind the camera by Becca Retter, who had taught them the routine only days earlier. The day’s filming will end up on a DVD that dance instructors will use to become better teachers, an idea conceived and developed by tap master Al Gilbert.

Retter with her mentor, the late Al Gilbert, in 1990. (Photos courtesy Becca Retter)

For Retter, 36, this video shoot is just one way she keeps Gilbert’s legacy alive. As a youngster, she learned to tap by following his graded tap syllabus. In her 20s she assisted Gilbert as he developed training aids for dance instructors. Since Gilbert’s death in 2003, Retter has continued to create teaching materials for his company, now called MusicWorks, and to pass on the knowledge of his graded tap syllabus to her fellow dance teachers.

A system for teaching
Gilbert, who appeared in the chorus of the 1946 film The Jolson Story, opened his first dance school in 1947 in Hollywood during the postwar boom. Among his students who went on to entertainment careers are members of the Jackson 5 and Annette Funicello, whom Walt Disney first spotted during one of Gilbert’s dance recitals.

Early in his teaching career, Gilbert realized that few materials for teaching small children existed, so he began creating his own songs and dances. After he sold some of his work to a teachers’ magazine in 1949, the growing interest in it spurred him to create more. In the 1950s he developed the product that brought him fame: records of tap sounds with his voice giving detailed instructions to guide students.

Gilbert created a comprehensive tap dictionary, as well as a jazz syllabus for beginner to advanced levels. But he’s best known for his tap syllabus for grades one through eight. (A ninth level was added later.) Each level contains technique that becomes progressively more challenging, with related teacher-training aids, recordings, and videos.

“The great thing about [the tap syllabus] is that it’s progressive,” Retter says. “It makes sense. You’re not having the kids doing wings and pullbacks before they can do a Maxie Ford or buffalo. And it’s just so complete. Each level has barre work, center floor work, across the floor, and so many different exercises.”

Gilbert’s experience as a studio owner helped him realize the need for a codified tap syllabus, says Retter. “I think that’s why he could relate to teachers all around the world, because he wasn’t just a master teacher who teaches at conventions and choreographs for movie stars and all that. He knew what it was like to deal with kids and their parents and teachers in a studio. And different teachers want to teach their way, which is fine, but sometimes you need to have a syllabus so that your studio can run smoothly.”

Influenced by the tap master
Becca Retter began dancing at age 3 in her home state of Tennessee and hasn’t stopped since. The first studio she danced at used Gilbert’s tap syllabus, and whenever the family moved, her mother would find a studio that used it because she liked the consistency. At age 12, the young tapper began attending Retter’s Dance Studio in Grand Rapids, Michigan, owned by Betty Retter. A year later, Becca began assistant teaching. There she met Thommie Retter, Betty’s son (now performing on Broadway in Billy Elliot), whom she later married.

Betty’s studio worked closely with Gilbert, who often came to town to give master classes, and Becca Retter soon met the man whose syllabus she had been studying under for years. “It was a really special moment,” she says about meeting Gilbert at a convention in Grand Rapids, where he signed her tap shoes. She says Gilbert noticed that she excelled at his syllabus, and he often chose her for a class assistant. Later he gave her private lessons, which she describes as intimidating. “He was very kind,” she says. “But he would tell you if you were doing something wrong. He would always help you fix it and have you do it again.”

Keeping the legacy alive
Several years later Retter moved to Los Angeles, where Gilbert lived, to pursue a professional dance career. She began working with the tap master on his training aids and teaching materials. “Working with him was great because he was just nonstop thinking of songs and nonstop thinking of new steps,” she says.

“I [also] worked in the warehouse, but I always brought my tap shoes because I was hoping that there would be a day when he would want to work on something,” she says. “And so I’d be lucky enough to be working in his little office, tap dancing, and sometimes I would drive him to the recording studio so he could [add] his vocal instruction onto his new routines.” When Gilbert wanted female vocal instruction on some of his training aids, he chose Retter.

 “He [Al Gilbert] wasn’t just a master teacher who teaches at conventions and choreographs for movie stars and all that. He knew what it was like to deal with kids and their parents and teachers in a studio.” —Becca Retter

Now, with Retter continuing Gilbert’s work, she finds herself in the position once held by her mentor. “Now all these kids are coming and dancing for me. I did that too when I moved to L.A. I assisted him and I did his DVDs, and I used to be out there in front of the camera and he’d be telling me what to do. And now I’m doing the same thing for these kids. So it’s a great experience.”

After her move to L.A., Retter began teaching at Retter’s Academy of Dance (owned by her brother-in-law Darryl and his wife, Linda) and on the competition and convention circuit. Although she had enjoyed a performance career that took her to Canada, Denmark, Guatemala, and Russia, teaching was where she felt her calling.

She is particularly drawn to teaching preschoolers. “You never know what they’re going to say or do,” she says. “You have to have a lot of patience. I think some people think it’s really easy, but it’s actually very hard. You really have to be on it.”

From 1997 to 2008, Retter also served as co-artistic director of Starlet Academy, a division of Retter’s Academy of Dance for 2- to 7-year-olds. She now teaches at Stars of Tomorrow Dance Academy in Huntington, Long Island.

Gilbert is remembered at Retter’s Academy, where an annual scholarship has been set up in his name. “Darryl and Linda have this philosophy at this studio: that it’s a safe haven,” says Retter. “Nobody’s going to laugh at you while you’re here; any troubles you have, you leave at the doorstep. And anywhere I go, I try to make that philosophy happen, even if I’m teaching at a dance convention and it’s in a big ballroom. Everybody’s there to have fun with each other and learn something.”

Only the name has changed
After Gilbert’s death, Darryl Retter and Doug Schaffer took over his company, Stepping Tones, renaming it MusicWorks Unlimited. The company continues to release new instructional CDs and DVDs of routines corresponding to the graded syllabus. In addition to preschool and tap materials, the company produces teaching materials for jazz dance, ballet, lyrical, modern dance, musical theater, and hip-hop.

“It’s kind of a surreal experience for me because kids growing up would hear his voice,” says Retter. “And when they met him it was, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s the man on the record.’ And now I’m getting that when I go to conventions. I see little kids and the teacher will say, ‘That’s Miss Becca; she’s the voice on the CD.’ And they’re like, ‘Wow!’ ”

Darryl Retter and Schaffer run a teacher convention, Dance Teachers’ Toolbox (formerly Al Gilbert Dance Seminars), started in 1987 by Gilbert when the company was still called Stepping Tones. The convention visits six cities annually and includes technique classes, business seminars, classes for teaching assistants (open to teenagers), and a social get-together.

“It’s good networking for teachers, too,” Becca Retter says. “When teachers are in the same city, sometimes it’s hard for them to get to know each other because there’s competition. But our idea is that everybody can learn from each other.”

Teaching how to teach can be more challenging than teaching technique. “I break it down,” says Retter. “I show them how, when you teach a preschooler a shuffle, [to] hold their foot. You’re constantly giving them teaching tips. So it may take longer sometimes, but I just keep adding in little teaching tips that I’ve gotten through the years, either that I’ve figured out on my own or through my own teachers, from Al Gilbert to my brother-in-law or my husband. Because I’m a teacher too, I know what they’re dealing with—different types of children, how children learn differently.”

Retter would like to see MusicWorks continue to grow but stay true to the roots of Gilbert’s technique. She says many people who have used her mentor’s syllabus aren’t aware that it has survived his death.

But she has no intention of abandoning her mission of following in Gilbert’s footsteps. “I’m going to keep doing this,” Retter says. “I mean, Al did it until he was in his 80s, until he passed away. And I have no reason to stop. I’ll teach forever.”

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April 2014
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