Swing’s the Thing
By Thelma Goldberg
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” go the words of Duke Ellington’s popular tune. So how do we teach our tap students to swing?
First we need to define swing. Have students recall the feeling of swinging on a swing set, with alternating moments of hesitation and acceleration. A swing rhythm will likewise have combinations of long and quick, accented and unaccented, and sounded and silent notes.
To teach swing, start with natural swinging movements like skipping and galloping. Write out the skipping rhythm (1 a2 a3 a4) with musical notes, so students can see the silent eighth note (&) in each triplet. Then replace the steps and hops with steps and shuffles. Use words like “slow, slow, quick, quick” (1 2 a3) when teaching swinging shuffles or ball changes. Emphasize relaxation in the foot, ankle, knee, and hip so students can play their quick rhythms with clarity. Call-and-response exercises, drumsticks, and clapping will sharpen their listening skills. And most important, introduce them to the swinging rhythms of musicians like Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald.
Make sure dancers can identify the difference between straight and swinging music. Much of today’s music is dominated by straight rhythms. Most Latin, funk, and pop tunes have a very straight 1&2&3&4& feel. Although students can swing to straight tunes, they may find it easier with swing music.
To reinforce the difference, take a simple rudiment or shuffle exercise and have dancers experience both “playing it straight” and swinging it. Success in swinging depends a lot on the feel. Singing or scatting the rhythm will help dancers internalize the swing feel in the phrases, whether the music is swinging or straight. As the song says, “All you gotta do is sing.”
Thelma Goldberg, teacher and director of The Dance Inn in Lexington, Massachusetts, since 1983, is the author of Thelma’s Tap Notes: A Guide to Teaching Tap: Children’s Edition.