Tips for Tap Teachers | Moving Beyond Improv to Choreography

Photo by Robert Rosen

by Thelma Goldberg

Tap students of all ages delight in creating their own rhythms. Invite your students to participate in the creative process—it will build their confidence, musicality, phrasing, and problem-solving, and it will engage their minds and bodies in new ways. Choreography requires advance planning (unlike spontaneous improvisation), an understanding of musical structure, a foundation in technique and skills, and a willingness to take risks. It’s helpful to discuss your choreographic process so students understand the numerous decisions that go into making a dance.

For beginners, start with short and simple choreographic assignments:

  • Make your own time step break and teach it to friends.
  • Work with a partner to create one-bar phrases that alternate in a call-and-response sequence.
  • Make a 32-count phrase that incorporates classic steps such as the waltz clog or drawback.
  • Change up a traditional shim sham’s rhythm to transform it to a new idea (for example, instead of playing 8&1 2&3 4&5&6&7 in the first shuffle phrase, play 8&1&2&3&4&5&6 [7]).
  • Take a known combination and change the sequence of steps.
  • Add movement, such as turns or directional changes, to a favorite step.


More advanced dancers may be ready for assignments that consider the elements of composition. Invite your experienced dancers to:

  • discuss space, time, rhythm, and energy;
  • create choreography within specific musical ideas, such as straight or swinging;
  • study video footage of a famous tap dancer and create choreography in that style;
  • choreograph the melody of a standard jazz tune;
  • notate a dance phrase, as a class, so students can duplicate it;
  • choreograph a dance to a favorite pop song;
  • select an arrangement by a trio of piano, bass, and drum, and choreograph as if you were the saxophone;
  • choreograph an a capella dance;
  • tell a story through your choreography.


Teacher and director of The Dance Inn in Lexington, Massachusetts, since 1983, Thelma Goldberg is the author of Thelma’s Tap Notes: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teaching Tap: Children’s Edition.