Tips for Tap on Lockdown

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How are you managing with your dance classes at home? First of all, are you doing any classes? It’s really not a crime if you don’t feel like it. Things are pretty weird at the moment. There’s also so much out there online that you can end up feeling huge overwhelm and not doing anything. And that’s ok!

At the beginning of May I bought a double-sided roll-up Home Practice Tap Dance Mat from Dance & Stage. I’m now doing all my live classes in the living room, so my solution is a set of interlocking foam squares, topped with my interlocking dance floor, and then I put the roll up mat on top. It’s great! It’s not slippery, it dulls some of sound and it just feels great to dance on. When I’m doing recorded classes or just jamming, I use my portable wooden tap floor in the garage (which is also on top of foam tiles for shock absorption). It’s really important for your joints that you don’t tap on concrete or tiled floors as there’s none of the shock absorption you usually get from a dance studio sprung floor. Try foam tiles, a rug, or even a blanket or towel underneath a hard surface.

I have all these flooring options at home because I’ve been doing tap for 5 years and am obsessed and decided to invest in creating a home dance studio so I can practice regularly. You might not have any of these flooring options, or you might not be able to tap at home because you’re in a flat/apartment and would be bothering your neighbours…so instead you might want to:

  • Go through the steps in your socks on carpet (a bit of soft shoe!)
  • Do some practice outdoors in trainers on grass or on your cushioned board if you have one (as I said, cement and tarmac will kill your knees)
  • Clap out the rhythms or hum them to cement them in your head (dah-dee-dah-dee-dah-dah!)
  • Building on that last point, have a go at body percussion! (I will try to post a bit of the body percussion that I learnt on Saturday at some point)
  • Do an online musicality class for tap dancers and get up to speed with your quarter notes, triplets and sixteenth notes – I attended a free one by Sarah Reich on Instagram at the weekend
  • Watch loads of amazing tap online to be inspired (YouTube, Instagram, Facebook)
  • Watch the old movie musicals such as Singing in the Rain (1952), An American in Paris (1951), Easter Parade (1948), Broadway Melody of 1940, Stormy Weather (1943)
  • Watch Gregory Hines’ movies White Nights (1985), Tap (1989), The Cotton Club (1984), and Bojangles (2001)
  • Read up on tap dance history

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Make it happen!

Tap & Tea with Andrew Black

Last Thursday afternoon we were joined for our penultimate Tap & Tea session by New York tap dancer and choreographer, Andrew Black, who specialises in theatre tap styles of the 1920s-1940s. He’s known for White Christmas, Tap Dogs, Singing in the Rain, 42nd Street, and many more amazing shows. He currently teaches at Taps on Broadway, and confessed that he had to audition FIVE TIMES for 42nd Street. This session was a jam-packed tap history lesson!

He recommended several books that are well worth getting hold of. (It was cool – he had several huge hardback dance books piled up in the background). I have 3 of these books, and I’ve included the link to the review I wrote of the Rusty Frank book in 2017, in case you didn’t read it at the time:

Andrew is big into the MGM movie musicals and naturally, he recommended we watch them all, as well as newer stuff, such as Gregory Hines’ movies Tap, The Cotton Club and Bojangles. 

On the subject of MGM, we looked at Great Depression of 1929 and he told us to read up on ‘Pre-Code Hollywood’, referring to the brief period between the first ‘talkies’ (1929) and the introduction of the strong Catholic moral code of censorship in 1934, known as The Motion Picture Production Code (aka The Hays Code). The code was introduced and enforced to clean up the movies after the release of several risqué movies and many off-screen Hollywood scandals. In those days, people went to the movie theatres for more than just a big movie release. They also went to see the news, public announcements and to watch cartoons etc, and therefore hugely influential. The code banned things like profanity, blasphemy, depictions of interracial relationships, white slavery, suggestions of nudity, vulgarity, obscenity…: “if motion pictures present stories that will affect lives for the better, they can become the most powerful force for the improvement of mankind”. (Note that Some Like it Hot (1959) starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and  Tony Curtis ignored the code!) The Hays code lasted until 1966 when the film rating system came in. (Read more from BFI Screenonline)

There was much discussion about the historical segregation of black and white and the separation of Broadway tap and hoofer-style tap, ‘up-tap’ and ‘down-tap’ (‘up-tap’ being the more upright Irish style up-on-the-toes tap, and ‘down-tap’ being the more down in the ground style). 

Andrew, like everyone we’ve listened to so far, had so many positive things to say about Gregory Hines, who brought tap dance back to the stage, in shows such as Sophisticated Ladies. Mr Black was a very enthusiastic guest, and we actually ran out of time (after we over-ran), so he has been invited back when the sessions re-start in a few weeks with another line-up of amazing hoofers!

This Thursday, our last session of six, we will be joined by Lisa La Touche…

 

 

Tap & Tea with Stephen Mear CBE

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On Thursday I attended week 4 of Theatre Tap London’s ‘Tap & Tea’ tap history series. This time we were joined by two time Olivier Award winning choreographer Stephen Mear CBE! He has had a prolific career in musical theatre, and is known for his work on West End and Broadway shows including Mary Poppins, White Christmas, Funny Girl, Singing in the Rain, Sinatra, Sweet Charity and many more. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2020 for services to dance.

Tap dance was the first type of dance he learned at his mother’s dance school, and he later trained in Matt Mattox style jazz dance (aka Freestyle Jazz) at London Studio Centre. I was interested to hear that he took 14 ballet classes a week to get his ballet up to scratch! He’s also probably the 4th or 5th British dancer I’ve heard say that they were the best tap dancer in their home town; then they went away to a college in London or took tap classes in New York and found themselves at the bottom of the class!

Stephen showed us and discussed clips of jazz isolations in Beat me Daddy 8 to the Bar from Bob Fosse’s ‘Big Deal’, the jazz-tap combination in The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing from ‘White Christmas’, and we also looked at a clip of his idol Ann Miller on stage in 1987 with her famous ‘Easter Parade’ number ‘Shakin’ the Blues Away‘ as part of variety show Happy Birthday Hollywood. 

There was much discussion of jazz dance, having been inspired by Matt Mattox, Jack Coles, Chet Walker, Bob Fosse, and Hermes Pan, who collaborated a lot with Fred Astaire. We found out loads about Stephen’s choreographic process, particularly as someone who is dyslexic. Someone asked during the Q&A how he notates his work, and it turns out he films everything (although assistants will write it all down in detail). He also uses dance college students to map everything out before taking it to teaching the cast.

Useful Advice from Stephen:

  • Auditions – leave your attitude outside! Choreographers all speak to each other as well, so be nice to everyone. Do the best you can, know who and what you are auditioning for. He said he looks for people who are passionate over those who are just technically brilliant.
  • Starting out as a choreographer? Try not to be too overzealous – i.e. “Just because you have a parasol in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to twirl it”. Keep a notebook by your bed to jot down ideas.

I wasn’t sure what to expect this time as I’m not so into the West End stage type of tap dance, but Stephen was so interesting to listen to! I loved hearing about how it all works behind the scenes, the ups and downs, how he started out, who he worked with and who inspires him.

After this session, my passion for jazz dance was reignited and having googled Matt Mattox, I’ve ended up subscribing on YouTube to ‘Monday Mattox’ jazz (and tap) technique classes with Bob Boross (who trained under Mattox) – LOVE IT!

This coming Thursday, we’ll be joined by Broadway performer and choreographer Andrew Black.

11 Reasons Why Gregory Hines Was Awesome

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Gregory Hines (1946-2003)
  1. He revived Rhythm Tap in mainstream culture in the 1980s and 1990s after it had seriously gone out of fashion
  2. He was an amazing improviser (just watch some of his stuff on YouTube for inspiration!)
  3. He started dancing semi-professionally aged 5, with his brother Maurice, and took lessons with Broadway choreographer Henry Le Tang, who taught people such as Bunny Briggs, Eleanor Powell, Sandman Sims and Debbie Allen
  4. He was inspired by some of the tap dance heavyweights, including Sammy Davis Jr and the Nicholas Brothers
  5. He has influenced many, many artists such as Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Jane Goldberg, Ayodele Casel, Michelle Dorrance
  6. In 1988 he successfully petitioned ‘National Tap Dance Day’ in the US (25th of May, which happens to be Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson’s birthday), which has now morphed into International Tap Dance Day!
  7. He starred on Broadway, and in many films, including ‘White Nights’ (1985), ‘The Cotton Club’ (1984) and ‘Tap’ (1989), receiving a Tony Award in 1992 for the musical ‘Jelly’s Last Jam’ plus several other nominations.
  8. He created a fantastic documentary for PBS in 1989 on the history and culture of tap dance, called ‘Tap Dance America
  9. He was a great singer, fronting a rock band in the 70s and later performing with artists such as Luther Vandross
  10. In the late 90s he had his own sitcom ‘The Gregory Hines Show’, plus he had a recurring role on the popular sitcom ‘Will and Grace’
  11. In 2019, 16 years after his untimely death at the age of 57,  the US Postal Service created a Gregory Hines Black Heritage postage stamp

Awesome.

BBC Four – Tap America: How a Nation Found Its Feet

Photo courtesy of BBC4

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b396jx

Over the weekend, after watching the amazing Royal Wedding (Congrats Harry & Meghan!) I watched Tap America: How a Nation Found Its Feet on BBC4, as part of their dance season. A school friend actually messaged me to tell me it was on, but as I’m all over anything tap, I already knew it was on.

If you are able to, you have to watch this! Tap America is essential viewing if you love tap dance. Presented by Clarke Peters (Five Guys Named Moe), he explores the history of tap dance, meeting with well-known modern and older tap dancers and tap historians.

He interviews Michelle Dorrance of Dorrance Dance (sadly I couldn’t make their workshop at Sadlers Wells last year 😥), Obba Babatunde, Chloe and Maud Arnold (love them!), Maurice Hines, Arthur Duncan, and many more. The documentary also discusses the work of other hoofers, such as the Nicholas Brothers, Baby Lawrence, Bill Robinson, John Bubbles, Sammy Davis Jr, Gregory Hines and Savion Glover.

Peters explores the origins of tap dance in slave drumming and story-telling which led to ‘buck dancing’ along with the influence of Irish indentured workers and their traditions of the jig and clogging. He moves on to looking at minstrel shows, Vaudeville and the Cotton Club, and the inequalities that existed in the US during racial segregation.

I like the fact that the documentary draws out the different styles of tap, specifically the African style, which is down in the ground, bent kneed (ie the Rhythm Tap I’m learning) versus the more upright Hollywood 42nd Street style which was, I guess the sanitised version that went mainstream in the entertainment world.

The Tap Drought section of the documentary is very interesting. Tap went out of fashion in the 1940s, tap dancers struggled to get work, but there were a few keeping it alive, still going when it wasn’t cool, and those who revived it, a bit like the revival that’s happening right now!

Some noteable quotes about tap:

“a form of musical expression”

“communication… sound… a drum”

“a universal language”

“American identity”

“a percussive dance form”

I really hope this becomes available on DVD because I will definitely buy it! I’m going to try and watch it again as it’s available on BBC iplayer for 28 days. A must-see!

Movie Review – Tap

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A few weeks ago now my SO and I watched 1989 movie Tap starring the late legendary Gregory Hines. Gregory’s character Max Washington gets out of jail after a conviction for robbery and returns to his old New York stomping ground to the surprise of his old dance mentors and former lover…

The story hinges on whether he will stay on the straight and narrow and get involved in a tap project that Sammy Davis Jr’s character has envisioned, or whether he will give in to the lure of a life of diamond heists and cash-money.

I didn’t realise this when I bought the DVD, but there are loads of older tap legends in the movie (Sammy Davis Jr, Steve Condos, Harold Nicholas, Jimmy Slyde to name a few) as well as the talented Savion Glover, who is a kid in the movie, well known nowadays for bringing tap to modern audiences through his innovation.

Although it seems like that plot has been run before and there is a cheesy love scene, the tap dance and the characters make the movie, especially the old guys!

There is a thread running throughout the film of how real tap kind of got eclipsed by Hollywood ‘show’ tap. You will notice this when Max agrees to go and audition for the Broadway show and feels restricted by nicety, compared to the other, more freestyle tap scenes. This was also something my Rhythm Tap teacher alluded to when I mentioned I was going to see 42nd Street back in the summer.

I have 2 favourite scenes:

1) The funky street tap jam in the middle of downtown New York in the evening

2) When Gregory dances in the club with taps that are linked up to a sound system:

Verdict: If you love tap and want to know a little bit more about it’s history, you will love this!

Tap Dance in America

This weekend, I finally got around to watching Gregory Hines: Tap Dance in America on YouTube.

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Image courtesy of YouTube

It was originally shown on PBS back in 1989 I believe, and it is clearly from someone’s VCR recording that they probably transferred to DVD at some point.

It lasts almost an hour and gives a great run-down of the leading tap artists in America, quite a few of whom are sadly no longer around. But here you get the chance to see them in action, on stage or taking part in a tap battle. Tap is definitely a social dance! You might recognise legend Honi Coles as the bandmaster in Dirty Dancing (I’m talking about the original film, not the disrespectful-to-Swayze remake).

Watching the documentary, my favourite performances were from Gregory Hines (of course!), a young Savion Glover and the duo of Gregg Burge (choreographed Michael Jackson’s Bad) and Hinton Battle (Scarecrow in Broadway version of The Wiz). Battle and Burge really reminded me of the Nicholas Brothers in the way they did classical tap, complete with jetes, leapfrogs and the splits. Brenda Bufalino was also great to see perform as I’ve heard and read a lot about her and I believe she taught a masterclass in London earlier in the year.

There is also a bit of comedy running through the documentary about trying to get Gregory Hines to tighten the screws on his taps (some tappers dance with loosened tap plates, others don’t) – I’m quite a stomper, so I like my tap plates tightened to the shoe.

Verdict: This ever so 80’s PBS special is definitely worth watching as part of your tap immersion. Some enjoyable viewing on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

The next tap-related film I want to watch is Tap starring Gregory Hines (1989). I caught a clip on YouTube where people were dancing on tables and it looks so New Jack Swing FUNKY. Takes me back. Love it!