Tap & Tea with Bril Barrett

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Bril Barrett is a tap dancer based in Chicago, founder of M.A.D.D Rhythms (Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms), director of the Chicago Tap Summit, a provider of tap outreach in Chicago’s public schools and even has his own TED Talk. He describes his mission as being “to preserve and promote tap dance as a percussive art form…”.

He kicked off by discussing the fact that tap dance is a musical art form, and this is how it began, before it was grabbed by Hollywood to become something where you copy a routine perfectly; the creativity being removed. The original ‘hoofers’ were all about the music and didn’t even have names for the steps – it was just ‘bah dee bah dah’. You weren’t taught, you just learnt. Somebody would be doing some steps – you either picked them up or you didn’t! (Reminds me of an oversubscribed class I did at the MOVE IT Dance exhibition in London LOL). Improvisation was how tap was created, and that was how Bril created M.A.D.D Rhythms.

Bril is a massive champion of improvisation, and he includes it in his classes right from the beginning, so particularly with children, there is no fear, and his goal is to help them keep this fearlessness throughout their tap education. (Obviously it’s much more difficult to be fearless in improvisation as an adult beginner, speaking from experience!)

He started learning tap in free classes at his local community centre in his Chicago neighbourhood, before following his teacher to another studio on the North side of the city, where family members had to pool together to pay for $5 lessons for Bril and his cousins. At this studio, all the boys had to take tap and gymnastics, echoing the skills of the studio founders, Sammy Dyer and The Dyerettes. At the age of 11 Bril saw a guy called Mr Taps in the subway, a tap dancing busker, and asked if he & later his cousins, could tap with him after school every day. Mr Taps improvised his dancing, and this is where Bril got his improv education. Amazing! It was through him that he was introduced to the Nicholas Brothers and the Four Step Brothers, which was life changing. Through a family member, he and his cousin were introduced to a talent agent and they performed as a double act.

Bril was a tap dancer in the world-famous Riverdance, and told us a bit about being on tour with the company (including backstage jam sessions), and how the show touched on the trading of steps and sharing of dance styles that happened between Irish immigrants and free Africans in New York. (There was a similar story line in the Irish dance show I saw last summer called Heartbeat of Home). As mentioned in other posts he was also in Derick Grant and Aaron Tolson’s show Imagine Tap. Bringing together people from different tap backgrounds (such as Ray Hesselink) this was when he wanted to stop being classified as a type of tap dancer. As Ray said in his talk, Bril agreed that Derick bridged the gap between the types of tap. Just because someone dances in a theatre tap style, it doesn’t mean they can’t do other things! He actually said he likes the term ‘tap dancer’ and doesn’t like the term ‘rhythm tap’. I definitely appreciate what he’s saying. The classes I attend are called ‘rhythm tap’ (and we do a more heel-drop style of tap), but I think that helps people looking for classes to know what to expect, just like you know with ‘musical theatre tap’ classes (I chose from a list of ‘American Tap’, ‘Rhythm Tap’, ‘Theatre Tap’, ‘Jazz Tap’ and er ‘Tap’ classes in London and picked ‘Rhythm Tap’ because it sounded interesting…and was close to work). But yes, call yourself a tap dancer, rather than a rhythm tap dancer because all tap should have rhythm! Right?

We also chatted about tap jams (London has an amazing one in Hoxton, currently on Facebook Live every other Sunday night) and Bril runs some free tap jams as a way of building community and also removing the barrier for those who are without, so that they too can learn, grow and perform. I don’t know if I’d be able to get up on stage just yet 🙂 But it’s fine to go along and watch, and see where the evening takes you!

This was another amazing talk, and of course we overran because there was so much to say! Maybe they’ll invite him back again. I just loved hearing about how he’s removing barriers and making sure tap is accessible to all, no matter your background.

Bril’s Jazz Playlist:

  • Oscar Peterson
  • John Coltrane
  • Nina Simone
  • Miles Davis
  • Thelonious Monk

Quotes:

Once you make tap your own, you’ll do it; you won’t need to be told to practice

Improvisation is how tap was created

If you’re a good tap dancer, style is a choice

Tap jams make us better

Showtime!

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Last night was the night of my debut ukulele performance!

The end of term performance was made up of beginners, improvers, and two ukulele song groups that meet during the day. We performed songs in our own groups as well as all together. After half an hour of drinks, nibbles and mingling with our guests (one of my colleagues, plus my SO came to watch), we kicked off the evening with a song written by someone in the improvers class, which included a kazoo piece… As beginners, we performed ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘YMCA’, joined at the front by a guy who volunteered to lead the actions! The other groups played songs including Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Fairytale of New York’, George Formby’s ‘Leaning on a Lamp Post’ and Maroon 5’s ‘Memories’. We all came together at the end to perform ‘Santa Baby’. 

It was so much fun! I did feel a little nervous during the rehearsal, and I even wondered if I was going to get the giggles when I saw my friend and SO in the audience, but that was all gone by the main event. I wore a Christmas jumper! Everyone sang along! 

I spoke to the tutor afterwards about the next steps in learning and I mentioned that I’m returning to tap dance in January, which led to her and a guy from my class talking about their experience of learning or having a go at tap dance and wanting to try it again…so I gave my recommendations!

It has been quite a week for coming out of my comfort zone, actually. On Sunday my SO and I led the second Sunday in Advent service at church, and I really hate standing up the front and reading aloud. I get really nervous, a dry mouth and a scratchy voice. I think people are surprised when you can dance in public, but dislike speaking or reading. Two very different things! I really need to be more Alan**.As it was Advent, we arranged the chairs in a circle with the advent candles on a table in the middle as a focal point, which was lovely, but also made it easier in terms of nerves! I actually read out a Bible passage, a prayer and finished with a fairly long poem…and I enjoyed it! The next one is in late January. Who knows, I might even play my ukulele.

**Alan is a guy from a local running shop who has the gift of the gab; he’s an outward processor!

4 Wins Last Week

I made myself go to the gym

In fact, I actually tried out a different gym just to check it out as another option, seeing as my current gym is fairly restricted and lacking natural light during this 2 year refurb. I didn’t do any upper body resistance work this time, just to save the shoulder that I pulled a few weeks ago. It was a bright and airy facility with decent space for stretching (in fact, the girl on the mat beside me kept standing on her head) but it is a 5-7 minute walk beyond my current gym….

I completed and passed another module of my HR course

Yes! After all that reading and writing about redundancy and employment law, I wrote 3 assignments and passed them! I’ve taken so long over this qualification, that at this stage, rather than aiming for merit, ‘good enough’ is good enough! Four modules complete, two to go…On to recruitment!

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Had a relaxing spa day

For my SO’s birthday this weekend I took him for afternoon tea and spa day! It’s so nice during these dark and germ-ridden months to get away from it all (i.e. London) for the day and chill out in calm, steamy surroundings in Hertfordshire! Delightful hand-cut sandwiches, mini cakes and other sweet treats made it even better.

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I fell in love with the Ukulele

On Wednesday evening we chose the songs we are going to perform at the end of term concert. It dawned on me that there are only two weeks of beginners ukulele classes left and then it’s all over!
I love learning to play and the class is so much fun, but I need to return to RHYTHM TAP in January (already enrolled!) and I will struggle to do both, especially as the improvers uke class is 7.15-8.45pm, plus my 1 hour plus journey home – I’ll be dead by Thursday lunchtime tap! What to do? ARGH (Either way, I will keep playing). I think it may be time to suggest an informal music group with the other musicians I know of at church who don’t currently play their instruments in public. Perhaps we can muddle along together?

Have a good week, all!

What I Did This Week

I only went and pulled my left shoulder while pumping iron in the gym this week! Unfortunately I was trying to even up both sides by letting my least dominant side initiate pushing (or pulling) the weights, and ended up straining the muscles and making my weaker side even worse! Anyone else done this?

Thankfully I was OK to play my ukulele at the class this week – just no playing overhead 🙂 We had a go at one of the songs we’re going to play for the end of term show in December, and also I Have a Dream by ABBA, including the finger-picking bits in the middle and end of the song – hilarious! There were only 6 out of the usual 11 of us, but it felt like those of us who were there bonded a bit more this week. (I also sat in a slightly different seat to usual, just to mix it up a bit). We played I Have A Dream again all the way through so that our teacher could record it for us to practice with at home.

There’s so many people coughing and spluttering at work and on public transport, and then I wasn’t feeling 100% the afternoon of the class, but rather than slinking off home, I made myself go along…and I had a blast!

*Shocker* – today I would have been back at Rhythm Tap Intermediates, but I emailed my teacher this morning and asked her to cancel me off this half-term. I really need to rest my troublesome left knee, and as I said in my last post, I took on ukulele lessons without dropping anything from my list of commitments. Sad face, but needs (knees) must!

Even though I won’t be dancing this term, I’m going to see the game-changing NYC tap dancer Michelle Dorrance’s company Dorrance Dance perform at Sadlers Wells next Thursday evening. SO EXCITED! I’ll will give you the full breakdown next weekend!

I have to say, since the clocks went back I’ve been dosing up on vitamin D (Vitabiotics ULTRA D), along with C plus Zinc and scoffing all kinds of fruit. I actually found the time transition a lot easier this year – how about you? I’m also wearing earplugs at night to make sure I sleep through any potentially interruptive sounds (like heavy rainfall, revving motorbikes, screeching foxes and so on). Hoping this all helps keep the germs at bay. Actually, the best thing is to just AVOID LONDON!

Uke Can Do It

I’m now halfway through a term of ukulele classes! I’m really enjoying it and feel like I’m taking to it quite well. I never enjoyed my school clarinet lessons like this! Learning in a group probably helps, as does the ability to sing along with your instrument, and lack of setting up, cleaning and numb lips that comes with playing woodwind!

Last night we learned that we would be doing an end of term performance at the college on 11th December!! We had a go at one of the songs we’ll be playing, which was written by a student from the improvers class. A kazoo was also played played!

I’ve been thinking this week (yet again) about my writing ambitions and the amount of things I’m doing at the moment. If I really want to be a writer I need to prioritise writing and drop some of the other things off my list…

  • HR Practice studies – 2 modules left
  • Ukulele class
  • Tap dance classes
  • My soap biz
  • Work!

I read a great quote yesterday:

When everything is important, nothing is

My HR studies are progressing again, after I had a moment in September when I was ready to quit. I have an assignment on employment relations that I want to submit this weekend, and then that module will be completed, leaving 2 remaining modules (Recruitment and Learning & Development Activities, incase you were wondering). Then I’ll get my certificate and Associate membership!

I think, going forward that I’m not going to continue this ukulele class next year, and instead try and use what I’ve learnt so far to continue in my own time, using books, and YouTube, perhaps having a jam with the other musicians at church. After all, I started learning so I can play at church. Sometimes you’ve got to just start doing.

You KNOW I love tap dancing, right? (Yep!) But, I’m seriously considering taking a 6-12 week break from my Thursday class in the new year. Shocking, I know! (Only thing, numbers are quite small at this level during the day; I hope it doesn’t disappear from the course list while I’m gone!) This is another hobby that I can practice at home in my own time. I am probably going to attend Tap Dance Festival UK in Manchester again in February, which provides an excellent crash course in EVERYTHING TAP!

I’m going to return to running my soap biz as more of an enjoyable hobby, than pressuring myself to make it my full time career. I still have a monthly wholesale customer and I continue to register for tax on those earnings, but no more businessy career pressure! I want to move from using a base product to making in the cold process method, which my SO and I learnt about 2 years ago. We need time to practice this!

Despite the ups and downs, working 4 days a week in HR for a fantastic social charity continues until I become a freelance writer!

5 Things in 5 Pictures

Autumn has definitely arrived

Despite the torrential rain (a hangover of Hurricane Lorenzo), this is still my favourite time of year. Well, apart from the clock change. Coats, scarves, boots, red and orange leaves, bonfires, firework displays, squashes and soups!

I joined a new gym! 

On Wednesday lunchtime I went to the council gym near work. Coming from the familiarity of the neat University gym, I had to have a look around the machines before getting started. They seem a bit more fiddly to load weight to, and some of them were broken. The air con wasn’t working properly. The steam room was CLOSED. But it is a busy gym of heavy usage, so not entirely surprising. I’ll be back on Tuesday, and I might even try the swimming pool. If it doesn’t work out, I may quit and return to the Uni gym in its temporary location.

On Wednesday night I had my second Ukulele class

I realised after the first class that I needed to cut my nails so I could press the strings properly! We had a substitute teacher as our tutor was unable to make it this week. The stand-in was very good and even got us onto strumming. We went over chords C, F, A minor, G7 and we even added C7. Lots of information, but I can see how learning a musical instrument (musicality, rhythm, strumming patterns, reading music, timing etc) feeds into tap dancing. Love it.

Watching Ballet on stage is like being in a dream

At the weekend, my SO and I went to Sheffield to visit his sister. On the Saturday evening, she took us to see Northern Ballet, currently celebrating 50 years, perform Cinderella at The Lyceum. The dancing was high quality, and because the story is so familiar (I loved my Ladybird books LOL), it was intriguing to see how they would stage the story. For example, in this production, the Fairy Godmother is a magician, first introduced at a Moscow winter market among other interesting circus performers.  I particularly enjoyed the crystal lake ice skating scene and the Prince’s winter ball. Enchanting, wintery and wonderful!

 

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I couldn’t quit tap if I tried

Last week I thought I’d made my mind up to take a break from rhythm tap classes once this 6 week block is up next week, and come back to it after Christmas, once my Ukulele classes have finished. I thought maybe I’d go swimming on a Thursday lunchtime instead – something that doesn’t require too much brainpower! But then I went to my class and LOVED EVERY MINUTE. I feel like I’m back ‘in the zone’, as Britney would say and I’m learning loads of new intermediate level things and have lots of fun things to work on…

Workshop Week

I felt a bit disappointed in myself on Tuesday. For the second year in a row, I enrolled on a 3-day tap dance intensive (2 hours per day) and once again I ended up bailing out after 1 day.

This time I intended to attend days 1-2 and then rest on day 3, but this wasn’t to be. My problem left knee started giving me grief afterwards, and then my right achilles tendon and plantar fascia (arch of foot) followed suit, so I ended up hobbling around at home for the remainder of the course…

…Apart from yesterday when I hobbled into West London to run an important errand and then attend a 3 hour ukulele workshop in Southwark the afternoon! I’ll tell you all about it, but first the tap intensive.

The intermediate tap dance workshop was a lot of fun! The teacher, I’d forgotten, is a little scatty in his teaching style, but I picked up so much in those 2 hours. My usual teacher is fab, but I also enjoy learning with a different teacher every now and then as they will have their own style, choreography and way of teaching. Quite often, you have to absorb a lot very quickly.

We covered shuffles, slurps, the Shim Sham, rhythm turns, riffs, paddles, and a particular favourite for me was when we travelled backwards across the studio doing fast side shuffles:

R-L-R-R, L-R-L-L, R-L-R-L-R-L-R-R, L-R-L-R-L-R-L-L

I’ve never done this travelling backwards before, but I like it! Luckily we got to film the routine we’d put together so far, so I can have a go at this again in my garage once my knee and foot have had adequate rest.

I really enjoyed having the time to go over things in detail when you don’t have to squeeze everything into 45 minutes. I think my next task will be to make an appointment with a podiatrist because I’m pretty sure my knee and foot issue is to do with pronation when I walk and dance, and also having lower arches.

Now onto the ukulele…

I was thinking for a while that I’d like to be able to play a musical instrument at church as we’re short on musicians, and because I like singing, I was thinking about a non-wind instrument. So, rather than the guitar, I decided to go for the Ukulele! It’s apparently one of the easiest instruments to learn, it’s compact and portable, and it’s cute!

It’s compact…portable, and it’s cute!

To see if it was definitely for me, I enrolled the day before on the Wednesday afternoon 3-hour workshop near my work, and then I’d know whether I wanted to enrol on the regular class in the autumn. Well it was so much fun! Taught by an enthusiastic jazz singing, uke playing cabaret artist (who incidentally has a swing group that includes a tap dancer), the 9-strong all-female group introduced ourselves to each other, learnt how to tune our instruments and then learnt to play 4 chords (C, Am, F, G7), plus a couple of strum patterns. For each song that we did, we sang along and it was lovely!

It’s true what they say, learning an instrument really feeds into your understanding of tap dance rhythm, musicality and multitasking.

I think I’m hooked!