Tap & Tea with Jenny Thomas

At last week’s ‘Tap & Tea’ we were joined by Strictly Come Dancing choreographer Jenny Thomas!

Jenny specialises in Lindy Hop and Charleston, but is firstly an accomplished tap dancer. She started tapping aged 4, trained at Doreen Bird College and later partnered Wayne Sleep on various show tours. The eye opener for her was seeing Gregory Hines’ 1989 film Tap.

Jenny shared loads of stories from her dance and choreography career, tap and audition advice and she even did a quick demo. She is such a positive person!

  • She invited us to think about how we can learn from other dance styles e.g. Jazz, Lindy Hop. Quite often other styles can influence your presentation of tap. Tap dancers from the past were all about presentation! (Watch the challenge scene from the Tap movie)
  • Her approach to teaching is about technique before steps. She gave the example of teaching professionals, who are able to pick up the steps of a routine, but it’s important to get the nuances of technique right first. The dance always looks better!
  • Tap is about constant weight change. It can end up like a boring monologue if it all sounds the same. Therefore it needs accents and syncopation, like a conversation.
  • She talked about expanding your musicality by listening to big band, boogie woogie, swing piano, blues etc. These genres tend to be easier to relate to tap, and allow the space for creativity.
  • She talked about tap dance being a street dance and the fact it is returning to its roots, having been refined by Hollywood, but today’s street dance tap revival is no longer being looked down upon as it once was.

I was interested in her tips on improvisation, because I find it a bit nerve-wracking in a group setting:

  • Listen to lots of music and the different instruments
  • Listen to a piece, stop the music and then emulate the rhythm. Play with it!
  • Check out books on improv by Barbara Duffy and Rusty Frank.

The next day, my laptop completely gave up and refused to charge, so I’ve had to order a new battery! Thankfully I’d finished my working week before going on furlough. What timing!

This week we’ll be hearing from Stephen Mear CBE…

(This post was typed on my phone, so apologies if the layout is funny)

Staying Occupied

_20200421_123856.JPGI’ve been working from home for a month now, but from Monday I will officially be on ‘furlough’ for a minimum of 3 weeks, under the UK government’s Job Retention Scheme.

It’s my 10th anniversary of working for this charity, and I had been thinking a few months ago that I could really do with a sabbatical…but these circumstances aren’t exactly what I had in mind. The reduction in pay is thankfully cancelled out by having stopped my travel season ticket payments. Shows just how expensive train travel is!

I’ve been asked by a couple of people what I’m going to do with the time. ANYONE who knows me knows that I ALWAYS have projects on the go! I won’t go crazy trying to do all of this list, but I have some of the following to keep me occupied:

  • My soap biz – I want to practice the cold process some more, continue to sell off old stock online and do some social media posts, as well as getting online orders out.
  • Jobs around the house – spring cleaning, replacing peeling wallpaper in our bedroom, decluttering.
  • The garden – keeping it tidy and watered. I’m also trying to grow tomatoes and propagate plants from cuttings! I was given a Garden Design online short course for my birthday, which I might have a crack at.
  • Tap dance – weekly rhythm tap classes continue from the first week of May, plus I’ll keep practising in my garage. Tap & Tea Thursdays on Zoom continue for at least another 3 weeks.
  • Exercise – I’ve been doing 80s aerobics plus some ballet barre exercises and stretching in the garage every week day around 5pm. This must continue!
  • Study – I have the final 2 modules of my HR Practice studies to complete, both of which include a filmed skills test. I’m more used to speaking to the camera since the lock-down!
  • Writing – I love to write! And obviously I’ll keep writing this blog 🙂

There are also downtime things like reading books and magazines, chatting on the phone and messaging friends and family, quiz nights, jigsaws and games, catching up on TV shows and my mindfulness interior design colouring book :)) Plus we have church online at the moment. 

For continuity and so I don’t feel weird when I go back to work, I plan to continue joining my team’s daily catch-ups online, but just on Monday mornings.

 

Tap & Tea with Tony Waag

No, it’s not your eyes; I scratched out the other attendees at the top of the screen on this photo

Yesterday afternoon I attended Theatre Tap London’s second ‘Tap & Tea’ study session on Zoom, with 48 others, plus this week’s special guest speaker, Tony Waag of the American Tap Dance Foundation (ATDF).

I was really excited about this one because I took a class with Tony at Tap Festival UK in Manchester in 2019, and he knows, knew and has worked with EVERYBODY who was anybody in the tap world, including the late Honi Coles and my favourite – Gregory Hines!

Tony co-founded ATDF (originally the American Tap Dance Orchestra) with Honi Coles and Brenda Bufalino in New York City back in 1986. Our study session covered the history of tap among Irish and African-American communities in NYC, Tony’s background in musical theatre, followed by tap dance, how he met and worked with Honi Coles and the Copasetics, his friend and colleague Brenda Bufalino, the wonderful Gregory Hines who created opportunities for many others…and then we finished with a very quick Q&A. We ended up over-running by nearly 10 minutes! It was really lovely to hear all the anecdotes of various artists and all the practical stuff, like difficulties with venues not understanding floors, microphone position and so on for tap performances.

Tony told us that ATDF is the custodian of a huge tap dance archive, which is to be donated to the New York Public Library, and he encouraged those of us in the UK to research tap history in the UK and write it, because there were things happening here (e.g. African-American performer Master Juba in London the 1840s) that were documented in the media of the day, but then largely forgotten. Leading UK tap artist and researcher Jess Murray shared the link to the Tap Dance Research Network in the chat box – things are happening!

The final question that was asked in the Q&A was “how can I become the best tap dancer I can be?” Something I often wonder! I scratched down some quick notes from Tony’s advice:

 

  • It’s up to you to go for it
  • Check it’s what you want to do, rather than someone else’s dream
  • Trust your gut
  • Keep an open mind and be flexible
  • You’re allowed to change your mind
  • Experiment
  • Don’t compare yourself to others
  • Make something up!

 

Next week we hear from Jenny Thomas, choreographer of Strictly Come Dancing!

Hope you enjoy some of the performances I’ve linked to in this post. I’m off to the garage now to practice!

Chicken, Leek and Celery Soup

Here’s the soup I made the other day!

Ingredients
1.4kg whole chicken (I used yesterday’s chicken carcass, plus a pack of boneless thighs)
4-5 sticks of celery
1 Onion coarsely chopped
1 Bay leaf
A few fresh Parsley sprigs
A few fresh tarragon sprigs (or use dried)
2.5 litres/4 pints cold water
3 large leeks
65g butter
2 potatoes cut into chunks
150ml dry white wine
2-3tbsp single (light) cream
Salt and ground black pepper
A few rashers of streaky bacon grilled until crisp

Method

1. Cut the breasts off the chicken and set aside.
Chop the rest of the chicken carcass into 8-10 pieces and place in a large pan (if using a pack of chicken thighs, place these in a large pan).

2. Chop celery and add to the pan with the onion, bay leaf, Parsley and tarragon. Pour in cold water to cover the ingredients and bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 1.5 hours. You’ve made chicken stock!

3. Remove the chicken from the stock, cut off the meat and reserve for later. Strain the stock, then return to the pan and boil rapidly until reduced to about 1.5 litres/2.5 pints.

4. Meanwhile, set about 150g of the leeks aside and slice the rest. Slice remaining leeks and celery.

5. Melt half the butter in a large pan. Add the sliced leeks and celery, cover and cook over a low heat for about 10 mins (or until softened, but not browned). Add potatoes, wine and 1.2 litres/2 pints of your chicken stock.

6. Season well with salt and pepper, bring to the boil and reduce the heat. Part-cover the pan and simmer the soup for 15-20 mins, or until potatoes are cooked.

7. Remove skin from the reserved chicken breasts and cut the breasts into small pieces. Melt butter in frying pan, add chicken and cook 5-7 mins until tender.

8. Slice remaining leeks, add to the pan and cook for a further 3-4 mins.

9. Process the soup with the cooked chicken reserved from the stock in a blender or food processor (I used a Nutribullet). Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Add more stock if soup too thick.

10. Stir in the cream, plus the chicken and leek mixture. Reheat soup gently. Serve in warmed bowls. Crumble the crispy bacon on top.

OH YEAH

Tap & Tea Thursdays

Yesterday I signed up to Theatre Tap London’s Tap and Tea study sessions taking place every Thursday at 4pm on Zoom for the next six weeks! They have a different tap pro scheduled to talk each week about tap history, context, technique and so on, followed by a Q&A.

I attended the first one this afternoon, (along with 48 others!) with special guest Nathan James, who spoke passionately about his PhD research into the big MGM musicals, concentrating particularly on Ann Miller and Eleanor Powell.

Some interesting facts of note:

  • A lot of the Dance Directors in those big movie musicals couldn’t actually dance. It was more about staging. Those that could dance tended to have a ballet background and tappers like Ann Miller did a lot of their own choreography…without acknowledgement.
  • Female tap dancers never got a lead role. They weren’t considered the romantic lead type with all that aggressive hoofing!
  • The dancers didn’t actually wear tap shoes in the movies. The tap sounds in the movies were recorded and added in later.

I’m looking forward to next week, where we’ll be learning from American Tap Dance Foundation’s Tony Waag, who I was lucky enough to take a class with at Tap Dance Festival UK back in January 2019.

Keep dancing!

Smokin’

On Thursday we had our final tap class of the term. About 15 minutes before it was about to start, I suddenly remembered we needed to move the broadband router to the back of the house again so that I could get WiFi in the garage, where I can use my tap board. It didn’t work! And the broadband refused to work altogether… Until there was literally 4 minutes to go, and it came back on.

I RAN back into the house with the laptop and ended up joining the class from my living room, wearing plimsolls on a hard floor. Not ideal, but it was fine as a one off! (In amongst all this drama, my SO decided to make a batch of biscotti using a recipe from one of my colleagues, and burnt them, creating a load of smoke in the kitchen, which was about to set the smoke alarm off in the LIVING ROOM at any minute! I shut the door. Disaster averted!)

I was really pleased to hear that we will (hopefully) be continuing online tap classes after the Easter holidays, so we have that to look forward to. Our teacher sent us a video of our entire routine to work on during the break, and she asked us to send her videos of us doing it if we’d like to – (it doesn’t need to be perfect… and I assure you, it won’t be!) along with a video of the choreography homework she set us last time, which I’ve done already.

How has the past week been for you?

I had some wins with work, did a few workouts in the garage and enjoyed catching up with colleagues on Lifesize every morning and family and friends by WhatsApp, phone call and Zoom. I also made a delicious Chicken, leek & celery soup, topped with crispy bacon, which I’ll try and share with you later.

Hope you’re able to get outside and enjoy the sunshine ☀

Saturday Steps

This week I was able to attend my tap class via the Zoom app! At 2pm on Thursday we got together online to catch up how each other are doing in lockdown, to warm up to Paul Simon’s You can call me Al, and to learn a bit more of our routine! I did the class from my garage gym/dance studio and my SO managed to drag the broadband router to the back of the house so I could get WiFi down there. It was a lot of fun and just really nice to see everyone’s faces and catch up.

Our teacher is sending us a video of the routine so we can practice, and we have also been given a bit of homework – to come up with something for 8 beats that can be used in a call-and-response section of the routine!

Last Saturday I got out into the garage to do some tapping and keep my activity levels up… and I filmed some for you! I wore anklet socks over the front of my tap shoes to reduce the tinny sound it makes on the tap board – a tip I picked up from someone in a tap forum.

[vimeo 399427094 w=640 h=564]

Hope you’re doing OK.

Lifelong Dance Student x

Amazing Slaw

Ingredients:

  • 3 carrots, grated
  • 4 leaves savoy cabbage, shredded
  • Couple slices red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Spring onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon mayonnaise
  • Half a lime
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Place all chopped vegetable items into a bowl with garlic.Mix in mayonnaise.Finish with a good squeeze of lime juice and some black pepper and serve.

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You can swap the mayo for virgin olive oil if you prefer.

Red cabbage makes a nice alternative.

Chilli flakes or a bit of cayenne pepper can add a bit of heat.

Beware, you will have garlic-onion breath!

Also, the cabbage may give you gas, so feel free to omit.

A New Exercise Habit

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Rhythm tap restarted last Thursday afternoon after a two week break, and we’re learning a really fun routine to Sweet Georgia Brown by Brother Bones and His Shadows – it involves A LOT of jumping! Exciting news – next week we start rehearsals for a performance that we’ll be doing at the college’s Flamenco & Latin Cabaret at the end of this month! I’m really looking forward to revisiting the Latin-flavoured Peanut Vendor routine that we did last term. It will also be my TAP DANCE DEBUT! I’m waiting until nearer the time to invite people…LOL.

In other news, our teacher also announced yesterday to the daytime intermediate class that she is offering each of us a 15 minute private lesson in April/May to make up for the abandoned final class of last term where she was taken ill. I’m currently having a think about what I would like to learn or explore. Wings? A time step? Cross-phrasing? I’m not sure yet.

DSC_0794.JPG

Guys, this week I just went ahead and cancelled my £10-a-month gym membership at the university. Not because of COVID-19, but because I literally haven’t been for WEEKS. WEEKS! I’m trying to make a habit of exercising 3 times a week to stay fit and flexible, but I’m also trying to work on my writing, so to make life simpler I have swapped the lunchtime gym session for writing time. My SO and I have set up a pretty good weights gym in the garage at home, so I really don’t need to pay to use someone else’s (no matter how cheap it is at the moment!). Another thing – I only work in London Monday-Thursday, so sometimes it feels like a squeeze to fit the gym in, what with tap dancing, writing and trying to go for coffee catch-ups with colleagues etc 🙂

So as well as saving £10 a month, I’m also getting a lunch hour back and my exercise schedule now looks like this:

  • Thursday afternoon – Tap class (Cardio)
  • Friday afternoon – Ballet barre video & stretching (Cardio & Resistance)
  • Saturday or Sunday afternoon – Weights session to music in the garage (Cardio warm up & Resistance)
  • Daily – Stretching!!

Hopefully this will be more sustainable going forward :))

Happy weekend and stay well everybody x