Tap & Tea with Heather Cornell

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This final series of Tap & Tea history talks kicked off a few weeks ago with special guest Heather Cornell. Heather is the artistic director of Manhattan Tap and was the only dancer to be mentored and trained by legendary jazz musician Ray Brown. She is known for having been a major player in the tap dance renaissance and her famous ‘Tap Labs’ are celebrating 30 years this August.

Heather started dancing as a child in Canada with classes in ballet, jazz and tap, with the tap being taught as per the syllabus system, which she, and many others (particularly in the UK) describe as having lots of limitations, to the point where Heather was actually ‘aged out of it’ by the AGE OF 14… She described Canada at that point as having “no understanding of the history of tap”, and she stopped tap dancing because the only avenue was to go into musical theatre, which she didn’t want to do. She went to study Dance Therapy at NYU and did modern dance, but she was at a loss with the vocabulary. She then discovered the more rhythmic Cunningham technique of contemporary dance and decided to move to New York permanently. She ended up getting back into tap, and someone recommended she go study with Cookie Cook – Heather described the first time she heard the sound of his taps and burst into tears! It was a world away from the Canadian tap syllabus.

During her talk, Heather described Charles “Cookie” Cook as a consummate performer. He did comedy, Russian dancing, knockabout, you name it! He had an amazing sense of theatre, timing and how to put together a show and the education she received from him helped her to create her own company, Manhattan Tap. It was that old school style of learning – she hung out with him, he talked and she soaked it all up. Speaking of the old school hoofers, as many have said, none of them taught in the modern way of ‘this is how you do a shuffle’…they just danced and played, and you just had to pick it up: “It was a culture, not a subject”.

Continuing on this theme, Heather moved on to talk about the concept of mentorship: “I collect people”. She said it’s a serious thing – find a mentor, but be prepared to commit. As mentioned by other guests on previous weeks, Heather didn’t hide her disdain at the “distorted euro-centric way of learning” where ‘I pay you, you give me…’ because it will “never grow the art form”. She also made us aware that apparently many of the older generation of tap dancers bristle at the current use of the phrase ‘tap fam’ (as in tap family) because the relationships in those former days were deep and personal, like a parent passing something onto their child. I’ve seen the phrase ‘tap fam’ used a lot on social media as a way to make everyone feel connected across the globe as one big tap family (especially during Covid, right?) but I can see where Heather is coming from when she describes the current scene as more ego-driven and business-like, especially when everyone’s got a social media presence and fan base to maintain.

She was so not impressed with the cutting contests and competition scene, where you have teachers sitting in judgement over other tap dancers, or the newer tap festival scene where teachers are kept apart from attendees. Why? Because “mentors need to be accessible”! Cutting contests happen at all the festivals I’ve been to, and in my opinion, I think they create a bit of excitement and engagement, particularly for younger dancers…but personally, I won’t be taking part any time soon! I do agree with Heather that a tap jam is a better expression of what you can do, because participants can share, learn and ‘steal’ from each other, rather than be under the pressure to compete and then be told by a ‘judge’ that something they did was ‘wrong’ or not as good as their rival. What do you think?

Heather Cornell was fascinating to listen to. She is one tough cookie with understandably strong opinions on the direction the tap scene is going in. But that’s a good thing, because you need people to defend the art and make sure it goes in the right direction and continues to be accessible to all.

Some quotes from Heather

Wake up and start taking responsibility for yourself

If we don’t pass on the history [of tap], nobody else will

We need to reconnect tap dance to the music

You have to make mistakes or you won’t get better

Don’t be afraid to colour outside the lines

 

 

Tap & Tea with Ayodele Casel

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Guys, I’m so behind with my promised write ups of the Tap & Tea history talks, but I think I’m getting back on track, and so today I’m going to sit down to tell you all about Thursday’s tap history talk with special guest Ayodele Casel.

 

You may even want to have a cup of tea to hand!

Described by the late Gregory Hines as one of the “top young tap dancers in the world”, Ayodele Casel is a New York based tap dancer and actress. She is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her art, including the 2017 Hoofers Award, and she was named one of the ‘Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019’ by the New York Times. She was artist in residence at Harvard between 2018-2019 and became a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard 2019-2020. She has performed with Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, American Tap Dance Orchestra and Jazz Tap Ensemble. She is co-director of Operation Tap, and as you can see from the image above, she is on the August cover of Dance Magazine. Her mission is to “make tap dancing a relevant presence in the arts”. .

I was really inspired to hear that Ayodele was a relative late starter to tap dance at the age of 18. (Not as late as me in my 30s, but it’s nice to hear from someone who didn’t start at 3 years old for a change!) She was actually an Acting major at university (NYU), but was drawn into tap dance classes as part of her Movement for Actors class. Prior to this, at high school a teacher had shown the class a Fred and Ginger musical as part of a ‘History of the Movies’ series and this first peaked Ayodele’s interest in tap. A year into her university tap classes, she met Baakari Wilder (“a real tap dancer!”), who invited her to classes at the legendary Fazil’s dance studio where she realised she didn’t know anything about tap. Baakari taught her the history of tap and introduced her to the idea of tap as self-expression.

A point that has come up time and again in these ‘Tap & Tea’ sessions is how the tap dancers of the hoofing culture taught – not as a transactional relationship (I pay you, you teach me), but with generosity and sharing life and experience, like a family. Ayodele agreed that there is value in the teacher-student studio structure, but it is worth remembering that not everybody is there to become an artist and often the teacher doesn’t have time to mentor the individuals that are. For her the studio structure stirred something in her, where she wanted to learn more. She mentioned another point that has come up many times – young dancers who take every class going, but are making very little progress – because they’re not using their initiative to do their own learning outside of class. How much class is too much?

After training with Baakari, Ayodele went onto train with Barbara Duffy (who we heard from a few weeks ago) at Broadway Dance Center. She joined the ‘Funk University’, a training ground for young dancers to be channelled into Savion Glover’s Broadway hit Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. It had a predominately male cast, but workshop director Ted Louis-Levy allowed her into the training workshops, changing the game in what was still a pretty male art form and giving Ayodele a huge opportunity to develop her art. She described it as being akin to being allowed into the Hoofers’ Club of the 1930s & 40s, where no women were allowed!

This led onto discussion of her current Harvard research on the forgotten women of tap (something I’m immensely interested in too, and will be doing some research on myself once Tap & Tea has finished). Being the only woman in Savion’s show Not Your Only Tap Dancer, people greeted her after the show with comments like “I didn’t know women could tap dance” or “You dance like a man!” This made her want to delve deeper, and so she researched women like Jeni Le Gon and Lois Bright of The Miller Bros & Lois. These women were so talented and were doing amazing stuff, just like their male counterparts, but they were then largely forgotten until now. You can check out Ayodele’s digital series Diary of a Tap Dancer on NY City Center’s Youtube channel, which gives a voice to these forgotten ladies.

It was another fantastic Tap & Tea session, and I found Ayodele so inspiring! I completely agree that you as the student have to take the initiative in your learning if you want to progress. Practice! Read! Watch!

Some Ayodele-isms:

You have to take the initiative. Give yourself the permission to go ahead and be great.

Exercise your bravery, don’t exercise your fear.

How do we use technique to create meaningful expression?

The marriage of information and the next level [of tap] is dependent on the student

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.

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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

 

 

Peanut Orchestra

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Entrance to my backstreet gym

I haven’t been to the gym for a few weeks. No excuses, I just couldn’t be bothered. But today I got my thang together and went! Unfortunately, going on a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday lunchtime, it was quite busy, with people hogging the free weights area and others going through their personal training session in the middle of the gym room. Still, despite this, I plugged in and did the cross trainer, overhead press, and some stretching. I feel so much better for going, having felt very negative most of this week!

I’m making sure to give my feet a good stretch every day and especially after exercise because I found they were aching A LOT during and after my tap classes the last few weeks – although I worked out that some of the ache came from wearing socks that were too thick, and then cramming my feet into my tap shoes, causing a deficit in wiggle room!

We’re learning a fun intermediate level routine to the song ‘The Peanut Vendor’ (1956 version) by Stan Kenton & His Orchestra and I’m loving it! We’re using a combination created by the legend that is Honi Coles as well as doing a 3-beat riff on both feet at the same time…Yes, I am wearing a left knee support so I don’t end up injured again! Tomorrow is the penultimate class before the 2 week half term break, and I am already signed up to the next block starting in March – YAY!

p.s. I’m giving Tap Dance Festival UK, which takes place in Manchester next weekend, a miss this year – BOO!

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!

2nd Attempt

On Wednesday night I went to my second ever Tap Improvisation and Choreography class! About half an hour beforehand, I felt really nervous and wanted to bottle it, trying to come up with various excuses as to why I couldn’t go (like the heatwave)…but then I got myself together and went for it!

There were 10 of us for this mixed-level class, where we played various improvisation games, working in one large group, smaller groups, pairs and solo to build up our confidence to improvise tap steps. The focus was on rhythm, rather than executing amazing steps. The music was a variety of 60s soul/R&B, Blues and other newer music.

For our first exercise, we just used our hands and one at a time, clapped different rhythms for the group to copy. That was manageable. Next we did the same, but with our feet. A bit more complicated.

We worked in pairs to create something for our partners to copy. We also worked in pairs to create something to a simple song or nursery rhyme which we then performed to the rest of the class. My partner and I used ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and had a lot of fun with it – jazz hands were included! I can say I actually quite enjoyed performing it to those watching. We messed up the first time, but we did it again and got it right.

I also enjoyed the exercise where we travelled as one group along the length of the studio, doing whatever came to mind. At the end of the class, we repeated this exercise, but this time we just walked and allowed space for one person at a time to do some steps. This was very effective.

It was such a fun evening, if not a little nerve wracking in places. We all had a great time and I definitely came away feeling a bit more confident to try stuff. In public.

Common issues in improvisation:

  • Self-consciousness
  • Worrying that everyone else is better/more experienced than you
  • Trying to make your feet actually do the steps that are in your mind
  • Trying to recall all the steps you have built up in your ‘bank’ over the last however many years of learning
  • Staying on the rhythm
  • Counting bars and beats when you’ve been asked to do something for a certain number of counts
  • Going from a single beat to doubles to quadruples..when everyone’s watching
  • Brain freeze!

Next week I have the week off work as I have three 2-hour days at a Tap Dance Intensive in London’s Covent Garden, followed by a few rest/study days.

Have you ever done tap improvisation? If yes, tell me more in the comments….

How to Make the Most of your Tap Dance Lessons

You may be a full time dance student or you may only have an hour of tap class a week (like me), so you have to find a way to make the most of what you have:

  • Pay attention in class! That’s right. Listen to what your teacher is saying and watch the demonstrations closely.
  • Learn from others who are more experienced or seem to know what they’re doing.
  • Ask questions when you have the opportunity. This is usually at the end of the class, but you may have opportunity during the class too (e.g. What is this step called? Which leg are we starting on? Who is your favourite tap dancer?! etc.)
  • Take the opportunity to film the routine or combination if given. Then you can become more familiar with it and practice outside of class. It helps to visualise even if you can’t physically do the steps for whatever reason, e.g. You’re on public transport or your leg is in plaster…
  • Practice as soon as you are able after your class just so it doesn’t escape your brain straight away!
  • Practice daily! Even if it’s only 5 minutes in the corridor at work. It helps cement things and keeps the muscle memory alive, so to speak.
  • Download or listen the track you’re using so you can familiarise yourself with the music, and any unusual rhythms it may have.
  • Take away one thing you can work on for next time. If you load yourself up with too many things to improve, you might stress yourself out and improve nothing.

Other general advice:

  • Watch tap dance online
  • Get to your classes early
  • Go to classes regularly
  • Read up on tap history
  • Watch tap shows at the theatre if you can
  • Read up on tap terms. Some steps have different names to what you’re used to (slurp vs closed third)
  • Attend workshops and festivals to try new stuff and meet other tappers
  • Follow tap dancers on social media
  • Join tap dance social media groups

What do you think?

I made a resolution this year to write a list of things I want to know and then try to ask my teacher a question every week, but sometimes I forget or chicken out 🙂

(We’re currently on a 2 week break from rhythm tap class, but I’m managing to keep up with my weekly workouts at the gym!)

Around The World

After a relaxing break from work over Easter, this week I returned to the day job, my soap side gig and rhythm tap class!

I didn’t make the gym because with the Bank Holiday on Monday, there were only 2 possible days that I could go and I just couldn’t fit it in. I suppose I could have gone Wednesday, but I don’t like to work out the day before a dance class. I will get back to it next week when the schedule is back to normal.

I did do a lot of walking last week, with a weekend in Birmingham and Hughenden Manor National Trust, plus I did a New York City Ballet Workout, so I’m not too concerned about loss of fitness or anything.

Rhythm tap class was amazing as usual! I think everyone was hyped to be back, including our teacher who had been at a tap retreat in Italy over the break. Mountain views, food, wine, day trips and tap classes…So jealous!

There were some new people joining us this term; some who have moved up from beginners and some who want to refresh their steps after years away from it. This week we worked on a travelling shuffle-step exercise, which we did each way sets of eight, four, two and one. Our teacher got me to do it with her double time – that was fun!

The other main exercise was an ‘around the world roll’. This is like a cramp roll, but in a different order:

E.g. Starting on the right

R-Toe L-Toe L-Heel R-Toe

And you end with the left foot off the ground ready to start the left side:

Our routine is to a high energy Bollywood track and I’m loving it!

Bloch Warm-up Booties

Oh my DAYS I am loving these warm up booties from Bloch! I bought them a few months ago, not because I really needed them, but because I’ve become obsessed with dancers’ foot health, I liked them and one of the teachers at the Rambert Contemporary Dance summer school wore them for the warm up session that she led, which made me think: “good idea!” And they were on sale!

They are designed to be worn for warming up and time in between dance classes, particularly ballet, jazz and contemporary. I saw someone wearing them during the lunch break at the Tap Dance UK Festival in February to keep her feet warm and for a bit of comfort in between hours of tapping and I wore mine when I got home from that amazing weekend tap marathon to take the edge off my poor tootsies when trying to walk around the house.

Designed by former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) principal dancers Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, they have a thick spongy layer on the bottom and cushioned heel, which provides amazing comfort to pummelled feet, plus there’s an adjustable ankle strap and velcro fastening at the top of the boot to provide stability and stop you slipping around in them like some ill-fitting Ugg boots (don’t get me started on Ugg boots).

They also come in loads of different designs. I mean, I really wanted the jungle print ones, but they were sold out. I paid around £25 and as you can see above, I opted for purple!

Verdict: Great for pre-dance warm-ups and post-tap class comfort. LOVE ‘EM!

Note: indoor use only

Have you tried these Bloch Warm-up Booties? What do you think?

Tea and Creativity

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According to recent reports drinking tea focuses the mind and increases creativity.* Well I LOVE TEA, but my tea of choice is herbal and fruit-based, rather than ordinary tea. So I was very excited to receive my latest order of exotic loose leaf teas from Tugboat in Cornwall yesterday!

This year I have decided to stop procrastinating and making lists and start DOING.  Next month I have the first two days of a 4 day course in Essential Oils for Non-Therapists course. I’ve been thinking a lot about winding up my soap and skincare side-gig, but I thought I’d get some further training to improve my knowledge of essential oils and their benefits and properties, and see where I am after that.

Another thing I am hoping to do is to work on my public reading nerves. I’ve accessed an online course on Udemy on reading the Bible aloud, so that I can actually do Bible readings at church without feeling like my throat is closing up and people are staring up my nose. I’m asked to read a lot, but I usually decline. (For some reason, I can do dramatic dialogue readings fine, I guess because I’m acting).

I’ll also be attending a one day workshop on Copywriting in July. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I got my degree in English Literature. While I was at University I tried to get as much writing experience as possible by doing regular music reviews and articles for various student publications. I was also writing my own novel in my spare time (nope, not finished…yet!). But then after that, life happened and that ambition was parked as I navigated the job market.

Well, now I am in that place of having been in my current job with a well-known charity for 8 years. Being a bit fed up of it and keeping an eye on what else is out there, I am coming back to my original ambitions and doing something about it! Copywriting is a really useful skill to have, whether it be for writing articles for this blog, my soap biz website, a new job in web content writing (hmmm?), church publicity, having another stab at freelance writing, it will be well worth it.

After all, why sit there pining when you can do something about it?

Dance News:

  • Rhythm Tap classes restart this week!
  • I’ve been informed that photos and videos of our Adult classes at Tap Dance Festival UK 2019 will be released shortly!
  • I’ve had my tickets through for MOVE IT 2019!

Don’t forget, there’s still time to enter my 42nd Street giveaway competition! Closes at Midnight (GMT) on Monday 4th March. 

*https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/01/16/suffering-writers-block-simple-cup-tea-gets-creative-juices/