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

Ayodele Casel Magazine

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

B2B (Back to Ballet)

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Filled with nervous excitement, last night after work, I went back to Ballet at the Barre! I left work at 4.20pm and caught the bus over Waterloo Bridge to Covent Garden, and then did a quick walk to City Lit. Went to the ladies toilets to get changed because the changing rooms are always occupied, but was a bit unsure about my outfit. I ended up wearing my pink leotard, black leggings, black wrap cardi and black ballet skirt, which I hadn’t worn before. The leggings kind of pulled down a bit during the class, so next week I’ll wear tights instead.

I recognised a lady called F who had been in the class the last two terms I had been, so I went on the barre by the window next to her. There were about 10 or so of us in the class, including 2 guys (plus our teacher M is also a man).

We did a head-to-toe warm up, followed by some fun things like grande battements en croix, (which I actually remembered from last time, so I wasn’t phased by which direction I was supposed to be facing), ronde de jambe (which were lightening fast for my unfamiliar feet, although it helps me to focus on the beat and the letter ‘D’). We concluded with jumps and changement. Still amazed at how my achilles are problem-free since hill-walking in Cornwall!

I was surprised to be asked to demonstrate the changement exercise while everyone watched. I mean, I haven’t done any ballet for well over a year! That was a definite feeling of imposter syndrome.

M then suggested that we take a few minutes at the end of the class to stretch before leaving. I made sure I did just that. He asked me if I’d been doing ballet class, and I was telling him all about tapping at Morley College and how weird it is to find ballet form again. Ballet is all poised and pointed and tap all bent knees and laidback.

I came away with a couple of things to work on:

  • Little toe on the ground & heel forward when pointing the toes en avant (forward)
  • General foot flexibility (tap, what have you done to me :))
  • Keep bottom tucked under 🙂