On Musicality

I’ve been vaccinated!

Great news – my SO and I both had our first Covid vaccinations last weekend! We had the Pfizer Biontech jab as they’re no longer offering under 40s the Astra Zeneca, due to the risk of blood clots. I was glad about that because I had a DVT when I was 20. I’m a little scared of needles, and felt quite worked up just before I had it done, but honestly, I didn’t even know the nurse had done it until I saw her drop the needle into the disposal bucket. I was given a green sticker to wear on my hand to indicate my nervousness, and the nurse was great and just chatted away to me about my plans for the weekend, so I was distracted 🙂 I’ve never, ever had a bad experience with needles, but for some reason I get super nervous and start freaking out. They asked me if I was likely to faint and needed a bit of time, but I said “nope, I’ll be fine, I just get a bit worked up” (i.e. just get it over with!). I posted about how I hate needles and how easy and painless it was on social media because I have a cousin who is flat out refusing to get the vaccination because she is a proper needlephobe.

Musicality

In other news…I recently attended a series of three online workshops on musicality for tap dancers. Hosted by my teacher’s tap company, we were joined by guests Jess Murray (The Tap Project/London Tap Jam/Tap Dance Research Network UK), Gustavo ‘Tato’ Sassone (The Luthier Dance School Barcelona), and Max Pollak (Rumba Tap). These guys are all amazing in their own right and I came away having learnt SO MUCH:

  • Jess got us to explore improvisation, looking at beats, units of time, accents and space, and we looked at which steps we can fit into different rhythms (such as cramp rolls into swung eighths), which will really help with future improvisation.
  • Drummer and percussionist Tato took us through the very basics of music theory, which was so helpful to me because I had forgotten a lot and my understanding was vague up until that point. We didn’t do any tap, but we spent the session clapping out the rhythms, which was helpful for concentrating on that, rather than what you’re doing with your feet.
  • Drummer and percussive dancer Max showed us the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Clave. Stepping, clapping and singing, all at the same time – argh! But he broke it all down in such a way that you found yourself able to do it…if only for a while! These things take practise. My teacher had actually let me know about an opportunity to do online classes with him on a Friday evening, but I don’t want to take any more on right now!

I actually had clarinet lessons for a couple of years when I was at secondary school (and I hated them!), and although I could play okay and can still read music (although I needed a refresher), I was better at playing by ear than by music score. Revisiting music as a tap dance student has been interesting; our teacher will use musical terms like ‘sixteenth notes’ and ‘triplets’, and it literally means nothing to me, despite attempting to learn what they are. I’ve gradually realised over the years that I don’t really retain numbers and amounts in the way that I retain words.

I’ve attended 2 online musicality workshops with Sarah Reich over the last year and these recent sessions have gone over it all again, with things like bars and note values, and I write myself loads of notes, but I don’t seem to be able to retain the information in my head! Some students want to know how many steps we’re doing, or how many counts something is, where as I learn from retaining the ‘bah-dah-bee-bah-dah’, which isn’t a bad thing at all, because you want to move from counting into feeling the rhythm. After all, the masters did it by feel. But, I still want to be able to understand what I’m doing musically. Our teacher is very good at recognising that we all learn differently, because she’ll explain it both ways. My solution for now, has been to create index cards with the note values and explanations and stick them on the wall of my garage tap studio! 🙂

Anyone else struggle with music theory? Let me know in the comments 🙂

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)

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….

Tap Workshop: Improvisation & Choreography

Tap Poster

Last night I went to the final Tap workshop as part of Morley College’s ‘Summer Shorts’…Improvisation and Choreography. There were less people than last week, but still plenty of us there for the 2 hour workshop.

We warmed up in a circle, then we went round the circle (like last week) and had to fill 4 bars with something using heels & toes only… ARGH! We did this a few times, and then we did some exercises in rows facing the mirror, such as playing with crawls, we refreshed our memories on some steps, did some call and response (i.e. respond to the teacher’s combination with something different, but to the same beat) and made up our own time step. We also made up some of our own choreography in pairs, and did some improvisation in smaller groups where one person danced in the middle and then signalled to someone that they were going to swap with them.

It was so much fun! But it was also kind of scary to come up with something on the spot when the spotlight is on you. I think it got easier as the time went on, but there is always that feeling of butterflies when you know you’re next! Everyone was in the same boat and really supportive of each other, and our teacher is very encouraging. I have done improvisation before in other styles of dance, but trying to make my feet do what I wanted them to do was another story! I’d love to drop into the splits and slide back up to standing like the Nicholas Brothers, or Prince, but it ain’t happening.

Great tips I picked up for improvisation:

  • Don’t plan ahead
  • Steal steps from other people!
  • Keep it simple

One I would add for me is to repetitively practice steps over the summer using your new tap board! We are DEFINITELY going to be moving to a house over the next few months (YAY!) so I will be able to utilise this resource more fully LOL.

Side note: I have been suffering a bit the last few weeks with tender Achilles tendons, but I didn’t want to miss this class, having missed three weeks of the last term of classes. I am wondering if my Achilles tendons are inflamed from over-use, plus I’ve had swollen ankles from the humid heat, which has thankfully cooled. I will rest after this…I promise (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation)! I have one more summer workshop coming up – the Adult Summer Intensive at Rambert, Waterloo, which one of my Tap friends might be joining me at. I need to see how I go. Might have to wear ankle supports.

Prince Splits

Shim Sham Shimmy 

Last night I went to the Tap Shim Sham workshop at Morley College. It was SO MUCH FUN! It was a much larger class due to there being people from levels 1, 2 and 3 present. I knew a lot of them, but not the level three-ers. Caught up with a few pals to explain my 3 week absence!

So what is the Shim Sham? It’s a simple routine that is known by tap dancers the world over, like the tap national anthem. It was developed by tap legends Leonard Reed and Willy Bryant back in the 1920s while touring the African American version of the Vaudeville circuit (TOBA).

Here is a clip of Gregory Hines doing the Shim Sham:

We started with a warm up and stretch  in a circle and then, working in 3 rows we started learning the steps, all done in a swing beat. We rotated rows just so that everyone got a chance to work in front of the mirror. For some reason my left ankle was hurting when I tried to shake it out, but it seem didn’t bother me while dancing. We learnt the dance to a slower track and then a fast one which was amazing!

We also did a short improvisation exercise back in a circle where every time there was a pause the next person in the circle had to fill 4 beats. Argh, scary when you know you’re next! This then fed back into the dance when we were free to improvise in the gaps. Several people did lots of taps when it was their turn, particularly the advanced people. I kept it simple with a cramp roll and three crawl beats but threw my whole body into it. This exercise plus the book I’m reading (The Greatest Tap Dance Stars & their Stories 19001955) has actually made me realise that it’s ok to have my own style and it’s not necessarily about hundreds of intricate taps but feeling the music, working within the rhythm and doing your thing!

Afterwards there was lots of chat about who’s coming next week, what are you doing in the Autumn, the Dorrance Dance and Old Kent Road workshops that some people attended on Sunday and Monday plus the Dorrance Dance show that’s currently on at Sadlers Wells. My teacher said I’d really enjoy it, but I really can’t fit it in this week or justify going to the theatre 4 times in the space of 4 weeks (2 performances were featuring relatives or people I know) 😩 I told my teacher that I did see 42nd Street a few weeks ago and she was saying how that style of tap is not necessarily as technical…

Got home at 9.30pm and my Tap Board had arrived!!! I have Thursday off work, so I can get stuck in 😊 Maybe I can prepare for next week’s two hour Improvisation & Composition workshop…