Tap & Tea with Barbara Duffy

_20200621_173355.JPG

On the final week of the latest Tap & Tea series we were joined by special guest Barbara Duffy, author of Tap into Improv

Barbara is a sought after teacher, dancer, actress and choreographer. She is a former member of American Tap Dance Orchestra (ATDO), performed with Gregory
Hines for the Clintons at the President’s Gala in 1996 which she called ‘the biggest gig of my life’, and she created her own tap company, Barbara Duffy and Company.

Barbara’s story is a really interesting one. She began her training at a dance school that managed to fit ballet, jazz and tap into a short half hour lesson! Needless to say,
technique was not taught, and this was evident when Barbara auditioned numerous times for the University of Massachusetts dance programme (five times in fact) and
was not successful. After this, she moved to Boston and took private lessons in high-heeled Broadway tap with Esther Dolan, going right back to the beginning. At this
point she knew nothing of ‘Rhythm tap’ and decided to quit dancing altogether. However, her sister invited her to watch a local tap show, and Barbara was BLOWN AWAY by the musical tap of Leon Collins. It wasn’t until Leon Collins’ dance studio relocated to be opposite her apartment building that Barbara got to study tap with him. (It was at this point that she switched from high heels to flat tap shoes). Here Barbara was introduced to tap jams and improvisation, and she was freaked out!

Tap study was a much slower process than many of us are used to these days – every week there was an hour and a half class where they’d learn just 8 bars and then go away and work on that. Similarly, while studying with Brenda Bufalino later on, classes would include things like a 5 whole minutes of just clapping and flapping, giving students the time to really settle into it and find themselves before moving onto something else. Back in those days people really STUDIED and were intentional. Nowadays, she observed, many students just want to go to class for fun and to socialise and express themselves, but they don’t work on what they’ve learned and so they turn up each week with no memory of the week before – and they see zero improvement.

After Leon Collins died in 1985, Barbara moved from Boston to New York to study with Brenda Bufalino, and was invited to join ATDO, with whom she performed and toured until around 1995. Being in based in New York City she also got to study with famed theatre choreographer Henry Le Tang and learn all of his routines. She was also invited to assist a teenage Savion Glover in ‘translating’ his choreography for his young students – and this was how Barbara Duffy’s name got out there.

The legendary Jimmy Slyde was known for having a regular Wednesday night tap jam where he would call people up onto the stage and say “show me a time step!” Barbara started going along to try and get over her fear of improvising, but the negative self-talk would creep in while she was performing, and then she would avoid going back. (I was really keen to hear Barbara speak about getting over her fear of improvisation, because I have felt that fear…and it’s coming back again with another improvisation workshop happening next week!) Her advice was to ‘stay where you are’ until you’re ready to move forward because improvisation is a “life-long process”. An example she gave was where you might berate yourself for doing the same step again and again…but that’s absolutely fine and you will get better! I’ll try to remember this and not beat myself up if I get stuck only doing paddles next week. A guy at our improv workshop last year kept returning to a spin on the spot if he ran out of ideas – and it was fine! (Better than running out crying, am I right? LOL)

Barbara described how rhythm tap was such a man’s game back in the day, but then Gregory Hines suggested that she get some women together, and Barbara Duffy & Company was born! Company dancers included Michelle Dorrance, Lisa La Touche, Maya Jenkins, Flavia Costa, Pia Neises and Karida Griffith among others, and the goal was to allow each dancer’s voice to emerge. Sadly, the company had to fold when they ran out of money during the 2008 recession.

While studying for her ESOL degree, Barbara wrote the amazing guidebook Tap into Improv for her course project. (Being a natural procrastinator, she benefitted from having a supervisor and a deadline!) The book came out of starting to teach improvisation to her own students and realising that they were just as afraid of it as she’d been. (It’s a great book, and I’ll try and review it at some point – but either way, make sure you get yourself a copy!).

I wrote down SO MANY notes from this Tap & Tea talk because Barbara had LOADS to say and was so interesting to listen to! I managed this, even though I had to run upstairs and relocate to the landing at the top of the stairs because my WiFi signal decided to play up! Here are a few of the useful tips she shared with us:

Barbara’s Tips for Tap Students:

Bring yourself to the class and be present and open. What are you bringing to the class? Are you engaged? Or are you waiting to be given something?

Sing everything. It will up your game immediately.

Practice everything before the next class.

Don’t listen to your feet; decide what you want to hear.

It you want to grow and expand, you’ve got to feel uncomfortable sometimes.

Barbara’s Jazz Playlist:

Oscar Peterson (pianist)
Benny Green (saxophone)
Christian McBride (double bass)
Lee Morgan (trumpet)

Check out this video of Barbara (on the far right) dancing with Gregory Hines at the President’s Gala for Bill Clinton in Washington, DC in 1996:

Great news – we start a new 4-week series of Tap & Tea next week!

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….