It has been one heck of a year, but I want to thank you for following and reading my blog and wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and much better 2021.
It has been one heck of a year, but I want to thank you for following and reading my blog and wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and much better 2021.
Guys, I’ve been really lazy recently. Like many of us at the moment, I’m working from home, sitting at a desk all day, and then I don’t really feel like doing anything energetic after work, plus I’ve been on a 3 week break from tap classes. And now England is heading into another period of lockdown! No Guy Fawkes Night celebrations this year 🙁
In the summer I was finishing my day with bouncy 80s aerobics workouts in the garage, a Rambert ballet class in my living room or a run around the block, or I was getting out into the back garden to do bits out there, but now we have shorter (and many drearier) days, I’ve not been very motivated at all! That is until Thursday when I did the SUPERBODY aerobics video on YouTube (look it up – it’s cheesy and amazing! Hahaha!). You know you’ve had a good workout when SWEAT is running into your eyes! As Maya Angelou said:
Nothing will work unless you do.
Tap class starts again this week (woohoo!) and rather than continue with the Thursday afternoon class which is (as far as we know) returning to the studio, I’ll be doing the Wednesday night class online. It should be interesting! I’m really looking forward to getting back to it. I had promised to send our teacher a video of me doing the last routine we worked on (Harlem Shuffle) – I haven’t done this yet, so I’d better get in gear and record myself later!
My Saturday afternoon Charleston class is a mixture of both online and in-studio students, but I’m finding it a bit chaotic, and the Microsoft Teams platform is not ideal for live stream dance classes, especially as it cuts the teacher’s feet off if I pin her to full screen. It also freezes a lot, despite my laptop being connected to the broadband router by ethernet cable! Thankfully our teacher is sharing videos of the exercises and routine on our class WhatsApp group, and as I type(!) she is petitioning the college for us to be allowed to use another platform, such as Zoom or Google Meet… otherwise I’d probably be dropping out of the class. She also does some Rhythm Sessions and history talks online through her own vintage dance company, which I might check out.
Hope you are able to have a positive week amidst all this madness.
It seems like a long way off now, but at the beginning of September, my SO and I spent a relaxing week in the beautiful South West. We had been intending to head to Scotland this Summer, but then of course, COVID happened. We were prepared to just stay at home this year, but then as things began to open up after lockdown, and we were being encouraged to spend money, I found us a cute cottage on a cider farm in sleepy Somerset for a change of scene. We visited various National Trust gardens, Forde Abbey gardens, took a ride on a heritage steam train, had a cheeky spa day and afternoon tea (although steam room and sauna closed), and visited the East Devon coastal towns of Sidmouth, Seaton and Beer. It felt so good to get away…but obviously I missed my cat!
After watching so many online talks about tap dance and jazz dance history this summer, I got my jazz shoes out and enrolled on an online vintage jazz dance course called ‘Charleston to Jazz’, which I’ve been doing on Saturday afternoons since mid-September. As opposed to the musical theatre jazz that most people recognise now, vintage or authentic jazz refers to the original jazz dances popularised in the 1920s and 30s, influenced by the exciting ragtime, jazz and swing music of the time: the Charleston, the Black Bottom, the Big Apple, the Shimmy, Suzi-Q, Lindy Hop, Balboa and tap dance. So far we’ve learnt the Cakewalk, a dance that came out of Southern slave plantations and preceded many other jazz dances, and we’ve just started learning the Charleston, which I LOVE. The last 15 minutes of the class include watching some footage. In my enthusiasm I’ve probably taken on one thing too many again, but let’s see how it goes…
Every year I say I’m going to do loads of practise while we’re on a break from classes…and then the break is over before I know it! We’re well into the new term with Rhythm Tap, and for this block of classes we’re doing an amazing routine to Bob & Earl’s Harlem Shuffle. It’s really testing me on my open thirds & closed thirds (slurps), oh and my co-ordination!
As I hear about more and more dance studios opening up for socially distanced classes, I’m definitely missing being in the studio with my classmates and teacher. However:
Have you recently returned to the dance studio? Have you started learning any new styles? Let me know in the comments 🙂
Now that the summer is pretty much over, I’ve decided to set myself the challenge of going through the tap dance dictionary to increase my tap vocab. This week I’m concentrating on the Front Essence:
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.
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
Last week saw my final rhythm tap class before breaking for the summer holidays…but not before I attended two great summer workshops:
The Shim Sham
On Wednesday evening our rhythm tap teacher ran her one hour ‘Tap Shim Sham‘ summer workshop online. I was really looking forward to this because I didn’t get to take part last year due to other commitments (a friend’s BBQ!) and I’ve never quite picked up the razzmatazz ending of this famous tap dance standard. I was able to run an extra long cable from the broadband router in the house, down to my laptop in the garage so that I wouldn’t have to rely on intermittent Wi-Fi. Problem solved and no interruptions – apart from my cat poking her arm through the window and meowing at me through most of it! Even though I know the steps of the Shim Sham and have taken part in a few of these dances at various festivals (and even recorded myself for a lockdown video collab in May), it was just so helpful to go through it slowly, sort out my Tack Annies and just clean up the steps a bit, before speeding up. Fun!
Improvisation & Choreography
At 7pm on Thursday our teacher ran her two hour ‘Tap Improvisation & Choreography’ workshop on Microsoft Teams. As I’ve mentioned previously, public improvisation can be quite nerve-wracking, but with it being online this year, I emailed our teacher a few weeks earlier to ask how it would work this time. She said the session would focus more on using improvisation to create choreography, as opposed to just working on improv for improv’s sake. (When we have this workshop in person we usually work in a big circle doing call-and-response, exercises where we copy and then add our own ending, and nearer the end of the session we improvise in the middle of the circle, one at a time, before tagging someone else to take over – eek!)
For our online workshop there were only 5 of us, and we began by sitting on the floor to do some call-and-response clapping, including one exercise where if a certain rhythm was given, you were not supposed to clap (a bit like Simon Says)! We then moved onto doing the same exercises, but using our feet. We then moved onto using only 2 or 3 types of tap step to dance to a piece of music (e.g. only shuffles, flaps and stomps). We were then asked to choose a nursery rhyme, and come up with some choreography using those rhythms, being sure to sing while you did it. I chose Humpty Dumpty:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Then we had to demonstrate it to the rest of the class who had to guess which nursery rhyme it was – which they did quite quickly! I found it a really useful exercise with which to come up with some basic choreography, to which you can add more challenge by throwing in, say, a change of direction, or by crossing your feet. It’s definitely worth trying out at home – go on, do it!
Finally our teacher got us to pick a song and have a go at improvising in our very own Microsoft Teams breakout room, where she was able to ‘pop in’ and give each of us some feedback. After swiping frantically through my phone and pausing over Prince and Incognito a few times, I chose Duffy’s Rain on Your Parade, which worked very well for not being complicated. We had the task of focusing on different aspects of the song, such as the downbeat, the upbeat or the melody. It started off fixated on paddles and got and eventually got more creative, but then we ran out of time, so we didn’t get to demonstrate what we’d come up with – not that I minded on that occasion! Our teacher has asked us to send her a video of us jamming to our chosen song if we wish to…I’m thinking about it!
I have to say I was pretty done after two workshops, plus my usual rhythm tap class and Tap & Tea session all in the space of 2 days, but I got so much out of each of them, especially the improvisation & choreography class, and it really did take the stigma and fear out of having a go.
How are you managing with your dance classes at home? First of all, are you doing any classes? It’s really not a crime if you don’t feel like it. Things are pretty weird at the moment. There’s also so much out there online that you can end up feeling huge overwhelm and not doing anything. And that’s ok!
At the beginning of May I bought a double-sided roll-up Home Practice Tap Dance Mat from Dance & Stage. I’m now doing all my live classes in the living room, so my solution is a set of interlocking foam squares, topped with my interlocking dance floor, and then I put the roll up mat on top. It’s great! It’s not slippery, it dulls some of sound and it just feels great to dance on. When I’m doing recorded classes or just jamming, I use my portable wooden tap floor in the garage (which is also on top of foam tiles for shock absorption). It’s really important for your joints that you don’t tap on concrete or tiled floors as there’s none of the shock absorption you usually get from a dance studio sprung floor. Try foam tiles, a rug, or even a blanket or towel underneath a hard surface.
I have all these flooring options at home because I’ve been doing tap for 5 years and am obsessed and decided to invest in creating a home dance studio so I can practice regularly. You might not have any of these flooring options, or you might not be able to tap at home because you’re in a flat/apartment and would be bothering your neighbours…so instead you might want to:
Make it happen!
Happy Tap Dance Day! Today we’re celebrating the birthday of the legendary Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Actually, across the tap dance community, we’ve been celebrating all weekend!
On Saturday I ‘attended’ the Tap Dance UK festival (proceeds going to the tap artists), and did an amazing Body Percussion workshop with Helen Duffy at 10am, watched the lunchtime panel discussion on ‘Creating work: Process, Development & Funding’ and got some great insight into how they put a show together, and then at 3pm I did Jamie Spall’s challenging tap workshop. We did have some sound issues with Jamie’s workshop, that were resolved part way through, but she’s recorded some additional footage for us to practice from.
Sunday was the day of the National Tapathon for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, so I spent some time rehearsing the routine after church, before joining the action on Facebook Live at 3pm! My SO filmed me doing the routine indoors with the live streamed tapathon led by Harrison Vaughan of The Greatest Dancer, and then he filmed me again outside in the garden so that I’d have a decent video to share with the people that sponsored me. Participants were supposed to have a run-through of the routine with Harrison before the BIG event, but it never happened, so there ended up being a few subtle changes in the live performance that threw me off slightly. If I’d have spent more time on it, I would have done some improvisation in the pauses. However, I did throw in a double pull-back at the end, just for my sponsors!
Sunday was also the day of Tap Dance Festival UK’s online benefit for the National Health Service (NHS), so despite saying I wouldn’t be doing it, they twisted my arm and I bought a pass. I joined in with the welcome and warm up at 1pm and then the faculty panel Q&A hosted by TDFUK’s organiser Suze Clandon, and joined by Tony Waag (ATDF), Harriet Spence (Theatre Tap London), Vikas Arun (ATDF/Project Convergence) and Jess Murray (Tap Dance Research Network UK), plus special guest Sarah Reich. It was both Sarah & Suze’s birthday, so we sang Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday to them and wished them many happy returns! At the end of the panel discussion Sarah led us in a Shim Sham Shimmy, which was so much fun! But after that I was DONE. I totally over-did it this weekend…
Today I am enjoying the Bank Holiday by chilling out on the sofa with my feet up in front of the TV.
(I have a load of tap workshop content to catch up on from this Tap Dance weekend, plus an intermediate class I purchased from Old Kent Road Tap Company, but I’m parking physical exertion for a few days!)