When Emmy-nominated choreographer and master tap teacher Gregg Russell was a young dancer, his teacher Henry LeTang exposed him to classic jazz music—in class. But, as Russell recalls, no one was using that kind of music at competitions. For his next Showstopper competition number, he decided to dance to the “new” music. He went with an old jazz standard from the ’20s. “It was this scratchy track—I don’t remember the name—with blues horns, and I remember the judges on the critique tapes saying, ‘Oh, this is nice,’ like it was brand-new,” he says. This opened Russell’s eyes and ears to the powerful impact music choice can have.
Now, when considering a new piece, Russell sometimes finds it useful to mix two different styles together. Pairing choreography with an unlikely choice of music can create a whole new sound and experience for both the dancers and the audience, he says. For example, in a recent piece for his company Tap Sounds Underground, he choreographed traditional tap steps, but picked a song by The Derek Trucks Band, an American jam band. The crowd went ballistic. “You would have thought the audience was at church,” he says.
Russell, who’s performed with legends such as Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers and Michael Jackson, just to name a few, makes sure to bring history into his classes. Although, he admits, making a 10-year-old appreciate classic music can be tricky.
“I’ll teach a combo to a current song, but then I’ll do the same combo to a jazz song,” he says. For the most part, this works. “And it inspires kids to open their minds to hearing new sounds, as opposed to the same five songs on the radio that everyone else is using.”