Because an Irish has four sounds, American Tap Dance Foundation teacher Tamii Sakurai uses it to teach swing rhythm versus straight rhythm. Whereas a straight rhythm has four evenly spaced sounds (“Da. Da. Da. Da.”), swing rhythm groups the first and second sounds together and the third and fourth sounds together, accenting the second sound (“Da-DA! Da-da.”).
We’ve pulled together a series of exercises designed to help all levels of tap students find their voice:
• Just heels: A great way to get newcomers started is to limit their step vocabulary. Chloé Arnold, who directs the DC Tap Fest in addition to her own company, Syncopated Ladies, suggests a traditional improvisation circle, in which dancers take turns performing, but there’s a catch: “I tell them for this first round, you’re going to only use your heels. Then the next round, only your toes.” The goal is to be as rhythmically creative as possible while using only one part of the foot, or one simple step, such as a shuffle or a cramp roll. “Starting small, with just two to four bars of music (or 8 to 16 counts) per dancer, helps students realize that improvisation is less about steps and more about music,” she says.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Nemr
• Three and a break: Because standard tap choreography often includes a step repeated three times followed by a break, Arnold has her intermediate students create a phrase by improvising a step and repeating it three times, then creating a new step for the break. “The challenge becomes: Can you remember what you improvised? And how can you work that into a phrase?” This also helps students internalize what eight bars feels like and improves their musicality.
• Make a duet: According to Andrew Nemr, director of the New York City–based tap company Cats Paying Dues, “the final frontier of improvisation is that of a relationship.” Improvised duets are harder than they look, and they help students realize that their choices are going to affect someone else. “It always starts as a complete mess but slowly dancers realize, ‘Oh! I can’t do everything I wanted to do because there’s not enough space, so how do I find a way to contribute to what’s going on?’”