Starinah Dixon
July 1, 2015

Music for tap

Dixon (right) teaching at a tap festival in
Florianópolis, Brazil

For Starinah Dixon, the most exciting skill to teach tappers is improvisation; it’s a practice she’s been polishing her entire life. As the younger sister of M.A.D.D. Rhythms founder Bril Barrett, she says, “He was teaching me to tap dance before I could walk.” In her Chicago classes, Dixon (who goes by Star) combines exercises she learned from her brother with other influences and her own ideas to take students through a challenging series of activities that test their musicality. In a game called “Make ’Em Work,” the next tapper in the circle must repeat the final bar performed by the dancer before her. It challenges the first dancer to come up with a tricky combination as much as it challenges the following dancer to repeat it, Dixon explains.

As essential as musicianship is to a tap performance, Dixon also coaches dancers to make moves look as good as they sound. How, exactly, dancers do that is largely up to them. “I don’t like choreographing arms, because sometimes what you do with your body helps you do a step,” she says. “I say just exaggerate what your body is doing to make it bigger. So if your arm comes up a little bit, bring it way up. Go all the way.” DT

Artist: Janelle Monáe

Song: “Metropolis”

“Great music to warm up to. She’s one of my all-time favorite artists because she has such a funky style, musically and fashionably. I love her use of real instruments, as well as abstract sounds. She’s definitely one of my most-played artists in class.”



Artist: Stevie Wonder

Song: “Pastime Paradise”

“Anything Stevie is going to get the class going. This is one of my favorite songs by him. I love the arrangement.”




Artist: The Jacksons

Song: “This Place Hotel”

“This was the first piece I choreographed to for M.A.D.D. Rhythms. It’s such a smooth song—great to vibe to. This is one of those songs that I felt down in my heart.”



Artist: Ella Fitzgerald

Song: “Lullaby of Birdland”

“This is one of my favorite jazz songs. I’ve choreographed and performed to it several times. I also like to use this song when I’m teaching more traditional steps and routines.”



Artist: Hiatus Kaiyote

Song: “Breathing Underwater”

“My fellow tap dancer Jumaane Taylor recently played this song for me and I instantly fell in love. The arrangement, the drum breaks, the lead singer’s voice—it just makes me want to dance.”



Photo (top) by Cristiano Prim, courtesy of Dixon

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