Margaret Morrison and Susan Hebach understand the value of a good teacher. As longtime faculty members at the American Tap Dance Foundation, they’ve spent their careers adhering to ATDF’s noble mission to give tap a permanent and well-deserved place in concert dance, via education, preservation, new developments and presentation. In 2014, Morrison and Hebach capitalized on their joint (and rare) strength—teaching others how to teach tap—by founding ATDF’s Tap Teacher Training Program. It’s based on the work of the Copasetics, an ensemble of tap soloists from the mid-20th-century golden age of tap.
Unsurprisingly, their teacher training is intensive. For one week, teachers from all over the world spend all day in New York City at the ATDF studios, learning five classic dances from the Copasetic repertory with an eye to technique, musicality and style, and focusing on specific teaching goals. The week wraps with an informal showing, in which each participant presents the five dances they’ve learned. DT spoke with Morrison and Hebach about what makes their teacher training unique and how they keep the vibrant history of tap alive in it.
DT: When you say that there’s a sense of accountability within your teacher training, what do you mean?
MM: One of the biggest dangers of having a teacher training was: How do you teach a curriculum and make sure the participants have it and won’t misteach it? So we have a whole system of distance learning: Each person who comes to study with us is assigned a mentor from our faculty and, once the week is over, turns in assignments through video, so we can give feedback. “This is great, but I noticed you could fix that.” It’s a supportive mentorship.
DT: How does tap dance history make its way into your teacher training?
MM: I give a short history of tap dance, dating from before it was even called ‘tap dance’—from early American dance, a combination of West African dance forms and Irish dance forms here in North America. The participants learn the Copasetic repertory: the Shim Sham, the Coles Stroll, the Copasetic soft shoe, Doin’ the New Low Down. When they learn these classic dances, there’s information about the background. They can bring that to their students. What people keep reporting back to us is that their students get super-excited when they know they’re not just learning an arbitrary dance—it’s a dance that’s connected to all these other people and has a history.
DT: Why use the Copasetics’ canon in your curriculum?
MM: This group of men, the Copasetics—tap dancers and jazz professionals [including original and subsequent members Dizzy Gillespie, James “Buster” Brown and Charles “Honi” Coles, mentor to ATDF co-founder Brenda Bufalino]—formed a social club in 1949 to honor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who’d just died. When they’d perform, they would each do their own solos and high-level acts, but they’d also slip in historic material.
SH: These works are good foundational dances—I can see the value. They’re easily used in presentation and performance, for various levels of students.
MM: The Copasetics understood that you had to educate the audience on the heritage of tap. It’s not arbitrary—there’s a reason these dances survived. The more we dance them and teach them, the deeper they get.
DT: How do you keep the improvisational spirit of tap alive in a codified teacher-training curriculum?
SH: Our teachers [in this training program] have some classes in improv, and we also give them ideas on teaching improv. Maybe you improvise, but you only use a certain handful of steps; maybe you improvise in certain amounts of time so you learn how to hear musical phrasing. In our youth program at ATDF, even the very youngest classes improvise. The Copasetic dances we teach give us something to deconstruct and pull apart.
DT: What would you say to a studio owner who’s struggling to keep an interest in tap afloat at her studio?
SH: Tap dance is a deep art. It’s not like ballet—it’s for anybody, of any body type, any ethnicity, any height. There’s a lot of room for individuality. You feel accomplished in a different way. Students might thrive, if they can’t thrive in ballet or contemporary, and that doesn’t make it any less important or valid or exciting