It’s Not About the Steps

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Ann Kilkelly, former professor of Tap, Dramatic Literature, and Women’s Studies at Virginia Tech discusses the evolution of tap dance and what beginners should consider when just starting to tap.  

When Ann Kilkelly found herself standing before her committee at her final dissertation presentation years ago, she exclaimed “I think they should tap dance.” Her committee was shocked. This was not the response they were expecting when they asked her what she would advise those looking to get through their graduate dissertation to do. Kilkelly went on to explain the benefits the dance form could have even for non-dancers.

First of all, there are many health benefits to tap. On a physical health level, it is a highly aerobic form of exercise. She also explained how it is a de-stressor. Tap requires such focus on one part of the body or another and attentive listening to the rhythm that it allows one to let go of many everyday anxieties and stressors. For those who are interested in using their body more expressively, tap teaches timing, weight distribution, and musicality. Lastly, tap has been shown to have healing benefits and is used in various forms of dance therapy.

All in all, it was not the answer her committee expected, or what those of you who just signed up for your first tap class may have considered. But according to Kilkelly, tap is often underestimated, and this is highlighted by tap’s continual “fight to be considered a legitimate art form.” There seems to be a misconception that tap is just entertainment.  Kilkelly believes this to be a spurious assumption, underlining instead that “tap is music.”

In order to understand why its legitimacy as an actual art form is questioned, a little history lesson needs to come into play. Tap dance stands separate from many of its dance counterparts due to its nature as being native to the United States. It’s ultimately a blend of many cultures that immigrated here. And unlike other Western forms of dancing, tap pulls heavily from African styles of dancing and was initially born within the working class. The earliest forms of tap were practiced in the streets and not on stage, mostly by African American and immigrant communities. It picked up performative popularity in Vaudeville, entertaining the working class. It was not picked up by the upper classes until it became the primary form of dance on Broadway in the early and mid twentieth century. Thus, it’s continual association with entertainment has given birth to a skewed belief that tap is not art, but rather entertainment. This being said, Kilkelly is still hopeful about the future of tap and its continuing evolution as an art form.

As a teacher of tap for many years, both at the university level, but also to adults and children throughout the community, she had some advice on what beginning tappers should focus on. Right off the bat she says, “it’s not about the steps.” First, weight distribution is critical. After a slight pause she adds, “And just as important as that, maybe more, is hearing, listening, finding the beat and listening to it.” She describes the common tendency of many beginning tappers to intellectualize the tap steps. In place of this, she stresses just listening to the music, and equally important, learning to hear the tap steps themselves as music (when other music isn’t playing). Even for those who naturally struggle with rhythm, tap can help strengthen their ability to tune into it, and once this happens begin to shift their weight.

Now that you know what to focus on, the last thing to do is to pick out the right pair of tap shoes. Kilkelly had some advice on this too. Without hesitation, for those starting out, she advises against character shoes. She suggests a flat tap shoe model (oxfords) with a slightly built up heel. She giggles as she talks about picking out the right pair of shoes, saying “it’s like the shoes dance themselves.” Now, tap shoes can be pretty pricey, especially if you are picking out a pair of Capezios or So Dancas, two brands she recommends. For those looking for a quality pair that run cheaper, she suggests Blochs. Overall, you should look for a strong heel and good arch support. Soft souls are not recommended since they can affect the sound. Some heft but not too much in a shoe render the base notes required in tap.

With a little history lesson, a friendly reminder to get out of your head, and the right pair of shoes, get ready to listen and tap to your own rhythm.

Posted by Sanam Hashemi – artsii contributor