By Kricket Forster of Melbourne Tap Dance.
Are you a tap teacher? Or a studio director who wishes more kids would get on board for tap classes? As a passionate tapper myself, I have often wondered why it is so easy to get children into jazz or hip-hop classes (and KEEP them) while it can be rather difficult to get a full class for tap.
Of course there may be a number of reasons for this, but I think the main reason is perception. Tap is often seen as an old fashioned style, and not necessarily as accessible to new generations of budding dancers as hip-hop for instance. Then there is the very specific technique and need for concentration that can be off-putting to young ones just wanting to have fun.
I have, however, noticed that it is possible to combat these things in order to keep kids interested and even excited for tap. Every teacher has a different style of tap (and also of teaching), and along with that, not all groups of students are alike, but to help keep full and vibrant tap classes, here are a few things you can consider:
Less Drills, More One-on-One
We all know drills can be great for technique when students are young as they benefit from repetition. Having said this, children unsurprisingly get bored of doing the same thing over and over again. Therefore, drilling a step back and forth across the studio can destroy their enthusiasm or care for doing the steps well.
Instead, try only drilling steps as a part of the warm-up as a group, reminding them of technical things to remember when doing them (heels up, bend knees, etc). Sometimes doing drills with them and maybe even picking up the pace as a challenge can get them more enthusiastic – as they want to keep up with their mentor.
When teaching a new step, I like to teach it to my students all together, and then have them practice it by themselves for a few minutes while I go around checking on their technique and sound. All the while, I am giving them encouragement and tips on how to get it out, which gives them a sense of challenge with themselves and a feeling that their teacher genuinely cares about how they are coming along as an individual.
It can be easy to get caught up in perfecting clarity of sound and learning new techniques in class. But this can often lead to a lack of time to properly explain rhythm and timing. If children do not understand why they are making sounds and where it fits in the music, not only will the sound leave something to desire, but they will also be unable to make a connection to their routines and truly enjoy the music that they are making. Don’t just simply call out at them to keep in time – teach them what that means. By counting out the 1, 2, 3, 4’s with them to their piece and helping them to find where the 1, 2, 3, 4’s are within their steps, rhythm and timing will eventually become second nature.
Try creating cool little rhythm ditties involving stomps, claps and clicks (or body percussion) to bring rhythmic fun to their classes. Don’t be afraid to bring simple props into the equation, like sticks and metal drums (think Stomp) as this mixes up the dynamic for your students to get excited about something different.
Also, try to keep your rhythms fresh! We as teachers with many other classes to prepare for can tend to get caught in a “rhythm rut.” Try with all your might to keep rhythms interesting and changing, as your students can also get caught in your rhythm rut and become uninterested in new combinations that follow the same musical arrangement as many others they have learnt before.
As much as I love those classic old pieces that lend themselves brilliantly to tap dance, I always have to remind myself that the kids of today may not identify with them. One of the reasons so many students flock to jazz and hip-hop classes is that they often get to listen to their favourite top-of-the-charts hits while they’re learning. If you have a listen to what’s on the radio, it may not all be suitable for performance pieces, but there tend to be plenty of pieces with a good tempo that can be used just for warm-ups and combinations in class.
Also, avoid overuse of the old-style, piano-only tracks and save it for just set exam pieces as kids no longer find that style of music inspiring. If all they ever hear in tap class is the jingle jangle of old tunes they don’t identify with, they are less likely to beg for re-enrolment when the time comes along. Newer versions of those classic melodies including percussion and a full band, which gives it more life, can easily be found online. Kids tend to enjoy this more, so if you’re attached to a certain older piece, aim to find a revamp or cover of it. Something I find almost never misses the mark, no matter the age group, is funky music. There is just something about funk music that makes people tap their toe and groove along to it.
Show Your Enjoyment
Your students feed off your energy more than you might realize. Your passion (or lack of it) can be extremely contagious. Because of this, if you are a studio owner whose favourite facet is definitely not tap it could be very beneficial to have someone more in love with the style to teach it for you. Or if you do really love it, try to show that when you demonstrate steps. Get outwardly excited when they nail a step or combination so that they are not afraid to feel or express excitement for what they have achieved.
Explain “feeling” the piece and it’s movements to your students rather than just telling them to smile or “present.” If students can find the emotion or groove within a piece, their presentation and performance of it will also be more believable as they will truly be enjoying it.
Challenges & Growth
Children generally do not realise that the simple step they are learning right now will eventually become a much more exciting step after they have mastered the basic version. If I can sense students getting bored with a step that they are not quite ready to move on from, or giving me the whole “yawn – that’s too easy” routine, I show them how fast it can be done or how much more complex it can get. This has two purposes: 1) to show them that there are so many fun and interesting things to learn in tap class if they keep working hard, and 2) to show them what you are capable of which inspires them to one day dance as well as their teacher.
On top of this, always try to challenge your kids. Even if they don’t yet have the ability to get the moves you are showing them, some will keep at it and have something to aim for by next class. If they are only ever learning safe combinations of steps they can already do, they won’t be motivated to improve.
Above all else, remember that you are teaching children and sometimes all they are in the mood for is having some fun. If they are not getting a step that you have gone over and over, just move onto something else and come back to it another day with a different approach. If you keep at it your own frustration will eventually reflect onto them.
Make little games out of combinations, such as giving them a little time to come up with their own eight-counts to match a rhythm, or to strike their own poses for stop time sections. There are games that can be played at the end of class as incentives to get through their work quicker, such as rhythms they have to stamp out around a circle, with whoever stamps at the wrong time sitting down until only one is left in. Or you can show them some “questions and answers” – with the questions being steps that you “call out” and the answers being a step that they have to remember and execute correctly after your “question.”
Remember that you are teaching a generation of young people who are not used to having to wait for things, and so need to feel some sort of gratification in each lesson. The goal of that one eventful day they get to perform in the end-of-year concert just may not be enough to keep them entertained for a year’s worth of classes.
There are so many different children with a plethora of influences and interests in today’s culture, so of course there will still be those who are harder to reach. If we keep it fresh and aim to use some of these methods, we just may be on a path to building a new generation of avid followers for our beloved rhythmic art of tap.
Are you in need of a little inspiration yourself? Make sure to get to Australian Tap Dance Festival, Sep 27 – Oct 4 in Melbourne. Visit www.australiantapdancefestival.com.au for more information.
Photo (top): © Lorraine Swanson | Dreamstime.com
Photos courtesy of Melbourne Tap Dance.