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Improve Your Improv: Top Tips for Tap Dancers
Does the thought of being asked to improvise in a tap class make you sweat? Do you have a hard time finding the freedom in your feet?
Master tap dance teacher and performer Barbara Duffy knows the feeling. In her new book "Tap into Improv," Duffy offers tools, tips and exercises to alleviate improv anxiety.
"Improvisation must be PRACTICED!" Duffy writes. "Often tap dancers put unrealistic expectations on themselves, thinking they should be able to immediately improvise at a high level. While improvisation comes more naturally to some people, we all need practice to improve."
Here are some of the biggest takeaways from her book:
Duffy's 3 Basic Rules for Improv:
Focus: Focus on the feeling of what you are doing, rather than what you look like.
Breathe: Finding the flow of your breath is crucial to your sound quality and groove.
Make a Big Finish: Have fun and be dramatic!
Take Music Lessons
The history of jazz music and tap dance in America are woven tightly together. So it's no surprise that in order to master rhythmic improv, you gotta understand music. "Jazz music will expand your sense of rhythmic phrasing and will expose you to a vast range of emotions through its melodies," Duffy writes. She encourages learning the "musical feels": straight, swing, triplets, double-time and syncopation. Bonus: There's a reference section in the back of the book with musical selections that are ideal for improv.
Studying music can improve your improv skills. Photo by Matthew Henry/Stocksnap
Flex Your Improv Muscles
Duffy offers more than a dozen different creative exercises to help dancers hone their craft, including:
- Imitating another tap dancer to find a new approach or bring a different sensibility to your improv
- Talking out loud while improvising to allow others to see your personality
- Challenging yourself to never look down at the floor
- Playing with stopping in the middle of your improvisation to add an element of surprise
- Using a phrase of choreography and changing it rhythmically
Duffy shares a collection of YouTube video links to watch, showcasing a variety of improv styles. Check out these ones:
Michelle Dorrance at the 2014 Stockholm Tap Festival
Jimmy Slyde at the White House
Sarah Petronio at the Portland Tap Festival
Kazunori Kumagai's Trio Improvisation
Mash-ups aren't uncommon in the dance world: Performers of varying styles have been known to share the stage, from ballerina Tiler Peck and famed clown Bill Irwin to Michelle Dorrance, who's mixed tappers and break-dancers. Likewise, collaborations between choreographers and artists from seemingly mismatched disciplines have produced magical creations, such as Alexei Ratmansky's Whipped Cream, featuring Mark Ryden's whimsical and even grotesque designs and costumes.
But the Israeli troupe Ka'et Contemporary Dance Ensemble has found success in one of the most unlikely partnerships: Secular contemporary choreographer Ronen Itzhaki creates movement for a group of rabbis.
While undoubtedly best known for her dancing, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston has also been getting noticed for her style by Allure and Vogue—and with good reason. Her Instagram feed features a mix of on-trend athleisure wear and detailed dresses from runway designers like Valentino and Anna Sui, none of which would be complete without the makeup and hair to match. With a penchant for skin care and an ever-growing lipstick collection, Boylston talked us through some of her beauty must-haves on and off the stage.
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
DanceBreak came roaring back to life on Monday after seven years on hiatus, and six choreographers now have the opportunity to be the next Andy Blankenbuehler. Or Joshua Bergasse, Kelly Devine, Casey Nicholaw, Josh Prince or Josh Rhodes. These stellar Broadway choreographers all got their first big shows after Melinda Atwood's musical-theater launching pad let them show the industry what they could do.
Since 2002, DanceBreak has been a sort of "So You Think You Can Choreograph" for Broadway. Although not everyone goes straight there—Mandy Moore and Mia Michaels are alumni, too—the program is meant to funnel talented choreographers to the Broadway stage by providing a platform for their work. Prince, who introduced Atwood to the cheering crowd, has paid DanceBreak the ultimate compliment, creating his own non-profit incubator for theater choreographers, Broadway Dance Lab. On Monday, he recalled the story of how he was offered the role of choreographer on Broadway's Shrek just days after its director saw the 2007 edition.
When caring for your feet or trying to make them look good, it's tempting to seek shortcuts. Bad ideas—like dangerous stretches that promise perfect lines or ointments that were never meant to go on your toes—catch on all too easily backstage.
We asked podiatrists who've seen their dance clients try it all share the habits they'd like to see gone for good.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country: