Photo by Christopher Duggan from Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant, and Jason Samuels Smith's And Still You Must Swing

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


Get Inspired

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


Savion Glover


Jimmy Slyde at the White House


Sarah Petronio at the Portland Tap Festival


Kazunori Kumagai's Trio Improvisation

Latest Posts


Friday Film Break: Kyle Abraham's "When We Fell" for New York City Ballet

For his third work on New York City Ballet, choreographer Kyle Abraham has created a quietly haunting new dance film called "When We Fell." Abraham told Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times that a peaceful winter residency at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park deeply influenced the material, and it shows in the work's spare beauty and elegant sense of calm.

Available for free as part of NYCB's digital season until April 22, the film was co-directed by cinematographer Ryan Marie Helfant. The cast includes India Bradley, Jonathan Fahoury, Christopher Grant, Claire Kretzschmar, Lauren Lovette, Taylor Stanley, KJ Takahashi and Sebastian Villarini-Velez.

February 2021