In the moments before a performance, all dancers have ways of getting warm, loose, and focused. Tap dancers sometimes face special challenges like not finding the right surface backstage or needing to keep their feet quiet while warming up. Brian Seibert asked four tap pros about their pre-performance rituals.
I get on the wood and improvise. If I’m performing by myself, I’ll throw on my iPod and just hit, listening to the song I’m going to dance to. If I’m performing with a group, we’ll get an improv circle going. I never like to go onstage cold, physically or mentally. You have to get your mind flowing rhythmically. Listening to Baby Laurence’s album is a ritual for me. If I can do one 10th of what he did, I’m doing great. My company and I watch a DVD with footage of the Nicholas Brothers, the Condos Brothers, Buck and Bubbles, and others. They set the standard of excellence. I’ve seen other dancers watch videos of themselves, like sports teams analyzing their mistakes. We only watch the old footage. Sometimes we play a game where we try to pull out something we saw.
My favorite thing to do before a performance is to teach a class or a private lesson. I completely lose myself and I focus on technique and communicating and being heard. I’ve been known to offer free classes on days I have performances. People call me crazy, but it works! Sometimes I’ll put on my tap shoes and dance on a low pile rug, where you get a lot of resistance. It makes you break a sweat. Backstage, I like to joke with people. The more action and camaraderie, the better. I went through a period of isolating myself, but I learned that it worked against me. It made it more difficult for me to connect with the audience. Other than that, I always bring three pairs of shoes, just in case. I polish all three and check the screws.
Ballet companies have company class and some modern companies have group warm-ups. Tap dancers are more independent, more like musicians. I start by doing gentle stretches. A lot of tap dancers skip this. Paul Draper, in his book about tap dancers, said that the excited feeling before a show could make him feel he didn’t need to warm up, but that he knew better. I feel the same way, maybe because I was a ballet dancer first. I’ve seen people get injured. Tap can start at such a low-impact level, just walking movements, but suddenly you’re doing wings and you’re glad that you stretched. After stretching, I do a tap warm-up, a little technical stuff to loosen my ankles, some Steve Condos-type rudiments. If there’s a musician there, we’ll do trades.
It doesn’t matter how often I perform, or where, I always get that tingle, that rush right before I go on. My stomach and thighs get tense and that tension flows out to my extremities. I know that once I hit the stage, it will go away. But it’s important to have that fear. It’s the times that I don’t have it that I mess up. You can get too comfortable. Something has to be at stake. Before going on, I’ll warm up a little in the wings with booties over my shoes so that I don’t make noise. If I’m doing choreography, I might hit the first couple of bars. But mostly I make sure to have a moment to breathe and say to myself, “Let me get out of my own way.”
Photo by Konrad Fielder.