I have learned from 50 years experience at Melba’s McAllen dance school what to do and what not to do in planning a children’s dance curriculum. In my early years as a teacher, I always let the parents choose the type of dance for their children, as I wanted to please and include the parents. Years later, I realized my mistake. Most parents don’t realize what subjects in dance will most benefit their children throughout their lives.
In the pre-school dance classes at Melba’s McAllen dance school, I always recommend ballet, tap and gymnastics as a combo. This introduces the beginning student to a variety of types of dance. By changing subjects, shoes, and studios frequently, the teachers extend their students’ attention spans and enthusiasm. We have the gymnastics portion set up like a motor lab in a room that includes various circuits to improve motor skills. The ballet section includes songs and use of arms and feet with many activities in a group circle.
During tap time, the children love to put on their tap shoes and respond to the music. The ability to “hear” and “feel” the rhythm enhances teaching and attention spans. Children enjoy the happy music and the sounds that taps make.
Julie Doyle, center, leads pre-school tap at Melba's McAllen Dance School
Learning to dance in time with others is an important element of all dance training. Pre-school students need the balance of all three subjects: the grace and music of ballet, the physical skills and coordination of gymnastics, and the energetic participation and “feel” of tap rhythm. The class is divided into three levels for ages three years, four years, and five years. Parents can choose either once- or twice-a-week classes. The combo lasts one and one-half hours, and it is enough time for busy parents to run errands and not “hover.” There are two teachers in all classes and as many assistants as the class size demands.
For first-, second-, and third-grade students, a ballet-tap combination class is introduced. At that age, tap is still very important in developing rhythm, the skill of dancing in unison, and helps train the children in using the extra teaching aid of sound. The combo builds a strong foundation for these students. Tap performance also helps establish a more outgoing “stage” personality.
Tap dance builds self-confidence.
For students in the fourth grade and up, they and their parents may select the type of dance class. By this time most of them are hooked in some fashion on tap. At this level In my studio, we have as many students in tap as in ballet. The teachers all report that the best tap dancers are almost always also the best jazz and hip-hop dancers. The experienced teachers can fairly accurately predict the best students for the future even at the pre-school level.
The professional dancers from Melba’s McAllen dance school all agree that tap opened doors for them that would not have opened if they had not tapped. One of the best ballet dancers from our school, Melissa Lenz, is a Rockette and taps all the time. Another top jazz dancer from our school, Liz Ramos, toured and choreographed with Earth, Wind and Fire for several years, and always has professional work. She got her first professional job tap dancing in three European tours of “Black and Blue,” under direction of Henry LeTang. She feels that at any audition she has a 10 percent edge because she is confident she can do any kind of dance that is thrown at her.
Former Melba's student & Radio City Music Hall Rockette Melissa Lenz teaches guest class at Melba's McAllen dance school
When another former student, Meredith Sutton, interviewed for the choreographer/dance teacher job in the theatre department at Baylor University, they asked, “Can you tap dance?” Tap was needed for many of their shows. Indeed, she could tap. She got the job and obtained her master’s degree in theatre and is still teaching lots of tap.
The success of tap classes depends upon the enthusiasm and ability of the teachers. Ballet is very important and is more formal in the classroom. But, even most die-hard ballet fans admit that tap is more “fun” than ballet and gives the students a unique opportunity to respond to rhythmically expressive music.
Dance teachers need continuing education and inspiration. For many years, I have taken students and teachers to the St. Louis Tap Festival and Tradition In Tap in New York. Because the elder hoofers are there, the teachers are always impressed to see living, moving, tapping proof that a tap career can last longer than other dance forms.
There are many tap festivals with wonderful teachers. Most are held during the summer. The St. Louis Tap Festival is held in late July. Tradition In Tap in New York is held in May and November. There is the L.A. Tap Festival, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, the New York City Tap Festival, and Atlanta has one. Bril Barrett hosts a Chicago festival in October. Exploration of the internet will bring up more in widely dispersed locales. There are European Tap Festivals and even one in Hawaii.
Robert Reed teaches master class to celebrate Melba's 50th-year Gala.
In New York the popular studio, Steps, has added more studios for tap. Broadway Dance Center has always featured many tap classes. Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards and Omar Edwards have a studio in Harlem. Melba’s Sylvania Reyna teaches “Fit Tap” in the San Diego area and Arlene Kennedy teaches tap, plus much more in Los Angeles. Many colleges and universities now offer tap classes. Oklahoma City University stands out with opportunities to major in tap, jazz or ballet. The availability of a college degree in tap is a step forward for tap.
Many of the Broadway revivals include tap, and tap is an established part of performance dance and the American culture.
Teachers are the “front line” in preserving tap and inspiring new generations of tap dancers. Tap is not only an end in itself, but a method we can use to give students well-rounded dance training. As educators, we owe it to our students to assure that tap, a national treasure and unique American art form, is preserved and utilized in our training curriculum.