- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

Northwest resident Cathy Newman was standing in line one day waiting to buy coffee at the office cafeteria when a woman behind her wondered aloud: “What’s that sound?”

Ms. Newman was practicing her tap-dancing skills out of habit and the clickety-clack of her shoes gave her away.

“It’s an infectious thing, a happy thing,” Ms. Newman says.

Tap dancing isn’t just for modern masters like Savion Glover of “Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk” fame. Plenty of District dwellers are taking tap classes to step a little livelier.

Budding tappers can find classes at the D.C. Dance Collective, Joy of Motion, the Dance Place and the Knock On Wood Tap Studio in Silver Spring.

Ms. Newman, 56, says she took ballet and tap lessons as a child but “didn’t go near a pair of tap shoes for 40 years or so.”

She took a 12-week beginner class “as a lark” and found she was one of the older students in the session.

“I didn’t care,” she says, describing the lessons as “liberating.”

“I didn’t have any illusions of being Gregory Hines,” she says of the late tap dancing great.

Heidi Schultz, a tap instructor with the District’s Joy of Motion dance studio, says tap breaks down into two camps: rhythm tap, and Broadway or show tap.

Mr. Glover is a proponent of rhythm tap, the kind moviegoers can see now in the popular animated film “Happy Feet.” It’s a complex dance form, which Ms. Schultz describes as more jazz than pop. Earlier practitioners once called this type of tap “hoofing.”

Broadway tap, by comparison, involves more of the body, sometimes including choreographed arm movements. Think of a musical with chorus girls tapping in harmony.

A Broadway tapper might shoot his or her arms outward during a performance like a pair of wings, Ms. Schultz says.

She says tap peaked in popularity during the 1950s but since then has secured a small but steady following stateside that’s impervious to pop cultural whims.

Her tap classes attract students who wouldn’t call themselves great dancers.

“Tap seems to be a little less intimidating,” she says. “For men, it’s seen as a more masculine type of dance.”

In fact, tap can be a good way to let off steam, something too many Washingtonians could use.

“You get to stomp around and make noise on purpose,” Ms. Schultz says. “It’s a little rebellious.”

Finding a place to practice is part of the learning curve, she says.

Some students work on movements at home, avoiding cement floors, which ruin tap shoes. Others tap-tap-tap while waiting for the elevator.

“A lot of it is getting muscle memory,” Ms. Schultz says, adding some students use TV commercial breaks at home to tap out a few pointers. “You want it to become second nature.”

In class, she might use anything from Motown to hip-hop music to motivate students, anything with a beat that’s easy to hear, she says.

Leanne Regan, a tap teacher at the District’s Dance Place, says some students will find the concentrated movements within rhythm tap easier to tackle. Others, Ms. Regan says, find comfort in the overall body movements found in Broadway tap.

With the latter, if a dancer misses a movement, he or she can camouflage it with some exaggerated movements.

During a rhythm tap performance, sophisticated audience members will know if a step doesn’t click like it should.

Ms. Regan says the hardest element to teach her students is how to use their feet in new ways.

“Your foot is not just a whole foot now. When you’re tapping, we distinguish between the toe sounds and the heel sounds. You have to use your foot in two different ways,” she says.

Beginners are advised to tread lightly when buying their first tap shoes. A novice can get away with a pair for around $20, Ms. Regan says. Advanced tappers can trade up to better shoes, ones that work with a particular style.

“It’s similar to a set of pointe shoes [for ballet]. You’re looking for the right shoe for your foot and your style,” Ms. Regan says. Some shoes bend more than others, she adds, which might be beneficial to some dancers.

Tap student Megan Mitchell of Northwest says she always enjoyed watching tap dancing in movies, particularly Shirley Temple classics on television.

When she began taking classes with Ms. Schultz, she says the movements didn’t come naturally.

That didn’t matter to the 40-year-old beginner.

“It’s a great release,” Mrs. Mitchell says.

Since starting two years ago, she’s found it hard to make regular classes, so for now she drops in on classes when her schedule permits and repeats lessons when necessary.

Mrs. Mitchell also gets tips online. Some Web sites (like www.ukjtd.-force9.co.uk/Timestepsite/) offer video snippets in slow motion that break down the key movements and make them easier to absorb.

She also can’t tap too loudly at home for fear of disturbing the neighbors.

“It’s so much about shifting your weight, and you tend to stomp a lot,” Mrs. Mitchell says.

Those who want to see tap dancing elevated to its highest level can catch Mr. Glover during his Feb. 9-10 appearances at the Warner Theatre in “Classical Savion.”

Beginners signing up for their first tap class can’t expect to out-stomp Mr. Glover. They just want to make some beautiful music on their own — with their feet.

And Ms. Newman says if she can take up tap, anyone can.

“I’m not particularly graceful and I don’t dance willingly or happily, but even klutzes like myself can learn the basics,” she says.

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