An Apprenticeship in American Tap Dance
Editor's Note: Tal Oppenheimer is an apprentice working with master tap dancer Sam Weber as a participant in this year's Apprenticeship Program. Prior to their apprenticeship, Oppenheimer had worked with Weber for two years, and has performed with the Bay Area Rhythm Tap Company in Berkeley since 2006. Below, she shares her thoughts on the form, its history, and her work with Weber as she completes her apprenticeship with him and prepares to attend Harvard University in the fall as an undergraduate, where she will also continue her tap dance practice.
Weber, whom Oppenheimer describes as "a master in all senses of the word," is a nationally and internationally celebrated dance instructor, choreographer and virtuoso based in San Francisco.
For me, tap dancing is something I do all day, every day. I am constantly tapping my feet or practicing my newest dance under my desk in school, in the car, or when I'm just walking down the street. I tap to challenge myself, relax, and just have fun. I started tapping when I was six and don't plan to stop any time soon. I have taken tap classes from various teachers who each have distinct styles and methods of teaching, but that's what makes the classes so much fun. I believe that tap is about expressing oneself and communicating with others.
Tap originated in America and is truly an American art form. Although tap is rooted in African American drumming and Irish dance, modern tap only came into existence when the two combined. During the time of slavery, because drumming was frowned upon, many slaves began using their feet to produce a similar effect, and thus created the basics that would later evolve into tap. After the abolition of slavery, many slaves attempted to improve their social and economic standings but were soon forced to live in the worst and poorest neighborhoods. During this same time, the Irish potato famine caused an influx of Irish immigrants to America. Their poor economic state forced them to live in the destitute neighborhoods alongside the newly freed slaves. This mesh of cultures on the streets soon produced modern tap, as groups would dance together and share steps and ideas. The mix of African American drumming culture with the technique and shoes of the Irish dancers fused to create tap dance. Although tap originally used hard shoes that created noise, the invention of metal taps made it easy to turn any shoe into a tap shoe, and as a result, furthered the spread of tap.
Now, tap shoes have evolved to be, most commonly, black leather shoes with a metal plate on the ball of the shoe and a metal plate on the heel of the shoe to provide sound. The taps on the shoes are screwed into place so that their tightness can be adjusted. Some tap dancers prefer to have very tight taps, others enjoy the resonance that slightly loosening them provides. Tap shoes are an instrument, and the specific weight of the shoe or tonality of the tap can change the overall sound the shoe produces.
Treating tap shoes as an instrument is important because tap dancing is a fusion between an instrument and a dance. During this apprenticeship, I have learned about and improved in both of these aspects. Sam Weber and I have worked on musicality, time signatures, technique, and improvisation. Sam has also been teaching me various routines, some of which he choreographed himself and others which were originally choreographed by famous past tap dancers. He has taught me routines to jazz versions of the classical "Goldberg Variations" composed by Bach, a big band swing piece "Slipped Disk" by Benny Goodman, a bebop piece "Billie's Bounce" by Charlie Parker, and a more modern jazz piece "Footprints" by Wayne Shorter. We are also working on a piece choreographed by the Condos Brothers to "War Dance for Wooden Indians" by the Raymond Scott Quintet which is an avant-garde jazz group from the 30's. All the routines have been fun and the musical variety has made it both more interesting and challenging as each dance is distinct and requires a different type of energy.
Sam has spent many classes working with me on my musicality by helping me improve my ability to switch between 8th notes, triplets, and 16th notes. He has helped explain to me their general meaning and has come up with a multitude of exercises that test and refine my ability to switch between them, no matter what the actual steps of the exercise are. Coming into this apprenticeship, I knew very little about this, and although Sam had worked with me on this before, the constant practice and correction have helped me improve greatly and acquire a basic grasp of the subject.
More recently, Sam has been teaching me routines in various time signatures. We have worked in the more common 4/4 time and have also done several pieces in 3/4. Sam has also made sure that I can actually identify these various time signatures by playing different pieces and having me tell him what time signature it's in – whether it be in five, seven, or even thirteen. Although I used to struggle with this, I can now accurately identify these different time signatures on a fairly regular basis.
Throughout the entire apprenticeship, Sam has made sure to correct my technique to improve my sounds as well as the speed and accuracy of my tap. When I first started with him, I had a habit of ankling (using my ankle to move my foot rather than relaxing the ankle while using the entire leg to maneuver the foot and create the sound). Sam and I spent many classes both before and during the apprenticeship working on getting over this unfortunate habit and understanding the importance of relaxing the foot and ankle in order to produce sounds more efficiently. The old habits of ankling creep back in every now and then, but I have become well acquainted with recognizing this and working to correct it. Many times I won't get a new step during the first class, but Sam patiently explains to me how to do it and corrects little things like knee placement, where to start the step, or how much force I should put into it. The steps that I fail to get are always my favorite, as they force me to completely concentrate and experience the utter joy of being lost. I love to be confused about a step because it provides me with a goal to work towards, as well as a fun challenge to overcome. Sam is always able to find something impossible for me to try – making all of my classes with him unbelievably fun.
Learning all of these different aspects is a challenge, but applying them on the spot has been even harder for me. A large portion of tap culture involves improvisation and trading bars. Every once in a while, at the end of class, Sam puts on some basic jazz music and we trade eight bars, or four bars, depending on what we decide. Improvising is not only about making up steps on the spot but is also about accompanying the music nicely while still listening to the other participants' ideas and playing off of them. When we improvise, we always do trades rather than one of us improvising an entire number. For me, this serves as a springboard, as I can play off of ideas Sam introduces while still adding my own into the mix.
In short, this apprenticeship has allowed me to grow in all aspects of tap dancing and gain both appreciation and love for this art.