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Barbara Duffy has long been held as the go-to authority for teaching tap dance improvisation, giving classes at (among others) Steps on Broadway and now at the American Tap Dance Centre specifically on this subject. As the title suggests, Tap Into Improv is her guide to tap dance improvisation, aimed at giving you the tools to tap into your own improvisational potential.
The book details the ‘concepts, exercises and ideas’ that Duffy ‘has compiled over the last twenty-seven years’ and no doubt employed throughout her career in tap dance and more specifically the teaching of this area of it. I think, therefore, it is fair to say that the reader is in good hands.
In chapter one the book starts out right where most tap dancers stop, with the fear. Throughout the book Duffy does not shy away from coaching the reader through the mental blocks which seem go hand in hand with tackling improvisation, and I have to say she’s really good at it. I know. I’ve been there. I used to be terrified of improvisation. I remember, back when I was a teenager, absolutely dreading the part of ISTD exams which involved, what I now know to be, extremely limited amounts of improv. I wish this book had been published then as I would have had the tools to tackle what is fast becoming one of my favourite things to do.
After covering a brief history of improvisation and the definition of improv, we move onto chapter two which gives the basics. This particular chapter includes some absolute gems of wisdom and means that this text can even be used by dancers right at the beginning of their training and improvisational journey. If I could urge you to take away one piece of advice from chapter two it would be: sing your rhythms! Singing, or counting, or saying your steps in the rhythm is useful for every aspect of tap dancing (and definitely something Barbara is very keen on), but this one piece of advice, I feel, is the one that has made the most difference to my improvisation.
And then there is the music, because where would we be without the music? This past year, as I delve deeper into my creative journey and crave ever more knowledge I have come to learn a lot about music, and more specifically jazz music. If you’re looking for the tap dancer’s 101 on jazz music and the basics you really should know, then chapter three is your place to find them. And incidentally, like the entire book, all the key advice and exercises are clearly laid out in bite size chunks and arranged in easily identifiable boxes. This means that when you have finished reading cover to cover and are returning back to reference exercises and techniques you remember seeing, then the key areas are easily located.
While we’re all getting into our groove and singing our rhythms we can’t forget that tap is also a visual art form, and that’s where chapter four chimes in with some physical exercises as well creative outside-the-box ideas for exercises. As with the entire book, there are plenty of exercises from other Pros. Brenda Bufalino, Michelle Dorrance, Derick K. Grant, Kazu Kumagai, Thomas Marek and Sarah Petronio have all contributed their own nuggets of information and advice on all the different aspects of improvisation that are considered in the book, and in chapter four have yet more out-there ideas for you to really tap into your own improvisational style. These are things which I would probably never have thought of doing on own.
Chapter five is where these respected artists weigh in with their own ideas and experiences on improvisation in response to some key questions we’d all like to ask them on the subject. They also leave us with some inspiring and useful final notes. It’s then when you might be asking yourself, ok great, but where do I start?
Don’t worry Barbara’s got that covered too. If you’re like me when I first got this book, and you’re not that experienced in improvisation, you may be wondering what music should I turn to? What are some useful resources to watch? Where I can see the masters at work? At the end of the book there is a list of tunes Duffy recommends for the beginning improv dancer, as well as some tunes she recommends for when you’re well on your way to improvising like a Pro. She also gives a list of links of dances to watch on YouTube where we can consider the Pros in their element.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough, and that recommendation mainly stems from the fact that before I received this book I was hopeless at improv. I really had no idea where to start, and I don’t have the luxury of New York City (or countless other cities where it’s possible to just roll up and take a class). This book was my way into improv. Having practised exercises on and off for a year, I now feel confident enough in my abilities that I could hold my own on the improv floor without coming away feeling dejected or depressed. If you are looking for a series of ideas to use in your improv and to grow in your ability, I would say that this book definitely does that for you.
And don’t you dare start complaining about the price, just think you can have all Duffy’s expertise for cost of a couple of classes at Steps, absolute bargain!
This article is an exapansion of my own review left on Amazon.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in New York then you can always take class with the woman herself at the American Tap Dance Center. You’ll find the class schedule here. As of January 2019 Barbara’s improv class is at 7.30pm on a Wednesday.