As you might have read, this summer was a summer filled with tap for me. I did my level 2 intensive of the American Tap Dance Foundation Teacher Training Program and I spent a week taking drop in classes at the ATDF, and classes at Steps on Broadway with the wonderful Lynn Schwab, and then… I headed to New Jersey for Jersey Tap Fest!
This year’s Jersey Tap Fest was a whole different ball game compared to previous years. In the past the festival has been like most others, hundreds of students, lots of teachers and masses of classes. This year was the 10th anniversary of the festival and Hillary-Marie decided she wanted to switch it up and change the face of the festival, and that process started back in autumn of 2018.
In October I was flicking through my Instagram feed when I saw a video of Hillary-Marie talking about this year’s festival. It was an opportunity to work in a small group with some of tap’s most incredible artists, and entry was by audition only.
When I saw this incredible opportunity I immediately wanted to be a part of it, but at the same time I know my limitations as a dancer and the likelihood of me being accepted was minimal. The audition process was either showing some choreography, improvisation or improvography. I chose the latter to a Jamie Cullum song which I listened to a million times. I am not very good at improv, but I wanted to challenge myself and once I knew the song like the back of my hand then I could pull some steps out of my pocket, but this is a skill I need to work on a lot more as I discovered at the festival. I do not like improvising in front of other people, in fact I would say I am dismal at it. I had a terrible improv experience over the summer, not at this festival and I am challenging myself to become much better at it this year. One thing I have learned from everyone that I’ve encountered is that when it comes to improv, practise makes perfect.
Anyway I digress. So back to the audition process. I sent off my video not at all expecting to be accepted, but by some miracle I got in!
The Festival Set Up
This year Hillary-Marie only accepted 24 people into the festival, selected via the video audition and a detailed questionnaire. She wanted to create a more intimate environment in which participants could explore fundamental areas of being a professional artist. To do this she developed a festival set up which was dedicated to developing your creative voice and creative process.
Before we even arrived at the festival we were set homework. Each participant was assigned two different jazz standards to listen to and to know the melody of before we even arrived. We were sent a playlist with multiple versions of each tune, to see how different artists render the same tune completely differently. I have to say I loved this approach as I have been studying a lot of jazz over the past year, and loved putting my newfound knowledge into action. It should be noted that this exercise also set the tone for the festival as yes, it was a festival with written homework!
Exploring the Creative Process
During the five days we explored different aspects of our own personal development within the dance and were made to think about goals, ideas and creative strengths and weaknesses through a series of different worksheets that required us to think about and answer several questions relating to areas of the creative process. An important part of this process was goal setting. On the first morning, before we even laced up our shoes and laid a single tap on the wood, we all sat down to think about what it is that we are working towards in our own personal journeys. Then we set smart goals to try and achieve at least some of them over the course of the festival.
The tunes we had been assigned we discovered divided us into groups. We would then create two different works set to those tunes in our groups: one an original piece of choreography, and the other a piece of improvography. Written homework included researching a number of details about these songs.
The last day of the festival was dedicated to an in studio performance of these works, as well as performances from Hillary-Marie’s youth tap company Future Step. This entire performance although produced and directed by Hillary-Marie was the creative vision of the festival participants, from the space set-up, to the lighting, from the running order to the performance title, from the program to the names of the individual pieces, we devised it all.
In addition to individual exploration we also had daily workshops with some of the most incredible professional artists working today. And every evening when the workshops were over we would end out the day with a discussion and talk from those incredible artists on an incredible array of topics before heading off to entertain ourselves at one of the evening activities.
The first day we had a baptism of fire with the ever-energetic Bril Barrett who bounded into the studio and then had us in an improv circle for well over an hour doing improv to irregular metre tunes. If we weren’t awake before he started, we certainly were after about 2 mins! As I’ve said, I am not good at improv in front of others, this was needed but not fun for me. He also taught us a nice little combo, the teens in the room (which was almost everyone bar me and one other) were incredible, after all they had been selected based on their talent.
Day two we were treated to the crispy clean rhythms of Claudia Rahardjanoto. I loved this class. Claudia works with Dorrance Dance and man is she in tune to your tapping (much like the lovely Lynn Schwab whose ear is just incredible). She had us doing a number of technical exercises and she was all about the precision of the sound. I love this kind of feedback, it is just so useful.
In addition she did a lot of work on slides because the wood floor at Grooves Unlimited Dance Studio is an absolute dream (Hillary-Marie’s dancers don’t realise how lucky they are). I needed this workshop desperately because if the UK syllabus system gave me one thing, it is a glaring hole in my knowledge of, and ability in performing slides. Claudia was a teacher’s dream because she really made sure she wasn’t just teaching to the fastest feet in the room and actually sought out the two teachers attending the festival to make sure we had the teaching concepts down so that we can help our own students with their slides.
On day three we had class with the incomparable Anthony Morigerato. After having us work on some rudiments. He then came up with a wonderful exercise to help us improve our improvisation. He had us work on the same exercise, but change the rhythm so it still took the same number of bars to complete, but reassigning note values to make new rhythms. He also had us do something which he does a lot in his Operation Tap videos (the online tap classes he runs together with Ayodele Casel and Mike Minery)- count out the whole notes, half notes and quarter notes while performing the exercise. I can do this…if I’m dancing at snail’s pace—I know because I try in my OpTap classes. Another thing for me to work on the future, me thinks.
He had also devised a piece of choreography to a drum solo. It was fast, energetic and so rhythmical. Having been a member of Operation Tap for several years now I knew what to expect, but I also knew it was going to be so hard for my old brain to keep up. And it was. I fumbled around at the back of the class, but I enjoyed it.
Day Four was dedicated to organising Sunday’s performance. We spent time working in our groups on our choreography, but we also spent a considerable amount of time dedicated to the activities which perhaps the average tap student does not know go into their performances and recitals. We considered a theme for our performance. We thought about names for the pieces we had created, and how to give them cohesive titles. We then considered the running order and how best to arrange the pieces given their vibes and energy. We were responsible for organising the space, deciding on the lighting and how we were going to enter and exit the space ourselves, the performance program and cleaning the space. It was so great to see so many young minds eagerly engaged in these activities when us teachers often do most of this ourselves. It’s inspired me to turn to my older students more to get their opinion on things.
This was an excellent program for me to take part in. I am by no means the strongest dancer out there— far from it fact, but I am always, always, always looking to learn and there was plenty of opportunity for me to do that. My tap journey is always a humbling and wonderful experience and I believe in focussing on the process rather than the outcome, which always leads me to greater knowledge. In a room full of some of today’s best dancers I was reminded of that every day.
I think this is an excellent festival for young dancers. They get to truly experience a big part of what working within the dance looks like, and the things that are extraneous to spending time on the wood, that are involved in that reality. It is also a chance for young people to collaborate together, and adapt to others’ strengths and weaknesses. If it weren’t so far for me to send them, I would definitely have my students apply to take part. The festival offered an invaluable experience of the life of an artist and those with open minds will have come away with wealth of new knowledge.