Last weekend I took a trip back to my beloved home town, Manchester, to attend Tap Dance Festival UK, and boy I’m glad I made the trip.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect as the festival is still in its infancy, this year’s event being only its third edition, but I really wasn’t disappointed and I’m sure it will remain a permanent fixture on the festival calendar. After all, who can fail to love a whole weekend shedding on the wood with like-minded people?
This year’s headliner on faculty was Sarah Reich, and she was accompanied by folks from the American Tap Dance Foundation (including the ever hilarious Tony Waag), Capezio athlete Peta Anderson, as well as Tap Attack, Ryan Campbell-Birch of Tap Dance UK, Jess Murray of the Tap Rhythm Project, and Harriet Spence and Kirsty Fuller of Theatre Tap London. I’ve been itching to take class with Sarah Reich for years so I headed off to Pendleton College in Salford to do just that.
The festival kicked off on Friday night with the student/faculty showcase. A bit different to most festivals I know which have separate events for the faculty and the students, this one was a mix of the two. I can only congratulate the students because let’s face it, it must be quite daunting sharing the same bill as the likes of Sarah Reich and Peta Anderson who fire off taps with a speed and an easy elegance that defies belief. It was a friendly informal affair which celebrated all aspects of a dancer’s journey in the art form. If you want to find out more stay tuned for a review of the showcase coming soon. For the time being I’ll just say that it was the perfect event for setting the tone of the festival and the expertise and creativity to come.
The main two days of the festival were Saturday and Sunday where most of the ability tracks completed 4 dance workshops each day, tailored to their level and ability. I was following the advanced track so my schedule kicked right off on Saturday morning with a high-energy, classy, musical theatre tap number brought to us by the infectiously bright and breezy duo of Harriet Spence and Kirsty Fuller, of Theatre Tap London. I can only thank my very many years of ballet training for my unforgotten ability to spot, because there were turns galore. If you want to rediscover the joy of rhythmic movement then I can’t recommend a class with these two enough, and if you want to test your tap dance chops against picture-perfect elegance of musical theatre this is the place I’d go for a workout. I thoroughly enjoyed learning the Charleston-y number to Doris Day’s ‘Everybody loves my baby’.
Right after getting all classy and spinning our ways round the stage (the advanced track had their classes in the theatre on the stage, if that doesn’t get you performing, I don’t know what will) we came back down to earth with a bump and grind as Tap Attack’s Kai Scanlan had us dancing and pounding rhythms to some heavy beats. For me personally this was massive fun because I do not generally dance or listen to music like this at all and I had fun learning a combo that followed the beating pulse of the drum line. He was aided by his lovely mum Jo Scanlan who was ready to help out if you hadn’t picked up some of the choreo (especially for those struggling to see at the back). Kai has a very laidback and calm way of teaching which is so nice to see in such a young talent, and despite his age he had no trouble commanding a stage full of advanced tap dancers intent on blasting out his rhythms.
After the two morning workshops we all took a breather in the theatre where the entire faculty came together to give an informal talk about their experiences in tap dance and how they came to find their love of tap. This talk highlighted some key areas which I have experienced in my own tap dance journey, primarily that the UK syllabus approach to teaching tap dance is woefully under-preparing students for the reality of tap dance in the world today (although Alison Forrester’s updates to the syllabus are going some way to rectify this). It was fascinating listening to all the British faculty stating the things I had discovered for myself in my own development as a tap dancer. This mainly boiled down to the fact that if my generation wanted sound tap training the UK was not the place to get it. Every single one of them had done what I had done and turned to America for their tap dance training. Luckily for today’s tap dancers in the UK this rather expensive and daunting reality is no longer true, because the likes of Jo Scanlan with her very successful Tap Attack youth programme, and Tap Dance UK are offering the UK market the type of training my generation had to seek overseas. However. Just like festival director Suzanne Clandon I would still recommend every tap dancer serious about the dance go and study at least a bit in the birthplace of tap dance, the USA, because there is nothing quite like it!
After this enlightening and interesting talk, which everyone got into so much it slightly overran, the advanced class was treated to a workshop on something that you may not immediately consider to be important to a tap dancer, but ultimately in today’s social media driven world is fundamental: film making.
This workshop was led by Nat Eccles, a filmmaker who has worked with the likes of David Guetta, Pete Tong and Black Coffee and was helped out by festival director Suzanne Clandon. Nat’s aim in the workshop was to get us acting by interpreting the feeling of the music and then to get us thinking about the things to consider when shooting dance video. To start out she played us excerpts of different types of music from musical theatre to commercial and had us improvise to it, selecting people who interpreted the music well so we could all watch and learn. I was selected when it came to clowning, make of that what you will!
After she put us in groups and told us to choose the excerpt of music which made us the most uncomfortable and then we had to come up with a very short piece of choreography and storyboard our filming of it. I was in a group with some very talented youngsters from the Tap City Youth Ensemble, who had come over from New York as a group to attend the festival. We opted for a Beyoncé track because being commercial was NOT our thing. We then storyboarded and finally Nat filmed all the different groups using their storyboards. It was a very interesting workshop which taught me some camera filming terminology. I’m sure it will come in handy when wanting to shoot my next tap video.
The last workshop of the day was the first of two advanced classes with Sarah Reich. I don’t know what it is about Sarah, but she’s so charismatic, she oozes a sense of cool that only comes from being completely and utterly unapologetically yourself. She dances like a living instrument of the music, so I was really looking forward to this workshop. Sarah taught a piece of choreography she had created to Rosalía’s Malamente. It was a flamenco inspired treat of a piece with clapping, fiery passion and tonal beats. It was great taking class with her seeing her teaching style. We’ve all come away with her rhythm turn mantra: ‘The more you cross, the more you get around’. I really enjoyed this choreography as it was so musical, all the notes Sarah had for the different moments and how they related to parts of the music were very revealing about her musical sensitivity. As this is something that I’m really working on in my own development this class proved to be extremely useful to me.
Festival Director Suze should be congratulated for her scheduling of this festival because the advanced class finished off Saturday with Sarah’s class and then started back on Sunday with the second of her two classes. This was great because it meant the choreography was still fresh in our mind and there was a continuity to the whole piece. In fact, when the advanced class got in on Sunday morning we all started practising and going over what we had learnt the previous day so we were all ready to dive back in to the choreography when the class started. Our second class worked on the second half of the choreography.
After that we were all treated to a surreptitiously difficult technique class with Ryan Campbell-Birch of Tap Dance UK. He got us working on what seemed initially to be a very easy combination using simple steps, but complicated accents. My old brain initially took to it quite well, but by the time we got to adding all the different variations my brain was struggling to keep up. This is why I love attending festivals because where I live I cannot take a live class, and there is nothing like it for exercising the mental muscle.
Then came the lunch break involving open space- a chance for aspiring teachers and educational big wigs to head up workshops on topics they love or are interested in. I spent some time with a young lady named Tanya Bagnato from the TCYE who was talking about jamming to live music and the different elements that are important to think about when you do something like that. There were other workshops on rudiments, tap research and Sarah Reich talked the making of her new album ‘New Change’.
After lunch we had Body Beats with Tamii Sakurai, a cast member of Stomp. I was dreading this workshop because for some reason clapping and moving my feet is an incredibly difficult skill for me and I’ve no idea why. I’ve been aware of this problem in me for a while and have been trying to improve it, but there’s no way round it these two skills together just don’t compute well for me. The workshop was great, Tamii is a really vibrant teacher and has a lovely manner about her, but I was hopeless. Definitely need to continue to work on this skill.
Our final workshop of the festival was with Capezio Athlete Peta Anderson, who dances Irish-tap fusion. I studied a bit of Irish back in the day so was really looking forward to this class. Some of my skills came back no problem when she started out the class teaching some steps in the Irish style. We all worked on these for a while getting the right foot use going (Irish steps start out and turn inwards). Then she started on some fast paced choreography which fused elements of tap and Irish. It was a great class to end the festival on. Especially as Peta has such a smiley bubbly delivery in her teaching. We all had a great time trying to get our footwork going with the correct technique on the steps which required it.
The festival finished up with a Jam at a restaurant in the Lowry with a live jazz band. It was the perfect way to close out the festival and the party spirit which imbued the evening was a joy to be a part of. If you want to know more about the Jam and what a tap jam consists of, then stay tuned for my future post on the topic. All in all I had a wonderful time at the third edition of Tap Dance Festival UK. It was a great way to spend a weekend with a room full of people equally passionate about tap dance as I am. I flew back to my home here in Sicily, extremely tired, but with an extremely full heart.