25 Years of Doing it Wrong or I'm Still Learning

After 25 years of teaching tap dance I think I've been doing warm-ups wrong the entire time.  Granted there is no official right or wrong way to do warm-ups, but I measure their success by how well my students can execute the steps we do in warm-up each week.

Before we go on I want to share my thoughts on the purpose of a warm-up.  In most cases I don't think it's really about "getting warm" or "warming up the muscles".  At least not for the young kids I teach who can break out into a full-on run with no preparation whatsoever, or who can drop into the splits without first stretching for a few minutes.  I'm a little older so for me it does serve a bit of the "warm up the muscles" before we torture them purpose.  But the kids I teach are good to go.  So why do it?

I do it for 2 reasons:

1.  Reinforce basic steps.  There is no substitute for repetition.  If you do 100 step heels a week I promise your step heels will sound infinitely better than someone who does just ten.  When you add in all the other steps that incorporate a step heel, the number of steps improved by having good step heels grows quickly.

2.  Teaching the kids to pick up new patterns quickly.  Recently I've been alternating between a pre-recorded warm-up and a live warm-up where I do a short pattern for a number of steps.  Having to pick up a new pattern for each step helps the kids' learning skills and teaches them to pick up more quickly.

So my typical live warm-up is to put on some music and tap out patterns using a variety steps.  We'll do some patterns with just our toes, then heels, then step heels and so on.  Each week the patterns tend to be a little different.  We usually cover all the major steps too like buffalo, cramp roll, irish, maxie ford, waltz clog, etc.

But it isn't working.  How do I know?  Simple - just ask the students to do any of the steps or patterns in the warm up by themselves.  Yep, just one at a time.  You will hear inconsistent rhythms, missed sounds, scraping sounds, weak sounds, etc.  And it's not because my students don't care or aren't "good tappers".  They really try during the warm-up (most of the time), but they're missing an absolutely key element - they can't hear their feet.

It's not just that music is playing during warm-up, it's that there are 12 other kids tapping at the same time.  I'm pretty experienced and I still have to listen very closely to check my own sounds when a class is tapping with me.  But even I find I have the same issues they do.  There are some steps that I think I'm doing well when we are all tapping together (and I'm listening close) but that I find are slightly deficient in some manner or other when I'm tapping by myself (usually there's a sound that's just a bit early or late somewhere in the step) .

So what do we do about this?  I'll tell you what I'm doing now, but I'm still in search of a better solution.  I have all the kids get into a line.  Then I teach them a short simple pattern - step heel, step heel, step heel, stamp.  All the kids do it together first, then the first kid in line does it solo.  Then all the kids do it together again, after which the second kid in line does it solo.  And we continue to alternate from group to solo until we get through the entire line.  If I think the kids still need more work on the pattern we go through the line again.

After each kid does their solo, I give them feedback regarding what to fix and/or how to fix it.  As valuable as my feedback may be, it pales in comparison to when the kids can hear their own mistakes.  There is no substitute for immediate and clear feedback.  And NOT feedback from someone else, but from yourself.

If you try to throw a ball through a hoop and miss, you don't need someone to tell you that you missed.  You know it.  You can easily see if you threw it too high or too low and then make a correction.  I can tell a student their shuffle is too early all day long, but when they hear it themselves their eyes light up with realization.  It becomes real to them, because they heard it themselves.

They now have direct feedback.  That feedback makes all the difference in the world.  It doesn't guarantee a fix.  I'm still there to give them advice on how to make the shuffle start later, but for the most part they are no longer focused on trying to hear the issue I'm pointing out to them, they are now focused on fixing it and evaluating how well they're doing so based on immediate feedback.

Most of the students like this system despite not having music playing and despite having to tap solo. There are some who are less confident with their footwork that don't like it precisely because they have to go solo.  However I suspect once their footwork improves they won't mind it so much.

There are drawbacks of course.  The primary one being time.  I can only get through 4 or 5 patterns with this technique.  During my old warm-up I would do maybe 20 or 30 patterns.

I'm still in the earliest stages of implementing this.  I've thought about keeping my old warm-up and just making this new system the "technique" portion of class, but there's a flaw in that set-up.  If the kids are doing the steps wrong in warm-up, then they're essentially getting worse because they're practicing the steps wrong.  What is the point in that?

I don't have all the answers.  I'll keep you posted as this develops.















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  3. Hi! I've recently been re-evaluating my teaching techniques as well. (Been teaching for 10+ years.) I'm finding the same issues. When they do things one at a time they hear and understand things much better. I only get my dancers once a week for only 45 minutes, and I just cant spend that individual time with 15+ kids! I've been trying to get them to "feel" what it feels like to get a good shuffle or flap in, or to "connect" with the floor on a pull back or wing. I haven't tried it long enough to know how well it is or isn't working, but it might be worth thinking about for you too!

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    1. Thanks for sharing. I've tried that approach too, but in my experience it's too far a stretch for them. Maybe you'll have better results!

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