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Teacher's wisdom: Brenda Bufalino.

Recognized as a leading exponent and innovator in tap, Brenda Bufalino performs, lectures, and teaches throughout the U.S., Germany, Italy, England, France, Israel, and Australia. She performed in concert with the late Charles "Honi" Coles, created the American Tap Dance Orchestra, and has appeared as a soloist at Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Kennedy Center. Bufalino is recognized as the person who codified the steps of the hoofers so they could be taught to others. Her instructional videos are available through the American Tap Dance Foundation, and she currently teaches technique and composition classes in NYC. Jenai Cutcher spoke with Bufalino about the past, present, and future of tap dance education.

How DO YOU BEGIN CLASS? The first thing is to get all the students' systems working together--feeling the rhythm through the entire body, feeling the weight shift through the entire body--so that everything's awake and alive. I start with an improvisation of some kind, whether it's doing four bars of flaps and four bars of improv, or listening to the tune and feeling the groove. By the time we're finished, they are in touch with their own energy and we're ready to start with technique.

WHERE DOES CLASS GO FROM THERE? Starting with manipulations, students learn to use different parts of the foot in different ways, like flaps and dropping the heels. Then we move into shuffle scales and triplet shuffles, then into playing eighth notes with shuffles. I ask them to do everything they can do with their feet in eighth notes and triplets so they have the sense of playing the notes, being clear, and giving each one its value.

After that, we work on composition. I don't like to teach a dancer to tap dance by teaching them steps or routines. I like to teach a dancer how to dance...and then teach them the steps! In some places, somebody would learn a routine a year and that's what they know. My issue with that is that they can't do anything else but that routine.

HOW HAS TAP TECHNIQUE EVOLVED SINCE YOU BEGAN TEACHING? When Honi Coles and I were teaching, there was no such thing as tap technique. If you were learning tap dance in the early days, you learned nomenclature--"shuffle off to Buffalo," waltz clog, a softshoe--and you learned a routine, and that was it. The art of tap dance was never taught. If you wanted to be an artist, you had to figure it out for yourself. We created our own technique because of the kind of style we liked to dance. Then it became, "OK, now how am I going to teach this?" And that became quite a great adventure.

With the renaissance of tap, a lot of dancers had no tap training at all. So we had to start from scratch and figure it out. The hardest time I had teaching students was to help them keep time. What is the efficient way to use the body to get a sound? If you're standing in place being very tight, you can't do a whole lot. You can't get any quality of tone and you can't travel. It takes a while to get the body ready to make a sound.

AND THEN YOU HAD TO GET THEM IN TIME! How DID YOU DO THAT? I started filling in the grace notes with clapping and singing. That way, you feel the space between each beat and don't rush. In most schools, all the teacher says is, "You're rushing." But there are ways to fix that. One is to have half the class be the band, hold the time, and the other half do the combination. So always, there is a group of people holding the time, and another feeling how the syncopations fit into the bar. It's also very much about feeling. If all the systems are integrated--heart, mind, shoulders, hips--the timing will be good.

WHAT DO YOU THINK IS LACKING TODAY IN TAP TRAINING? The biggest thing is the understanding of composition. We're seeing some fine dancing, but little comprehensive understanding of the form. It still seems very much about what the feet can do and how fast one can dance. We're still learning "routines." We're still learning 16 bars. Dancers need to learn composition.

WHY DO YOU TEACH? Originally, I needed dancers to do my choreography and there weren't any. Also, I needed to grow as a tap dancer. I was good, but I wasn't Honi Coles. Teaching helped me work on my own style and develop my own techniques. It's a fascinating thing to teach tap dance. It took me so many years to learn to teach it well. And now, I love it. I love to watch the essence that comes through a dancer.

WHAT MAKES A WELL-ROUNDED, WELL-EDUCATED TAP DANCER? Knowing how to dance in many modes and styles. You know how to dance with swing rhythms, bebop, mambo, and rumba. You know how to work in different time signatures. You have control over your manipulations. You are clear and articulate, and have a sense of how to compose. If you're an improviser, you know how to improvise in different modes and tempos. You know how to work with a band, how to conduct your orchestra, and how to make your arrangements. You need a comprehensive understanding of music. And of course in tap dance, you need to have your own style because it is so individualistic. What have you got to say? That's a lifetime of study.
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Title Annotation:THIS MONTH
Author:Cutcher, Jenai
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 2007
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