how to tap-dance

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The Independent Culture
As a child I remember being mesmerised by all those black-and- white Thirties musicals that appeared on TV on wet Sunday afternoons - the ones where row upon row of identical blondes with identical smiles tap-danced in perfect synchronicity. And, it seems, I was not alone. Every (female) friend to whom I mentioned my forthcoming tap-dancing class confessed to the same desire to be a hoofer.

This was, in some ways, a rather surprising response, because tap is not what you'd call fashionable these days (in some ways, like the waltz, it belongs to another era) and, unless you happen to be Fred Astaire, it can look excruciatingly clumsy.

"It looks great, it feels good and it sounds wonderful," Derek Hartley, the teacher, explained, "but you've got to get the basics right." The basics we covered in my first lesson were things like the shuffle, the all-change and the hop. But even the simplest step - a brush of the toe followed by a tap, say - can seem beyond you.

It's a bit like trying to write with the wrong hand. You know exactly what it is you're supposed to be doing, but getting your body to perform an alien movement is another matter.

The whole class (we were an all-female bunch of mixed ages and nationalities) spent a lot of time practising these basic steps individually. I can only warn at this point that tap-dancing is not for those with fragile sensibilities. "You have to have a go - give it 100 per cent," Hartley insists. "The beginners' class is always really nervous - everyone's fearful of making a noise. Some people come into the class and stand still. They've got their shoes on, but they can't move."

The appeal of tap-dancing derives from the fact that it creates its own rhythm. Your feet are an instrument playing the tune, though not, Hartley insists, "tap music" like "Putting on the Ritz" or Alexander's "Ragtime Band". He prefers something a little less obvious.

Hartley stresses the distinction between tap and tap- dancing. "You can be great at rhythm tapping and keep it going all day long with infinite variety. But that's not tap- dancing," he explains. "I'm trying to do a musical, dancey class here and get away from that rather English-Irish upright style, where it's a case of all feet and no body."

The West End variety of tap-dancing has been given a new lease of life for the Nineties. Gone are the days of elegance and apparent effortlessness. Instead, there are shows like Hot Shoe Shuffle and Crazy for You where everyone is sweating and grinding.

Meanwhile, back in class, we were learning a routine, hopping, shuffling and all-changing. I may not have been in the same league as Ginger Rogers, but I had not fallen over or bumped into anyone yet - and, amazingly, I seemed to be making a sort of tune with my feet. But the real buzz came from the fact that we were all making the same rhythm, and it was loud.

According to Hartley, his pupils, who are nearly all women, sometimes get hooked. He has one student who has been with him for 18 years. Some have even turned professional but, in the main, they come for fun.

"People often come after work," Hartley says. "They're tired or fed up and I've got to give them something that makes them feel good about themselves. I'm not a therapist but sometimes it comes close."

By the end of the class, we were united by a cameraderie akin to the kind a chorus must feel after it has deafened a theatre with its feet.

"It's something that anyone can do," Hartley says, "and this is part of its appeal. You don't have to be young, you don't have to be thin, you don't have to be loose. As long as you've got two feet, you can do it."

Details from Derek Hartley, Pineapple Studios, Langley St, London WC2 (0171-836 4004). pounds 5 for one hour.

Alternatively contact your local dance studio