Barbara Duffy: Tap into Improv

Barbara Duffy talks improv, cutting contests, overcoming fears, and the magical influence of Gregory Hines...  

"Tap Into Improv" - available on Amazon

Ayodele Casel: First of all, anytime that you put any product into the world is a great thing.
So happy this is widely available on Amazon.

Barbara Duffy: Thank you. I think it’s a book that’s needed. We don’t have a lot of tap books out there and this is one of a kind. 

AC: You’ve been teaching improv specifically for a long time. I remember taking your improv class in the 90’s. At what point did you want to also have this in print? What was the inspiration for that?

BD: Well, I was back in college to get my degree in Performing Arts, a B.A. and I needed to do a senior project. I thought, what would be something easy to throw together where I don’t have to work too hard? (haha) I thought “Oh, I have a list of all of the things that I’ve been teaching in improv already written down. I’ll just make this into a little guide.” And then it occurred to me, after the fact, that this is something that is needed in the tap world and students could benefit from it. It was a great opportunity because I had a deadline, I had to do this for a grade, and I had an advisor who was very helpful. I can admit that I’m also a procrastinator, so if I didn’t have that deadline, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now about this! Plus, I’d never thought of myself as a writer. I didn’t have much confidence as a writer, but being in school I had to write a lot of papers, so I gained some confidence. If I hadn’t been in school, I don’t know if I would’ve thought that I could do this. So now, I’m so excited because I did it!

AC: Yes, you did! And it looks really nice by the way. I love the way it feels. I think it’s really important, the aesthetic, how something feels in your hands because then you’re more apt to pick it up and read it. I also like the layout. What made you do it like this?

BD: One of my students works in publishing and he offered to help me. I am so grateful for his input and advice! He had the suggestion to make it an open book, a larger design. So, when the designer got a hold of the text, she started laying it out, asking me if I liked this or that choice, which font, etc. She put text in different size boxes and some in shaded boxes, but with a lot of variety, so it’s fun to read. 

AC: How would you define improvisation?

BD: I think it is different for every person. You have to find it for yourself. For me, it’s feeling free to create music through my feet, through rhythm, through my body, and to express myself in that moment. I want to make a point that in this book, I’m not telling anyone HOW to improvise. It’s called “Tap Into Improv”, it’s a guide. It’s only to assist dancers in expanding their creativity, giving them ideas to have different perspectives on how to approach it and then they find it for themselves. I don’t want anybody to say “Barbara Duffy said you’re supposed to improvise like THIS!” No, I would never tell anyone how to do it. That’s what my classes have been like all these years. A guide. For example, let’s just do triplets for a while as an exercise.

AC: I love that. At the end of all of my Operation Tap classes I always say, this is a guide. They are suggestions. Please take what works for you and then add to it, expand, play with it and see how it fits and feels on your body. I fully recognize that there are a plethora of ways to express yourself and put choreography together. One of the things that I love about tap dancing is that it can be and is so individual. I think that is the freedom available. Not everyone is trying to improvise to WIN the golden trophy of an improvisational artist. It’s an expression.

BD: I’ve taught many beginners who just go for it. They’re so happy to express something with their feet. They have a little bit of technique under them and they start to work with it. I think it’s good to start to improvise early in your tap life. Years ago, I was completely afraid to improvise!

AC: Please speak on that fear. Why are people afraid to improvise?

BD: Well, for me, I was afraid because I was always good at learning choreography, I could remember the steps, I knew them, I was very secure. When I was at Leon Collin’s studio in Boston in the early 80’s, I’d learned all of Leon’s routines. I was so happy to have them. I was secure, but then we would have a jam where we’d improvise and I wouldn’t know what to do. I would try to take some of his steps and rearrange them. It was all mental. It wasn’t about really creating rhythms, it was about the steps. I didn’t do well with that at all. I was so insecure!  I remember coming to New York and taking Brenda Bufalino’s class and at the end she would say, “Let’s do some improv.” We’d make the circle and I’m like dreading it and I thought well, I’m in New York now, I’ll just do some of Leon Collins’ steps and everyone will think I’m improvising. But I couldn’t fool Brenda. She said, “Stop doing Leon!”. (she laughs).

AC: (laughing) That’s called choreography!

BD: Yes! That’s what she said! That was so funny. Then Jimmy Slyde started having his La Cave jam every Wednesday night. I was an up and coming tap dancer at the time. I thought I should go to this. I should participate because this is part of the art form of tap dance. I wanted to be able to do it and LIKE it! Getting up at La Cave was so frustrating for me because I’d have this dialogue in my head saying, “Ugh, I missed that brush. I wonder what everyone is thinking about me because I’m supposed to be a good tap dancer and what is she doing? She’s not good anymore”. THIS is what was going through my head WHILE I was dancing! So, how could I be in the moment and enjoy and create? This wasn’t working at all. I eventually realized it wasn’t really how skilled of a tap dancer I was, it was what I was telling myself in my head, judging everything. I wasn’t free. 

So, I had to go look for freedom by myself in the studio. My mindset was that I thought I should be doing something else. Not that step I was doing. I wasn’t just able to be where I was. I realized I had to confront that judgmental dialogue in my head and change it. Yes, I’m repeating this step or this figure again, and I’m going let that be ok. And once I allowed myself to not be so hard on myself, not judge what I was creating or doing, that’s when the creativity started to flow. And I think this judging oneself happens to many dancers. They’re afraid to make a mistake. They’re afraid that somehow, they won’t be good enough. 

AC: There’s that expectation that you have to know more than you actually know. 

BD: Right, that I should just have this down. But actually, you NEED to PRACTICE improvising. That’s why I started my improv class, because I thought, let’s just get together and practice improvising. For example, let’s work together musically. What’s a straight rhythm? Let’s do that to different tempos. I usually start having everyone practice something as a group. Then when it’s time for each person to go alone, it’s not as stressful for those people who are afraid. 

AC: I feel like the student’s confidence shoots up when they aren’t just hearing their own voice initially. They feel support. The aural support of other people is really good for the soul and confidence.

BD: Yes, it is good for the soul, for sure. I also like to set up my classes as non-competitive. A lot of students, when they’re starting out, don’t want to compete with anyone. They just want to figure it out. I always ask “who’s nervous?” and many people raise their hands and then they see that they aren’t the only ones in the room who feel that way. Everyone is together in this. It’s like tap therapy! (laughs)

AC: It is! And you realize when everyone raises their hand after being asked if they’re nervous that nobody is thinking about you. Everyone is thinking about themselves. 

BD: It’s true! And nobody is standing next to the other person watching you dance and thinking “Oh. what is SHE doing?”

AC: Right! Because they’re thinking what am I going to do?

BD: And that’s the other thing. “What am I going to do?” This can be overwhelming for students new to improv because improv is so vast.  They’re so many things you can focus on at different times. I give these exercises (that are in the book) to students that are meant to distract them from being afraid and give them something to focus on, so they become less overwhelmed. 

AC: A lot of dancers feel like they don’t have enough vocabulary or they don’t have a good enough command over steps they deem difficult. I always try to remind them that it’s not what you do it’s how you do it. You can make a completely sophisticated musical phrase with a step and a heel and nothing else. 

BD: Yes.

AC: I also say that steps are like words. If you give someone a dictionary, there are a lot of words in there, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to understand what you are trying to tell them. So how you organize your words is important.

BD: Ooh, that’s excellent. I like that. I should’ve put that in the book! (laughs)

AC: In the 5th year anniversary reprint! (laughs) But I think it helps to liberate them a little bit. They realize they can do this with minimal steps. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be clear.

BD: Yeah, and I really stress singing the rhythm that you want to make. I find when many dancers start improvising, they’re listening to what is coming out of their feet, to make sure it’s correct, instead of just listening to the music and singing what rhythm they want to make. When they’re trying to listen to the music, sing the rhythm AND listen to their feet at the same time, it’s too much for the brain. And now that I’ve been doing this for so long, I can always tell by the look on someone’s face, that they are struggling to do all 3 things at the same time. To NOT listen to your feet has been a revelation to many people. It’s very interesting to not put the focus on your feet, (and whether it’s correct), but on the musicality and what you’re talking about, deciding what you want to say. 

AC: And then to appreciate that how you say something is different than how I say something and how she and he says something. That is the beauty of art, in general. And the beauty of who you are as a human. 

BD: We’re all the same but different. We are using the same vocabulary, but saying things differently. 

AC: You’ve asked other tap dancers to be contributors to the book. Can you speak about why and how you chose them? Why was it important to have other voices?

BD: My exercises are from me and from my perspective, from what I’ve learned and what I’ve gathered. I just thought that it would be a more well- rounded guide to get input from other dancers that have been improvising for a really long time. 

One of the contributors, my mentor, Brenda Bufalino came up in a whole different era, so it’s interesting to hear what she has to say about her experiences and her approach. Sarah Petronio is so musical when she dances. Her style of moving is very different from Brenda’s. Improvising has been her life, dancing with Jimmy Slyde for so long and collaborating with so many musicians. I really value both Brenda and Sarah’s wisdom. I also wanted to hit different generations. Kazu Kamugai is from Japan and through the years, I feel like he’s found such a freedom in his expression. I always feel something when he dances. I wanted his perspective. Thomas Marek, a wonderful tap dancer from Germany has been a great friend and colleague of mine for many years. We’ve danced together a lot and he LOVES improvising. He’s created many shows, where improv was incorporated, besides doing a lot of solo work with musicians. And he shoots pool! He’s semi-professional. He has an exercise in the book about the mental approach of a pool player, which can also be applied to tap improv. It’s so interesting. Derick Grant and Michelle Dorrance are two of the most innovative dancers I know. I love listening and watching them, because of the freedom of expression they’ve found and their ability to be specific about what it is they are saying through tap dance. 
Sarah Petronio

AC: I love that. One of the things that I appreciate about watching great improvisers is freedom but many dancers who are training and, in some cases dancing professionally, aren’t sure how to get there. BUT what hit me like a ton of bricks years ago is the freedom that we see in other people, WE have access to that as well, regardless of how you think someone achieved theirs. When you realize that you’ve been free all along to make those same creative choices, then something great happens in your artistic life.

BD: Yes! For some, that freedom comes easily, for others, they have to search for it. One of my exercises is to imitate someone. That doesn’t mean dance like that person forever, but just as an exercise, for example, imitate Gregory Hines. This story is in the book. At the Carnegie Hall studio, where you took my improv class years ago, there was a student in the circle who was kind of shy when he danced, but he had good technique. I asked him “Who is your favorite tap dancer?”. He said, “Gregory Hines!” So, I said, “You be Gregory Hines.” and when I gave him this exercise he came out with such confidence, hitting Gregory- like steps! The whole class was amazed! Of course, he didn’t dance exactly like Gregory, because nobody could, but he had the same approach to the floor as Gregory and somehow, that gave him “permission” to really come out and do it. That’s a tool to use. Nobody has to know what you’re thinking when you’re improvising. It was such a great moment in that student’s tap life because from then on, he knew he could come out with confidence. The last part of the story is that the next week Gregory showed up in the circle (to take the class!) and I will never forget the awe on this guy’s face. He couldn’t believe Gregory was standing in the room! 
Gregory Hines

AC: Oh my goodness. I love that. What a great payoff! 

BD: Then I asked Gregory to imitate me and it was very funny. He was very intrigued by what I was doing, “teaching” improv classes. 

AC: Well, Gregory was very playful in his approach and I feel like sometimes we lose our sense of play. We take it so seriously to the point where nothing can get through.

BD: Yes, we can block ourselves. Another exercise in the book is to pretend to be 8 years old. How would an 8-year-old child improvise? Spend some time with that. Then be your adult self and add something of your 8-year-old self. All of these ideas in the book are tools to explore to help you to find yourself, your voice. I feel like the great improvisers that we know have stuff in their pocket. Jimmy Slyde said, “At some point, you have a library of things that you’ve learned and you can, you know how to express yourself…”. There are steps that you can pull out of your pocket and do. That’s legal. 

AC: It is legal! The thing about improvisation is that every day is different. One day you wake up and you’re super inspired, and your legs feel great, you feel loose and you feel super free. And then there are days when the opposite is true and you still have to deliver something, so then what do you do? 

BD: Yeah, wait till you get older! (laughs) But this is true. You can fall back on what you’ve done. Watch some of the masters, Jimmy, and Gregory, and Savion. They have their steps that they go to. It’s when they choose to do them and how they shift them that keeps it interesting. 

AC: I think it goes back to what you were saying about practicing improvisation. I find that when you practice frequently, you will discover steps and grooves that you tend to go back to and the only way to get to those pocket steps is to actually really practice.

BD: Then once you’ve got those steps in your pocket, another exercise is to then take them away. Say I was doing “shuffle, step heel, dig, brush, heel, toe’ (that has been my “go to” step). One day, I decided to consciously NOT do it, because it was my “go to” step. If you find yourself doing cramp rolls all the time, take them away from yourself. Not forever, just as an exercise so you have to figure out something else to do. This is an idea to play with to see where it takes you. Another idea is to not put any heels down when you dance. See where that takes you. 

When I watch you dance Ayodele, I see you allowing yourself to play with certain ideas and build on them and it’s wonderful to watch. You are very much in the moment. I find a lot of dancers feel the need to hurry up and get to the next step or idea, maybe because they feel they need to impress. 

AC: For me, that’s my Meisner acting technique. That concept is “repeat, repeat, repeat” and you don’t do something until something else makes you do it.

BD: I love that.

AC: And that’s a lot of freedom too because you don’t have the pressure of saying something for the sake of saying something. You move forward because it’s organic, it makes sense and you are staying truthful to the moment.

BD: But do you feel like you allow yourself to do that in performance?

AC: Absolutely. It’s taken me a long time but I’ve realized that I approach performance in the same way I approach improvisation. I try to give myself the freedom and the permission to be exactly who I am in that moment on that day. For years, I would beat myself up after a performance. “Ugh, I didn’t do this, or I got out of time, or I did that thing over and over again.” And I would feel terrible and awful about myself and then I realized it isn’t my intention to suck so I have to release myself from that.

BD: And the audience probably didn’t think you sucked at all. I have had those same feelings coming off stage. I’d even say I’m not doing this anymore. 

AC: Right, and finally, I’ve learned to REALLY accept how I am in that moment on any given day. It feels more authentic for me in that way. I’m not TRYING to be like anything. I’m just trying to be as honest as I can in my expression and if you love it, great! And if you don’t, that’s ok too! I think that’s where improv goes awry, when you TRY to impress, when you’re approaching it from that angle it’s less satisfying and you’ll be in your head the whole time.

BD: Yes, that’s a great point! When you try to impress, you’re outside of yourself, putting the focus on what other people might expect you to do. If people can achieve what you’ve just described (being honest) that is great. You always improvise honestly, Ayodele. 

AC: Well, Thank you. It’s a much more enjoyable experience. What is the value in exploring improvisation and tapping into improv?

BD: It depends on what you want in life. If you just want to do choreography and not explore improv, that’s fine. Let’s say you want to be on Broadway and you want to audition for tap, improv is a great tool to have. What if you completely screw up the choreography in the audition? You won’t be standing there thinking, “what am I going to do”. You can just start improvising. To be a tap artist, I think you have to really love tap to improvise. You have to have some desire inside you to express yourself through tap dance. Not everyone has that and that’s fine, but if that desire is there, go explore it. I think finding your voice through tap dance affects other parts of your life and vice versa. Don’t we all improvise in life?

AC: I think you’re 100% right. I always tell people to exercise their bravery and courage because that is one of the things that keeps them from wanting to move their feet spontaneously. And I always say that how you are here is a practice of how you will be out in the world and to me, that means speaking up for yourself, speaking up for others, it means-

BD: -Deciding what you want to say. Listening…

AC: Yes, tap is life.

BD: Getting over your fear might be another reason, which goes with exercising bravery and courage. I feel like I overcame my fear of improv, which means I could overcome other fears I had. It’s valuable, even if you never perform improv. Jams are fun. You get together with people and jam, have conversations. I enjoy when two people are improvising at the same time and making something. I used to do that with my company. We’d create a musical piece together, improvising. I’m not a big competitor. It’s not my thing to outdo someone. I prefer to create something together. It’s satisfying because you made something, you didn’t just outdo someone. In the last few years, festivals have been holding cutting contests. What do you think of those?

AC: I’m not a fan of them. That’s a personal thing. Maybe because I don’t like competition in that way. I also feel like it’s a very specific skill. I think there are people who can express themselves really clearly in 4 bars and you should be able to, but it’s not satisfying to me. 

BD: But do you think it’s helpful for the kids/young people?

AC: I think there are some that really enjoy it. I also think there’s a difference between cutting contests and trading. They should know what a bar is, what that feels like, what it’s like to listen. I think there is value in feeling the adrenaline and keeping your brain sharp. 

BD: Cutting contests are part of the history of tap dance, but haven’t we grown beyond them, artistically?

AC: I think it’s cool to experience it, but at the end of the day, it’s not a measure of much. There are people who are successful in cutting contests, but can you keep time for longer than 4 bars? Can you swing a tune? Can you be interesting? Can you be authentic? Can you be in the moment? Can you move your feet and not feel like you have to impress us every step of the way?

BD: Yes, in the contest you have to impress someone. It’s all about winning. At this time, there are so many different viewpoints in the approach to tap dance. Decide what your focus is. Do you want to create art? Do you want to become an artist? Do you want to find your voice inside? Do you want to express? That’s one path. If you want to be in the commercial world, that’s another path. I think everyone that taps and wants to move forward in their career should know how to improvise. 

I’m super proud of the book. It’s for everyone. There are sections for teachers with ideas to start their students out with baby steps. It’s structured to be able to use in classes. I got a message from a teacher who has been using the book and said her students are starting to love improv and she’s very excited. That makes me so happy!

AC: I was in Austin, Texas recently guiding a teacher class, discussing concepts and one of them mentioned they had your book and that it has been so helpful to her.

BD: That’s so great! That’s the goal. It’s not a read cover to cover, but you can open up to Chapter 3, exercise 5 and work on that exercise for yourself or with your students. I’m really excited about it. There are some good stories, some anecdotes, some good pictures, and the best thing is that in the back of the book, I have a list of music suggestions. A lot of people say to me, “I don’t know anything about jazz”. Jazz is very important in the study of this art form. You’ll expand your musicality. Also, if you go to youtube, search for Tap Into Improv Recommended Footage, you can view footage I think everyone pursuing improvisation should watch. Finally, the creative exercises are just fun ideas to play with. Some of those could be applied to other dances forms, as well.

AC: You’ve created something really valuable. It’s tap into improv, but that applies to more than tap dancing. Improv is improv is improv.

BD: Can I quote you on that? It’s like Ted Levy saying a “shuffle, is a shuffle, is a shuffle”.

AC: Exactly.

BD: Thank you Ayodele.

AC: Thank YOU.

Ayodele Casel is a native New Yorker and began her professional training at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is also a graduate of The William Esper Studio in NYC. Hailed by Gregory Hines as “one of the top young tap dancers in the world today ”,  she has earned commissions from Aaron Davis Hall/Harlem Stage and the Apollo's Salon Series, where she presented "Diary of a Tap Dancer”.  She has been creating and presenting her own works since 1999 in venues that include The Apollo, New York’s City Center’s Fall For Dance, Aaron Davis Hall/The Gatehouse, The Lisner Auditorium, Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, Joyce SoHo, The Triad Theater, Joe's Pub at The Public Theater and Spoleto Arts Festival. Ms. Casel has appeared on the cover of Dance Spirit, American Theater Magazine, and The Village Voice. She is Director of A BroaderWay's Leader in Training Program. Ayodele was most recently seen performing in the New Victory Dance Summer Festival.