Barbara Duffy talks Tap education, Broadway Tap vs. Rhythm Tap, and how Leon Collins changed her life

by Ayodele Casel
Barbara Duffy

If you’ve searched for a tap instructor in the NYC area chances are you’ve seen a listing  for Barbara Duffy’s tap classes. Having taught at Steps on Broadway, Broadway Dance Center, and countless U.S., and international festivals and workshops, Barbara Duffy is one of the most highly respected teachers of rhythm tap dance. As a new student, I remember taking several of her improvisation classes in the late 90’s in New York’s Carnegie Hall building. She has a way of honing in on what each individual student needs to unlock their full potential. Though she's worn many hats as a choreographer, actor, company director, and most recently as a writer,  I caught up with Barbara to ask about her role as an instructor for American Tap Dance Foundation’s new (and much needed) Tap Teacher Training Certificate Program this summer. Here’s what she had to say…

Ayodele Casel: Can you give prospective teachers a sense of what the ATDF Tap Teacher Training program consists of?

Barbara Duffy: [Teachers] come to New York City for the week. They learn all the Copasetic dances which are a foundation for rhythm tap, The Coles' Stroll, The Shim Sham, The BS Chorus, Bill Robinson's New Lowdown, and The Copasetic Soft Shoe. Also incorporated into the program are tap technique, pedagogy, jazz music concepts, tap composition & improvisation, tap history, master classes and panel discussions. From July to February, they work with a mentor. The mentor guides them, checking in on their progress with their teaching and answers any questions they might have. During this time, the teacher is required to not only perfect the Copasetic dances themselves, but incorporate the vocabulary from these dances into their lessons. For example, they could make up an exercise using something from The New Low Down. We also have a weekend reunion where they are evaluated in order to receive the official certificate. It’s a really great program even for experienced teachers, because they come away with new ideas and concepts.

Thelma Goldberg, the author of Thelma's Tap Notes: A Step-By-Step Guide To Teaching Tap: Children’s Editionwas on the faculty to teach and share her experience with teaching kids. She’s been teaching children for over 30 years by her method and her students are really great rhythm tappers and can also do other styles of tap that are more presentational. 

AC: How do you answer teachers who say “well, we’re not trying to do ‘rhythm tap’, we don’t want to get that in-depth"?

BD: I think all of the technique and vocabulary from the Copesetic dances can be used in any style of tap. I think it’s extremely valuable, musically, as well. It doesn’t mean you have to use jazz music in your classes, though so much can be learned from listening and dancing to jazz. I think if you’re teaching rhythm tap, teaching to jazz music is part of the art form. It’s like if you were teaching hip-hop and you used classical music in your class. Hey, maybe at some point, you could choreograph a hip-hop dance to a classical piece of music, but you wouldn’t start out teaching hip-hop to classical music. You would use the music associated with the art form. I’ve found that kids like jazz music! It’s important to introduce them to all kinds of music, not just what is most popular at the moment.

AC:  I'm often surprised by what adults acquiesce to as it relates to kids. If a child wants to eat chocolate and candy for breakfast we wouldn't allow that to become the norm so why do we allow them as students to dictate the information given to them?  Do you feel like our culture now gives in to what the kids ‘like’? 

BD: I think that’s the trend these days. I think maybe some parents feel like if they are paying all of this money for classes, then the teacher should only do what kids “like”, but to me, the teacher knows what the student needs to be a good dancer and it’s their job to make sure the kids get that. As you said, it’s like the parents giving candy to a kid, every time the kid asks for it, just because they “like” it, even though it’s not good for them! 

AC:  On another note, In my teaching travels, I meet dance teachers who come up to me and say “I really love the [Operation Tap] page because sometimes I’m out of material and I can use this information in my classes.”  Some of them will also say  “I really don’t know.  I haven’t taken a class in so long. I’m just going off of what I remember when I was younger…” 

BD: Right. I’m sure this happens a lot, when teachers are running a business and probably teaching 15 classes a week. The Tap Teacher Training Program gives them so much to draw from and it’s just the beginning of what they will be able to do afterwards. AND they're with other teachers. It’s a very non-judgmental environment and everyone is supportive of each other. It’s a great experience. People were inspired. There was no competition between them. Some teachers are afraid to show what they can’t do, but that wasn’t the case in this [program]. Everyone supported and helped each other. 

AC: The thing is that they don’t know a program like this exists, so this is fantastic. How long has the program been in existence? 

BD:  This will be the second year. The first year filled up quickly with a lot of people that just knew us, and ATDF, and Brenda [Bufalino]. The mentorship part of it is great because they have someone to talk to and run things by. They have work to do for themselves so it really makes them better. Margaret Morrison and Susan Hebach put together a curriculum that includes music concepts, physicality, style, games for kids, history, books and resources, teaching improvisation in tap creativity. It’s really well thought out. 

AC: How did you become a tap dancer? 

BD: When I was growing up, I went to dancing school in Webster, Massachusetts, a really small town. I decided when I was 15 years old, I wanted to be a dancer, so at 17 years old, I auditioned for different dance departments for college, but my technique in ballet wasn’t good enough. I went to school for two years at Umass as a Liberal Arts major and took as many dance classes as I could, so I could improve enough to be accepted as a dance major. After 2 years and 5 auditions, I was frustrated, so I quit and moved to Boston thinking I would go back for my degree eventually. 

Leon Collins
In Boston, my sister worked for a big insurance company and they had a theater in their building and she says to me, “There’s gonna be a tap show at the theater in my building!”.  The show was Leon [Collins]’ school showcase. This was the first time I saw rhythm tap. I had never seen Jimmy Slyde, The Nicholas Brothers, Buster Brown or Leon. I knew Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller. That was it. And when I saw Leon dance, I said ‘Oh my God, that’s what I want to do’  because in that moment, I understood something, something clicked inside of me. I went to ask about classes after it was over. He was in Roxbury, which in the late 70’s was not a very safe area, and I had just moved to the city. I was scared anyway so I wasn’t going over there. I thought ‘Oh well, I guess I can’t study with him’ and I continued taking ballet and had to start all over from the beginning. It was really frustrating, I would get depressed,  I wouldn’t go to class, I thought this was not for me. I had a nice job in a hotel. I thought I’d give up dancing because I’d never be good enough. And then…

Leon’s studio, Tapper's Paradise, moved across the alley from my apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts and at the time I thought “Oh Great! I can study with him now!". I didn’t think this was a sign from the Universe, I didn’t realize that at the time. I said ‘I’m going to be a tap dancer, I want to be a tap dancer’ and I never knew you could just be a tap dancer. I thought you had to do everything and couldn’t just have a career as a tap dancer so I went there to study. I dropped all of my other ballet stuff and immersed. I cleaned the studio in exchange for classes and practice time. I took with CB Hetherington, Dianne Walker, and Pam Raff and they finally said I was ready to be in Leon’s class. He only taught once a week! And oh my God, that was the biggest day when they said I could take from him! 

AC: How was that first class? Do you remember it?

BD: I just remember that I was on his right and I don’t remember what we were doing. It was a long time ago now but it was definitely life changing. If he hadn’t moved his studio there I’d probably be the general manager of a hotel somewhere. (laughs)

AC: Well thank God that didn’t happen! 

BD: It changed my life and then Brenda [Bufalino] came to do a couple of workshops during that time I was there. After Leon died in 1985, I decided Brenda should be my next teacher. That’s when I moved to New York. She was gone for the whole summer so I went to Henry Letang’s and took class with him. I ended up learning all of the routines and then he asked me to teach at one o'clock Monday through Friday.

AC: Was that the first time you taught?

BD: No, in high school I worked at my dancing school assisting my teacher. I did a little teaching then and some classes in college at my dorm.  I started to teach a little bit in Boston. When I came to New York I started having classes at Fazil’s. I would also sub for Brenda at Steps and they eventually gave me my own class.

AC: So you’ve always been teaching. While you were still in school, while you were taking class, and still to this day. When you started teaching in high school was it just circumstantial? How did that evolve?
Barbara Duffy

BD: Well, I was kind of the "best" dancer in my dancing school! (laughs) And I was the only one that wanted to be a professional dancer of the group I was with. At 15, I knew I wanted to be a dancer and my teacher knew that and I think that’s why she asked me to assist her. I cleaned as well. I did a little bit of everything. [I’ve been teaching] since 1977 or 1978. I love to teach and I can  say that I’m a really good teacher. I have a gift for seeing what people need and I think that’s what a teacher is. It’s not about me and what I want to do, it’s about what I see. If the [student’s] step-heels are terrible -well, we’re going to stop and work on those. I'm not going to go on and give 800 steps. Today, I feel like a lot of teachers are just throwing out steps. Do this step, do THIS step. They aren’t teaching you HOW to do the step. For example, if you shift your weight over here and lift up over here, you’re going to get a different sound. Nobody is teaching that of the younger generation. I shouldn't say "nobody". I haven’t ever watched you teach. Do you explain how to do a step or get a certain sound? 

AC:  Sometimes I do. It depends. I learned in a very fast paced manner and had to figure out a lot of things by myself.  There's a part of me that expects the same out of students because I believe there's value in that kind of independence. I tend to discuss the mental blocks that hinder our ability to execute a step.  I feel like I’m more of a psychotherapist tap teacher. 
BD: I love that! I am too. More so with improv.

AC: Anthony Morigerato, who is a fantastic tap dancer as well as teacher, is great at explaining the mechanics of how a step works to students. Through working with him I have learned the value in articulating the 'how-to's'. There are some things he does that sometimes look so foreign to me but when he explains the mechanics, I have my 'aha' moment. What's the common misconception of executing tap sounds?

BD: People lead with their feet and you really need to lead with your legs. People say I’m a tough teacher because I see everybody in my class. I don’t embarrass anyone in my class but I will say something to you, in a nice way, it's my job. But I will push a bit because if you just do what I say… (laughs) If they just lift, and take their pelvis with them and feel these muscles…all these little things will help you improve. There are so many ideas and concepts that have accumulated over the years…

AC: I find if you’re very direct sometimes people take things personally and it’s really not about that. It’s about your growth. Do you want to get better or not…?

BD: The kids at ATDF's Tap City Youth Ensemble used to call me Coach Duffy. I just think "let’s work!". You came here, let’s work and get down to it. I don’t want to be messing around. I'm here to help you. That's what you're paying for!

AC: Right! Sometimes students aren't prepared for the full meaning of "work" and "getting down to it".  I also find that they want to do fancy footwork early in their training without knowing the basics.  Do you think the tendency is to "put the cart before the horse"?

BD: You can’t do a pullback until you know other things first. It just doesn’t seem that dancers now have the foundation or they do but they might not be executing it well and then they are expected to do all these crazy…

 AC and BD: Contortions! (laughs)

BD: The body isn’t talked about. We [rhythm tap dancers] want to say we don’t use our arms but we DO use our arms. It doesn’t mean I’m going to tell people to put their arms a certain way but I'm going to help you find that for yourself to be coordinated as a dancer…

AC: I would love to bridge the gap between what people consider "hard" tap (rhythm tap) and "easy" tap (Broadway tap). How do you bridge those individual philosophies? 

BD: I started with Broadway Tap and I’m glad I had that as a foundation because I learned the basics, hops, jumps, shuffles, etc. I got into rhythm tap with strong skills. 

AC: How do you define Broadway Tap?

BD: Basic steps. Flaps, shuffles, jumps and hops. But that’s a good thing to have because you find  weight shifts and how to make clean sounds.

AC: Should we get rid of those labels entirely? Should it just be called tap dancing?

BD: No. I feel like the styles have a different approach. The Broadway style is much more focused on the upper body and we don’t focus on that in rhythm tap. I mean, it’s not that it isn’t there, it’s just different. You know what I used to do at Steps? In 1986, people weren’t into rhythm tap at all. You had to go find Brenda at Fazil’s. You had to go find Cookie at The Clark Center. This was not like ‘oh let’s go take a tap class’. It was not easy to find a rhythm tap class! When I started teaching at Steps people thought rhythm tap was haaaard and I had the idea to do some broadway style with the feet- not so much the arms- but basic vocabulary and then sneak in a little swing thing. I started doing that and people liked it and started coming back and I eventually converted to teaching all rhythm tap. It was kind of sneaky. But the students who thought rhythm tap was too hard eventually came to love it and were excited about the musicality of it.

AC: It’s interesting, with YouTube and the internet, we have more information available to us now more than ever, and somehow the training seems a bit weaker across the country. As you said, back in the day you had to be like a detective and find people who were teaching great tap.

Brenda Bufalino
BD: I didn’t have my paddle and rolls when I moved to New York at 25 years old and now a 2 year old is learning them. (laughs) When I was coming up and started studying with Brenda, and even with Leon, we learned one 8 bar phrase in one class. That’s it. And I went home and I practiced that and had it when I came back next week to get the next step. Leon had all those routines that he taught us which were fantastic because of the footwork and the musicality of it but we learned very slowly. Same with Brenda, we worked on flaps for 5 minutes and did nothing else but flap because then you had a moment to FEEL what it felt like to flap. Not just know in your head it's a flap. I think today it’s so mental. You have to remember what step comes next in classes and you’re not given the time to digest the step to notice how it feels to do it. How does it feel in your back to do a step-heel? How does it feel in your shoulder blades? There’s no time for that now. That’s what’s missing.

AC: Yes, and I also feel like that’s because sometimes students put the value in the quantity and not the quality. The concern is about how much material am I getting for my $20 class, or my $400 a month tuition.

BD: Yes, yes! You should also get concepts in a class, not just steps, but concepts to take home and apply. That’s just my way and I'm so glad I came up in that time and learned very slowly. If you don’t find how a step-heel feels, or swinging step-heels. If you don’t find how to breathe during that, you don’t find a groove. You can learn a step, but where does that step sit in the music? Where’s the groove of that step without music?

AC: What else is missing in current tap education?

BD: The history! People don’t know who Gregory Hines is. This is not good. They need to know where their art form came from in order to go forward.  They should know who The Copasetics are. You know what else is not worked on enough? How to be a performer, how to be a professional, what your music is, showing up, being present in rehearsals. Composition! That is a focus in the Tap Teacher Training program. How to compose a phrase. Why is this step after this step? etc.

AC: What can students bring to the room to get the most of their experience?

BD: An open mind. Being open to the concepts that are being presented, not only the steps being shown. I think it’s the teacher’s job to be really specific of the concepts. There are steps and then there are concepts. I remember when Jimmy Slyde came to teach at Woodpeckers Tap Dance Center, in the early 90’s. His class consisted of 4 sounds, a brush back, a shuffle, a slap and a 3rd. These 4 sounds were done on the same foot, then we switched to the other foot. For 1 hour and 15 minutes, that’s all we did. He believed in the basics. Then when Buster Brown would teach, he would play the tune with his feet. That was a concept to work with on your own.  

AC: One word to describe ATDF’s teacher training program? 

BD: Inspiring.

AC: What makes you most proud to be a teacher? What is the most fulfillling part of that?

BD: I'm proud to say that I feel like I’ve influenced so many wonderful dancers that are going on to do so many wonderful things in their careers and with the art form. And then there are also my advanced beginners who tap dance as a hobby but they come in and work so hard and we have fun at the same time. There are so many life lessons to be learned through tap dance and I’ve seen many students find those lessons in their own way, myself included! I’m so grateful that I’ve had a chance to meet so many wonderful people in the 20 countries I’ve been to. All because of tap dance! People seem to remember my class and I think that has to do with my passion for tap dance and teaching. I have no problem showing my enthusiasm when students accomplish something, get a step, understand a musical concept, etc. It’s extremely fulfilling to know I try to make a difference in people’s lives through tap dance. 

AC: That was perfection. Thank you.

For more information on this summer's Tap Teacher Training Certificate Program, please visit

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 and Joe's Pub at The Public Theater. Ms. Casel has appeared on the cover of Dance Spirit, American Theater Magazine, and The Village Voice. She is also on faculty for LA Dance Magic throughout the year. Ayodele was most recently seen performing in Savion Glover’s STePz at The Joyce Theater and on tour.