Up in Arms: How Tappers Can Make Their Upper Bodies Sing

November 27, 2017

In “Sunday Candy,” one of Caleb Teicher’s popular “Chance Raps | Caleb Taps” videos, the Bessie Award-winning performer has as much to say with his upper body as he does with his feet. In one section, his hands whack the air in front of him as though he’s at a drum set; in another, they point skyward to accent Chance the Rapper’s lyrics with the precise lines of a jazz or musical theater routine. His arms help propel him off the ground for a one-footed wing, but also add style to a mambo-inspired step. The grace and musicality of his upper body in contrast to such busy footwork is a multisensory delight. It’s also a lesson in how tap dancers can use their arms to their full potential.

With so much focus on your feet during tap work, it’s easy to forget the importance of using your upper body properly. “You need your whole body in order to achieve the sounds you’re trying to make,” says Ray Hesselink, a popular teacher at Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway, and the Juilliard School in NYC. “When you dance, you’re sending your energy in multiple directions, so when you don’t use your arms, there’s a certain heaviness, a slump, to your dancing.”

Common Arm Conundrums

It’s obvious a tapper isn’t arm-conscious when you can see tension in the upper body or flailing arms. Jeannie Hill, a professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point, cites another frequent issue: limp arms that dangle by a student’s sides. “I often suggest to my students that they pretend to conduct the music of what they are tapping,” she says. “Use your arms to help you move your body through space, and use your hands to communicate the details of your idea.”

But as you work on incorporating your arms fluidly, Hill cautions, don’t do too much. “Never finding stillness in the motion of the arms and hands is akin to run-on sentences,” she says.

Perfect Positions

Jeannie Hill at the Beantown Tapfest Faculty Showcase (photo by John Lohr, courtesy Lohr)

Hesselink, who teaches in a musical theater style, advocates for second position arms and other simple, classical jazz lines because they keep your spine and hips in alignment and help you initiate arm movements from your back. They also prevent your arms from flailing, especially during airborne steps like pullbacks and wings. “A simple second position keeps your arms involved and engaged,” he says, “although I always recommend students keep their arms in their peripheral vision.” If you hold your arms too far back, they could throw you off balance.

Hill points out that the stance for a rhythm tapper may be different. “If the footwork requires more toe drops and flat feet, the posture is more hunkered,” she said. Rather than maintain the arms in a classic line, a tapper trying for more sounds and a contemporary style should focus on using the arms for balance.

Painting the Picture

Marshall Davis Jr. in a performance of “SIMPLY SAMMY” (photo by Gen Nishino, courtesy Davis Jr.)

Creating specific images for the steps you’re doing can also help you use your arms, Hill says. Your arms should match your feet just as the illustrations match the words in a picture book. If you have a paddle turn in your choreography, for example, you might remember the step’s traditionally straight, diagonal arms by imagining a soaring bird. Or you might keep your hands busy in another step by imagining that they’re spreading a deck of cards on a table or frosting a large cake.

Marshall Davis Jr., a performer, educator, and choreographer often seen dancing alongside Savion Glover, also suggests using imagery. In order to help students find the connection between their footwork and upper body, he has them face away from the mirror. “That way, they’re not caught up in just the visual, and they can understand the feel and the groove,” he explains. As you become more connected to the rhythms you’re making, you can think about how you want to present them in your upper body—how to “paint the picture,” as Davis says.

Taking cues from the music you’re dancing to is also important. “Your arms should move with the music organically,” Hesselink says. “If it’s a Latin song, a Latin style with your upper body, let the arms move freely and accent the rhythm. If it’s a Charleston style, pin your arms close to your body.” Davis Jr. agrees, saying that the pictures you create with your upper body should always reflect the story you’re telling through the sounds of your feet.

A version of this story appeared in the December 2017 issue of
Dance Spirit with the title “Up In Arms!”