The Scoop on Sand Dancing, Tap's Cousin
Five women in leather-soled boots sweep their feet across a sand-covered stage, accenting the music in maraca-like rhythms. With its chugs, brushes, heel drops and slides, their movement looks a lot like tap dancing, but the sound is different—scratchier and rougher. This is sand dance. The scene described is from tap dancer/choreographer Melinda Sullivan’s 2012 video entry to the Capezio A.C.E. Awards, Gone. (She went on to win first place at the competition.) “Experimenting with sand dancing really changed the way I tap,” Sullivan says. “It’s like playing a whole new instrument.” Interested in giving sand dance a try? Before turning your dance studio into a private beach, read on for the need-to-know on this sub-style.
What is it?
“Sand dancing is tapping on sand, but your approach to the floor is completely different,” Sullivan says. Whereas much of tap choreography emphasizes distinct, crisp hits, sand dancing is more about sweeping, rubbing motions; the feet tend to spend more time on the floor. “Shuffles, flaps, slides, chugs and pull-backs work really well with sand,” adds L.A. tapper Kenji Igus, who was featured in Cari Ann Shim Sham*’s 2011 documentary SAND.
Traditionally, sand dance is a soft-shoe style, which means it’s performed without tap shoes. “The term ‘soft-shoe’ can be somewhat misleading,” Sullivan says. “We’re actually dancing in hard-soled leather boots.” Even though it isn’t necessarily traditional, Igus will sometimes use his tap shoes on sand. “In a noisy theater, taps can amplify the sounds and keep them from getting lost or muffled,” he says.
Tapper Kenji Igus dancing on sand (Visionarrie Photography, courtesy Igus)
Where did it come from?
If you’ve never heard of sand dancing before, you’re not alone. “I like to think of it as the forgotten sibling of tap,” Igus says. Like tap, sand dancing is a distinctly American style, tracing its roots back to African slave communication. But sand dancing was never really codified, and its lineage is much more difficult to trace. “Most people associate sand dancing with Howard ‘Sandman’ Sims, from the ’50s and ’60s,” Igus says. “He wasn’t the first sand dancer, but his regular performances at the Apollo Theater in Harlem really helped popularize the style.”
Who’s doing it today?
Sand dance has remained primarily a street style. Igus learned it from his father, Darrow Igus, who learned it from a New Jersey projects street performer named “T” back in the ’60s. “Melinda Sullivan is the only choreographer I’ve seen use sand onstage,” he says. “But I’ve seen it on the streets of New Orleans.” Sullivan was first exposed to the style in a class setting, with master sand dancer Guillem Alonso, of Barcelona, Spain. “I was hooked,” she says. “I started looking up YouTube videos of Guillem, and experimenting with the form.” She notes that other prominent tap choreographers are also using sand. “Michelle Dorrance has done some really cool stuff with it, and the Syncopated Ladies’ 2014 video to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ was all about sand dancing with a modern edge,” Sullivan says.
How do I get started?
It’s tough to find a class that specializes in sand dancing, for obvious reasons. “In the ideal world, I’d dump sand all over the studio,” Sullivan says. “But that isn’t exactly practical.”
But you can still try it on your own. Both Igus and Sullivan stress that the best way to learn is to experiment with your own body, using the tap vocabulary you already know. Sullivan likes to layer in elements from other techniques, like jazz, contemporary or hip hop. “The first step is just to take your toe and rub it in the sand,” Igus says. “Then start feeling it out and let your mind run wild.”
Because the sounds of sand dancing are much quieter than taps, picking the right music can be tough. But dancing a cappella is always an option. “Sand dancing is a sound that most audiences haven’t heard before,” says L.A. tapper Kenji Igus. “So hearing it on its own can be really captivating for them.” Tapper and choreographer Melinda Sullivan agrees: “A cappella sand dance can be complete magic,” she says.