The tap class’s percussive warm-up — shoo, shoo, clap clap; thump thump, pound pound — sounds a little like the opening bars of the English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom.” Clattering and propulsive, its purpose is twofold: The steps not only prepare students’ bodies to move, they cue their ears to listen. Tap, especially rhythm tap, emphasizes the musicality of the steps as well as their execution. As the group’s routines grow more complex, the tempo picks up, and instructor Baakari Wilder urges the class to rein it in.
“The slower we do it, the more we breathe, the more sounds there will be,” he calls out over the din.
Wilder’s class is clapping and thumping at Takoma Park’s Knock on Wood Tap Studio, the only dance school in the area — and one of the few in the country — that focuses solely on tap. KOW officially opened in this location last month — and the bustle on this busy Monday night, as students greet each other in the crowded reception area, sign the roll book and jostle for space to change their shoes, belies the fact that, as recently as last month, its continued operation was in doubt. The start of fall classes here marks not only a new semester, but a new beginning.
When the small nonprofit school shuttered its longtime Silver Spring location in March after funding cuts made it impossible to meet operating expenses, the tap community swung into action. Instructors held fund-raising tap classes, other schools loaned space, and alumni donated money to put supplies — sound systems, tap shoes, portable dance flooring — in storage. Meanwhile, the board of directors scrambled to find the school a more affordable home. The Takoma Park space fit the bill and, in a circuitous twist of fate, is the site of Knock on Wood’s original studio.
“We’re across the hall from where we used to be,” said co-founder Yvonne Edwards. “It’s like going home again.”
Edwards co-founded Tappers with Attitude, Inc., which encompassed the studio and the youth performance ensemble that rehearsed there, with Renee Kreither in 1991. A dance instructor for more than 60 years, “Miss Yvonne,” as she is affectionately called, presides over the studio as a sort of grande dame of the tap community, offering warm greetings to all comers. Her school is known for welcoming students at all levels, whether performance-bound teens or determined adult beginners. Says Edwards, “I just love everybody who wants to put on tap shoes.”
Her attitude reflects that of the Washington area tap scene, which embraces community over competition. “Everybody knows each other,” laughs KOW instructor Lisa Swenton-Eppard. “We refer to each other as the Tap Family.” That family comes together every spring at the annual D.C. Tap Festival, held at the D.C. Dance Collective and the Duke Ellington Theatre. Throughout the community, KOW is recognized as a standard bearer for its tap-only program, the professionalism of its instructors, and its emphasis on musicality and tap history.
The new studio still has a makeshift quality. There’s no office phone and no readily identifiable KOW signage on the building. Canvas curtains separate the main studio from the reception area, and a fiberboard hallway leads to a smaller studio painted burnt orange. Both dance areas are equipped with the basics, however — mirrored walls, ceiling fans, and the all-important sprung maple flooring so dancers can stomp away without injuring their knee and hip joints. The studio’s inviting spirit is reinforced by the shiny black tap shoes in every conceivable size that wait in pairs by the door.
There are two styles of tap dancing, Broadway tap and rhythm — or jazz — tap. Knock on Wood teaches only rhythm tap; part of its mission is to preserve the style’s history, which is embodied in the way it is taught. Dance instruction, be it ballet or ballroom, is often rigidly codified in its forms and practice. “Rhythm tap is more passed down by word of mouth and through the foot,” explains Swenton-Eppard. “It’s not so regulated.” Nor is the dancing: Toes fire off satisfying snaps like bottle rockets, while heels pound the floor with the reassuring sound of heavy rain on a rooftop. In between are soft shuffles, pauses, breaks — dancers become both musicians and composers.
Wilder, a KOW alumnus, is one of the school’s most popular instructors. An original cast member in Savion Glover’s “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,” he recently appeared on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” Long and tall, he dances like a very cool daddy longlegs, his feet stepping and spinning into edgy pauses while his arms and torso move with relaxed verve. Wilder credits his success as a performer to his early training at KOW, which emphasized “a strong sense of rhythm and timing, which is essential to the art form itself . . . without [them] you might go about expanding your vocabulary and learning a lot of steps, but never understanding how to take the song you make with your feet on a journey.”
The impact of jazz on rhythm tap is particularly evident in Wilder’s classes. He improvises a routine for each session, sorting through a series of taps and pauses until he finds a sequence that works. He performs the steps once for the students to watch, then again with a nod for the class to follow. To help the students keep time and keep moving, Wilder calls out beats like Ella Fitzgerald: “Ba dee be dah/ ba dee be dah/ Ba dee be dah BAH!” The idea is that if you can scat out the steps, you can dance them. Classes end with a jam session. Each dancer takes a turn at improvising a solo routine while fellow tappers keep a 4/4 beat in the background. Baakari reminds the dancers to “have conversations . . . trade with each other,” as jazz musicians would.
A tapper ends his improv on a sharp beat and symbolically passes the rhythm — and the lead — to the next dancer.