By Lesley Mealor / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance (Performing Arts)
Tap dance, with its intricate rhythm patterns and fast footwork, requires a lot of practice! Even the most advanced and professional tap dancers come back to what are called the “rudiments” of tap dance to hone in on the basic skills necessary to execute the flashy steps.
When practicing at home, tap dancers of all levels will benefit from tap exercises that focus on rhythm, and tap exercises that focus on ankle and leg strength and flexibility.
Rudiments are basically the building blocks of steps that make up harder, more complicated steps, and are usually taught to beginners. Even if you as a caregiver aren’t familiar with tap dance, these movements are easy enough for anyone to do and don’t even need to be done with tap shoes on to be helpful. So, let’s get tapping!
Understanding Counts in Tap Dance
Before we get to the tap exercises that are helpful to practice at home, it’s important to explain the fundamentals of how tap dance is counted. That involves a little bit of music theory!
Music notes are valued as whole (four beats), half (two beats), quarter (one beat), eighth (half a beat), and sixteenth (a quarter of a beat). Even though our feet don’t sing, tap dancers translate these values into their tap sounds. So, if we were to tap our right toe four times in a row evenly, we’re using quarter notes, counted 1 2 3 4.
Time signature refers to how music should be counted. Most beginner level tap dancing is done to music that has a 4/4 time signature. The top number tells you how many beats to count (4), and the bottom number tells you what kind of note to count (4, meaning a quarter note).
Within those 4 beats, any combination of note values can be used as long as they add up to 4. So, if we were to tap our right toe four times, that is counted as 1 2 3 4. If we tap our toe eight times, that is counted as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Moving faster, tapping our toe 16 times, that is counted as 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a.
Tap Exercises For Rhythm
What sets tap dance apart from other styles is the focus on creating a clear rhythm with the feet. That can be as simple as a heel drop on the downbeat, or as complicated as a syncopated rhythm using toes, heels, scrapes, stomps and stamps.
The following exercises can be performed acapella (without music), or with a metronome. A metronome is a device (now easily accessible online simply by searching “metronome”) that keeps an even beat at any speed you set it to.
For all exercises, feel free to play around with the tempo and find the right speed for you.
Toe Drops and Heel Drops
To perform this toe drop and heel drop rhythm exercise, begin standing with your feet parallel and hip-width apart. If you wish, set a metronome to a speed you are comfortable with. I like to start with 85 BPM for this exercise.
Counting in quarter notes, drop your right toe, left toe, right toe, left toe (1 2 3 4). Next, drop your right heel, left heel, right heel, left heel (1 2 3 4). Repeat two times through.
Next, you’ll count in eighth notes, which can also be called “double time”. You will drop your toes 8 times (RLRLRLRL) counted as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Then, you will do the same with your heels (RLRLRLRL), counted as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &. Repeat two times through.
Finally, you will count in sixteenth notes. You will drop your toes 16 times (RLRLRLRLRLRLRLRL), which is counted as 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a. Then, drop your heels 16 times (RLRLRLRLRLRLRLRL), counted the same as above. Repeat two times through.
You can vary this combination by changing tempos, starting on the left, or starting with your heels first. You can also change up the order of toe drops vs heel drops, for example, 4 right toe drops, 4 left heel drops, 4 left toe drops, 4 right heel drops. Have fun creating new patterns out of these simple rhythms!
Step heels are one of the most basic tap steps, and are easy for anyone to learn, even non-dancers. They are also great for creating many different types of rhythms. In this step heel exercise, you will practice simple rhythm patterns.
This rhythm pattern utilizes quarter notes, eighth notes and sixteenth notes, as above. First, set your metronome to a slow speed. I like to use 75 BPM for this exercise.
You will first perform 4 slow step heels, counted 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 (right step heel (1 2), left step heel (3 4), right step heel (1 2), left step heel (3, 4).
Then, you will double time your step heels, which are eighth notes. This means you will perform 8 step heels, slightly faster. This is counted 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.
Finally, you will double time your eighth notes, which makes them into sixteenth notes, meaning 16 step heels. This is counted 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a, 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a.
You can vary this combination by doubling the toes or the heels, turning the rhythm into a triplet, or starting with a heel drop.
Tap Exercises For Lower Leg Strength and Flexibility
Tap dance requires a great amount of stamina and strength from some of the smallest muscles in your feet and ankles. To help develop strong tap skills, these exercises can be practiced at home. The wall tap exercise is to be done without tap shoes, and the ankle circle tap exercise can be done with or without tap shoes.
Find an empty wall in your house. It doesn’t have to be big! Then, lay on your back with your knees bent at a 90 degree angle, with your feet parallel and flat against the wall.
Next, press your heels into the wall firmly, and lift the right ball of the foot as high as you can. Then, tap your foot against the wall. Repeat on the left. Alternate between right and left taps for at least a minute. You can go as fast as you please.
This exercise will produce a burn in the tibialis anterior, or the muscle right outside the shin. This muscle is integral to the strength it takes to do many tap steps involving toe drops.
Sitting on a chair and doing this exercise will also work similar muscles out and can be done almost anywhere!
Ankle Circle Taps
The ankles must be loose and supple for tap dancing, but strong at the same time! By practicing ankle circle taps, you are warming up and loosening up the ankles for the flexibility you need for tap.
To perform ankle circle taps, you can choose to either wear tap shoes or be barefoot. If you choose to wear tap shoes, be sure to find an appropriate surface to practice on.
For suggestions on the best tap surfaces for at home use, check out our article here!.
Standing on your left foot, extend the right foot in front of you. Begin by circling the right ankle clockwise, and when the ball of the foot is closest to the floor, use the ball of the foot to strike the floor on the way around. Try and strike the floor with the middle of the tap, or the middle of the ball of your foot. Repeat for 8 circles.
Then, reverse the ankle circles counterclockwise, again striking the floor with the ball of the foot when the ball of the foot is closest to the floor.
Go at your own pace, and repeat both sides 5 times.
If you need, hold onto the back of a chair for balance or build a DIY Ballet Barre like the one in our featured image – You can find the instructions in our DIY Ballet Barre Homepage
Gaining strength, dexterity and flexibility for tap dance is crucial to improving your skills. Hopefully these exercises are a helpful jumping off point to further study in tap!