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Tapping with DJs

MAKING TAP WORK. 21ST CENTURY TAP:PERFORMING WITH DJs Go to an art gallery opening, what do you see? An ambient DJ. Attend a banquet, or your cousin’s wedding? Not a live band, but a DJ. It is not news that DJs are becoming ubiquitous in venues more traditionally served by musicians and other live entertainment. DJs do provide live entertainment of course, and are also often featured on turntables, samplers, mixers and effects and keyboards as part of a band’s instrumentation. The advantage for them is they can spin records and get a crowd dancing without breaking a sweat. Tap dancers may be able to find opportunities in this competitive crisis. It is not uncommon to see a vocalist, horn or percussion player with a DJ act. Why not a tap dancer? A competent and creative DJ can provide a wide variety of sounds to accompany a tap act, and tappers can inspire a different kind of energy for the DJ. Live tap performances can kick things up a few notches at parties and other events and get the crowd in the mood. I am thinking, here, of a cutting-edge contemporary Brazilian Afro-Samba jam laced with Reggae and HipHop, of course. That could describe a side-project band I am a member of. But you could just as well mean “in the mood” like Glen Miller’s “In the Mood”, or any other dance genre from Disco to Rockabilly to Swing or Salsa. There are a few important things to be prepared for. You must have some sound reinforcement. If you need a lot of space to dance in, there are various techniques for miking the dance floor. As a rhythm dancer, I generally use an SM57 mic under my raised 3’ square plywood tap board, which delivers a strong signal to the mixing console. Be careful not to turn it up too loud or it will feed back hideously. Another idea here is to split your signal between a straight feed into a dedicated channel for your “pure” tap sound, and another feed to the DJ for sound manipulation. For example, there are filters, shifters, delays, and other effects on many mixers that can transform your sound in intriguing ways. With some rehearsal, the DJ can sample an ostinato tap phrase and the dancer can then solo over the sample. The DJ can even use your samples to jam with you! This dovetails nicely with my previous articles on electronic tap, and I have found some interesting settings for my tap, e-tap and horns recently with Go Gringo Go and DJ Cachacina. Cachacina sings and raps in Portuguese, and is also a turntablist and a whiz with drum machines and computers. We are parts of Go Gringo Go, a large band of percussionists with bass,keys,vocalists and horns(one of whom tap dances!) We have tried all the things described above and have rehearsed some grooves to improvise on when other band members are changing instruments between songs. I like to think the breaks are reminiscent of the Vaudeville days when any little lull in the flow would be met with “Send out a tap dancer”, or an MC would soft-shoe to kill some time. (For the record, I am a child of the Rock and Roll era, not a veteran of the Vaudeville circuit!). Anyway, between the mic, MIDI e-tap and the DJ’s effects, we were actually triply-processing the raw tap sound to create new textures- and it can sound very cool. Plus it can be a gig, so don’t send me hate-mail about the pure sound of taps and leather and wood are all you need! I spend the bulk of my tapping time on the acoustic board, but often as not need a mic to be heard over any band I may be tapping with. This problem of volume has a lot to do with tap work falling off in the 1960s as amplified pop music got louder and louder. Remember, they have a little knob they turn to go loud with! Today’s tap performers have plenty of funk and guts and slamming beats in them and can hold their own in any rhythmic environment given the sound reinforcement. But I digress. I have also found that it can be tiring to work with DJs due to the mechanical nature of their tools. One has to be careful not to let this gig turn into the tap dance version of “The Ballad of John Henry” in which the unrelenting machine steadily erodes human stamina and sucks the life force out of the heroic worker! At any rate, taste will determine the repertoire of grooves, textures or recordings you and your DJ will bust out with. This idea is relevant to many kinds of tap performers and groups doing club and casual jobs, and can also be used by teachers to spice up recitals for dance schools. The kids can probably find the DJ for you! If we persist in showing audiences the electricity tap can create in more popular and contemporary contexts, we can get more jobs and attract more students, which in turns creates even more opportunities for us and the generations of tappers who will follow us. That is what I call “making Tap Work”. this article originally appeared in ON TAP magazine published by the ITA