Find Your Feet

I t’s hard to keep from smiling when you’re tap dancing. I learned that the easy way during an outdoor tap lesson with Alexis Robbins and a group of her dedicated followers one recent afternoon in East Rock Park.

Robbins obviously feels the same way. She’s smiling and laughing throughout the class, and so are her regular students. We’re set up in the College Woods pavilion due to a threatening sky, but usually you’ll find Robbins somewhere near the corner of Livingston Street and Cold Spring Street, where she lays rectangles of gray painted plywood on the ground (what fun would it be to tap in the grass?), and a musician or two shows up to accompany the class.

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This afternoon it’s Dylan McDonnell with his saxophone. He opens with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” as if to ward off the clouds, and Robbins takes us through some easy warmup paces, heels and toes tapping separately and slowly in time to the music. (Tap shoes are a plus but by no means required.) Pretty soon, though, she’s easing us into the steps to the shim-sham shimmy, tap dancing’s “national anthem.” The steps, circa 1930, are canonical today, and tap shows often end with a chance for the audience to get up and shim-sham along.

The first eight bars are easy enough to learn, but by the second of four parts, my brain is working as hard as my feet. In fact, Robbins says, that’s one of the best reasons to learn how to tap. “It is so good for your brain,” she says. “You are doing math, you are moving your body, you’re actively listening, connecting listening to what you’re physically doing.”

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Robbins hails from Rhode Island, where she first took dance lessons as a kid. She holds degrees in dance and exercise science, and since moving here from Brooklyn with her husband in 2018—reluctantly at first, though now she’s “in love with New Haven”—she’s been teaching lessons in tap, contemporary and jazz dance from various studios in Erector Square. The pandemic forced her online and then, last summer, outside. While the classes are geared toward adults, anyone can join in, and for a while on this afternoon, three kids waiting to be picked up from camp do. One of them takes to it like a natural. We have other visitors, too: a dog running in to see what we’re doing and a swallow bombing through the pavilion.

In addition to teaching both outdoors and in, Robbins is a choreographer with her own studio, kamrDANCE, and a musician who accompanies local bands with her tap beats, often improvisationally. Tap dancing is an American art form, Robbins notes, with African-American roots, and improvisation is part of the deal. So once we’ve flim-flammed our way through the shim-sham, it’s time for some improv. “You’re just gonna be you, and it’s gonna be great!” Robbins calls out. We take turns around our semicircle of dancers—eight bars each, then four, then two. Then Robbins throws in a twist: Make the previous dancer’s last step your first step.

“You can be a beginner forever,” she says when we’re finished. I’m certain she’s right about that. But you’ll also have a ton of fun learning.

Alexis Robbins | adult outdoor tap classes
Livingston St and Cold Spring St, New Haven (map)
July 22 5:30-7:30pm, July 28 5-7pm, Aug TBD
Pay what you wish.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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