Tools for Tap Improvisation: The Time Step

Join me in welcoming guest, and new TAPography columnist, Tristan Bruns! Tristan is a Chicago-based tap artist and instructor. You can learn more about him via his bio below but what you may not discover there is that Tristan is making this debut on his birthday! Happy Birthday, Tristan!

Nothing brings out ‘the fear’ in a dancer more than the word improvisation. Improv for short, it is a shame that many dancers feel uncomfortable when asked to join an improv jam. Most dancers flat out refuse to participate and I used to be one of them.

Improvisation is an absolutely essential part of dance education and perhaps more so in tap than in other styles. Tap dance is a very virtuosic art form and the ability to ‘think on your feet’ is absolutely necessary in order to experience everything that tap has to offer.

“Get out there and do something.”

When I joined a professional tap dance company during my last year of high school I was vaguely aware of the importance of improvisation.  At one of our first performances the director turns to me and says, “Go out there and do something.” “Like what?” I asked. “You know, just turn off your brain, don’t think about it and let it come naturally.” So I did. I wish that I had video of that performance only so I could burn it to make sure that nobody else ever saw it.

In retrospect, I could not disagree with his advice more than I disagree with thirteen fouette turns in a tap number. When I decided to get serious about my improv, I started out practicing in that way. I would clear my mind and hope something good materialized.

What came out? Nothing. There was no foundation with which to build.  I had no insight into the correlation between spontaneous improv and how to apply my years of training to it. A tap dancer divided against him self will not stand. In fact, you end up falling, both physically and emotionally.

Dropping Eaves

What is an essential skill for a dancer to learn? Eavesdropping. It is a skill, right up there with cheating and stealing, that, when applied to dance, takes on a different meaning. In short, it translates into paying attention when the dancers that you admire are talking. Backstage at the Vittum theatre in Chicago I overheard two tap dancers, one of whom I greatly admire and a younger dancer, conversing about improv. “I just get lost and can’t think of anything to do sometimes,” said the younger dancer. “What about time steps?” replied the other. He went on to explain, “Do a step three times and add a break. Just keep doing that and add on to it. How many variations can you do? Then do a different one…” and so on.

‘The’ Time Step

If you have been tapping for so many years, then you are no doubt familiar with ‘the’ time step. I have to put quotes around the word ‘the’ simply because it is a false declaration. In actuality it is ‘a’ time step. A time step can be any combinations of steps that adhere to the time step format, which generally consists of performing the same step at the same duration three times and then adding a break, or something different, at the end. For my students I like to express this format in letters: A-A-A-B.

But what about ‘the’ time step? Why is that one more relevant than others? I’m not saying that the traditional time step is not important. On the contrary, learning about the history of the time step is important to the process of creating your own.

Here is an excerpt about time steps from The Souls of Your Feet, a tap dance guidebook by dancer and Tapestry Dance Company director Acia Gray:

“This eight BAR structure originated as a means of setting up tempo and style for a tap dancer’s band as an à capella introduction by the dancer. A two bar pattern was traditionally repeated three times (straight or in variations) and followed by a “break” to lead in for the musicians.  The most famous is the Stomp Time Step (“Buck” Time Step). Often referred to as “the time step,” variations of these simple figures are utilized in all styles and forms of tap. The most common variations include the single, double and triple Stomp Time Steps.”

No doubt that this is familiar territory, and Ms. Gray continues to describe numerous variations on the Buck Time Step. Additional steps are added and then some new break suggestions followed by a traveling version. Further more, you can perform these steps in swing time, rhythm time and hip hop time. There is even a Jackie Gleason-style break (“And away we go…”). The variations on this theme are endless and can certainly be used for your improv, but in an art form where virtuosic self-expression is considered the ultimate achievement, there will come a time where doing preconceived steps will no longer satisfy you or your constituency.

Here is a short video I’ve produced which illustrates the endless possibilities for variation and invention within the structure of a time step:

Tools for Improvisation: Time Steps

Watch this video on YouTube.

‘A’ Time Step

By now I feel we can all agree that the concept of a time step is fairly accessible. The key to linking time steps to your improv is to stop focusing on the steps and begin considering the form. ‘Three times and a break’ can mean any combination of steps that adhere to this format. This phrasing is where your natural musicality will emerge.

Phrasing is the way a sequence of notes, or steps, are grouped together to form units of rhythm.  In the form of A-A-A-B, the ‘A’ is one phrase and the ‘B’ is another. Putting them together creates a larger phrase, one with more complexity and substance.

Children pick up on this extremely quickly and in my experience faster than many adults. After all, the early stages of education focus on patterns, especially in art and music. That is to say, if a child is fortunate enough to attend a school that still retains these programs.

Circle Up

A good tool that I have found useful is to ask students to ‘circle up’ and give me basic time steps, at one bar per phrase, and limit them to only using their heels or toes. I’m constantly surprised at the rhythms that these kids think up. More importantly, they are enjoying themselves, practicing their improv without fear, and expressing themselves effectively and in a way that is unique to each individual. It doesn’t have to be fast and it doesn’t have to be fancy, but it must, MUST be clean.

Following that basic exercise, I simply lift the restrictions on my students.  Now they can do toes and heels: Now add a flam. Now shuffles and flaps. And so on. Once the kids are comfortable they will surprise you with some of the stuff they pick up from each other, and even more surprising is the stuff that they steal from me. And they don’t mess around because it’s usually my best stuff!

Here is a quick summary for introducing a class to improvised time steps:

  • After everyone ‘cirlces up,’ set the form (A-A-A-B) and establish the tempo. (Make sure that it is clear how many counts are in each bar.)
  • Place restrictions, such as ‘only toes,’ or ‘left side only.’
  • After everyone is comfortable, start adding on to the format by changing the restrictions. For example: Allow new steps to be included like shuffles and flams and encourage students to switch feet on comfortable steps.
  • Build up to a point where all restrictions can be lifted, allowing students to have complete freedom in their improvised time steps.

Personally, this was my introduction to improvisation. It gave me a place to start with a clear set of objectives to follow towards progress.

Tap dancer extraordinaire Jason Janas claims that he likes to come up with a new time step everyday to stay sharp. I like to put difficult steps into the context of a time step before applying them to more abstract forms and rhythms. Do it all on the right foot and then on the left. Then do it right-left-right and left-right-left. As your memory becomes more adept at remembering patterns and steps that you feel comfortable with, make it sixteen bars instead of eight, or thirty-two bars if you are feeling ambitious. As your ability to communicate grows so will your confidence.

I’ll see you at the next jam!

Tristan Bruns
Tristan Bruns has studied the art form of tap dance with Donna Johnson, Ted Levy, Lane Alexander and Martin "Tre" Dumas and has a BA in Music from Columbia College Chicago. Tristan has been an ensemble member of such Chicago tap companies as BAM!, The Cartier Collective and MADD Rhythms. Tristan currently produces his own work through his company, TapMan Productions, LLC, which includes the performance ensemble The Tapmen and the tap and guitar "band" of The Condescending Heroes.
Tristan Bruns

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  1. Great article!! Good job on describing the time step and it’s variations.
    I really liked the added video. Being aq tap student myself, I’m looking forward to the next article from this author.

  2. This is awesome. improvisation, repetition-variation. this is the best.