By Pam Hetherington (United States) and Kristel Baris (Holland)

August, 2010


 “Just when you think you own it, it’s already gone.”

Eddie Ornowski, Drummer



From July 12-23, 2010, Heather Cornell hosted the 20th anniversary of the Manhattan Tap New York City Intensive. The theme for the two weeks was “Jazz: Back to Our Roots.” Twenty participants immersed themselves in fifty-eight hours of tap classes and music lessons over the course of ten days.   A truly international group, the participants hailed from eleven different countries:  United States, Canada, Scotland, Switzerland, Ireland, Brazil, England, Holland, Germany, Finland and Norway. 


One of the distinguishing factors of this two week intensive from other tap master classes is the constant and inspiring presence of live music.  Heather invited some of the best musicians in the world to teach, offer advice, tell stories about their music careers, and most importantly, to play!  Over the course of two weeks, the students worked with the djembe and conga drums, the cajon, the balafon, drum kit, small percussion, voice, the violin, the trombone, the bass, the guitar, and the flute.  Heather notes that the goal of the intensive is to:

“develop music-based tap artists with strong independent voices and with the knowledge and humility to be real live musical collaborators.  We explore what it means to play as a member of a musical ensemble, what historically is necessary to keep from the traditions and what is not relevant today, how to listen creatively and respond instinctively, how to divide the beat, how to feel many different musical divisions at the same time, how to intuit time signatures, how to collaborate… I think of it as a place to go to discover individuality while at the same time community and balance.”


The incredibly diverse international participation is also a distinctive characteristic of this two-week course, and an indication of how tap dancing is evolving in the 21st century.  Heather notes that since tap has grown “to include a vibrant international scene, it’s time for dancers to celebrate those differences and use them to create new, unbelievably wonderful, unique voices.  To me, that is community, and that is exactly what I get to develop each year:  a caring, intelligent, supportive and inclusive tap community of very unique voices from all over the world.”


Heather started the intensive in 1990 to provide an affordable option to the available tap classes, (which were few), and to teach in a way that offered both thoughtful, comprehensive learning, as well as a sense of community.  Twenty years ago, the tap scene was very small, and as Heather recalls, “most dancers couldn’t even swing their flaps.” 


Over the past twenty years, Heather has structured the intensive in different ways.  Beginning in 1990 with a 15 hour all level session over 5 days, at different points, Heather expanded the intensive to two levels, then to two weeks, added an historical material class, formalized the music element by hiring the many musicians who were dropping in to play for fun, added music classes and added the grand slam, meaning the student takes all 58 hours of classes.   For the twentieth year, Heather limited the enrollment to 20 grand slam students, all of whom came from different backgrounds and levels of experience.  “Developing creators, not imitators,” Heather tries very hard “not to tell, allowing the students to figure out what they need to learn.”  She adds, “because of this, the intensive has continued to morph and to provide elements of what is missing in the training of tap dance in any given year.  My philosophy is: nothing is “wrong” - breaking the rules is where it’s at - unless the student isn’t schooled in the rules that they are breaking.  Then that’s a problem.”


The theme, and the subsequent exercises around that theme, is developed by Heather, often in response to things that are inspiring her at the time, or, as she described it, to “balance the trends that are in the air.”  She mentioned that the djembe drum “found her” in the late 80’s, and in learning to play it, she was moved to explore tap’s relationship to African and world music.  When Heather introduced world music to her dancers in Manhattan Tap, they didn’t take to it well, since they were still trying to understand jazz music.  Those same dancers, one of them Max Pollak, are now the driving forces behind the integration of world music and tap. 


In fact, Heather started this year’s intensive with African music, and for three days, the students worked in large and small groups, with complex polyrhythms within 6/8, 4/4, and 12/8 time signatures.  Heather related African rhythms to a moving stream – one that beckons you to dive in and move with the flow of the current – and similarly, the students were given tap rhythms which made them move flexibly between 4/4 and 6/4, as well as to feel the divisions of two and three simultaneously.  Andy Algire, a drummer and balafon player who’s played for the intensive for over a decade, and Alby Roblejo, whose Sufi rhythm on the cajon put us into a trance, both provided accompaniment.  Malika Zarra, a Moroccan born jazz singer, led the group through her beautifully elusive phrasing.  In working with Malika’s music, all of the students felt some frustration in finding the ‘one;’ and despite many attempts, feeling those elusive grooves were surprisingly difficult.


After energetic morning sessions, the group often spent the afternoons in deep discussion, and in taking time to think closely and deeply about the complicated, yet beautiful, relationship between tap dancers and musicians, between tap rhythms and the groove.  During that first week, the tappers talked about, and tried out, pathways into musical improvisation.  In one of the exercises, the students worked at playing a melody, a bass line, or a drum solo through their feet.   Accompanying this exercise were two inspiring jazz students from the New School, Anthony Taddeo (drums) and Adriel Williams (violin) who not only were playing for classes, but also studying as tappers.   Eddie Ornowski (traps) joined the group that first week for a very passionate music class and accompanied on drum kit while some of the students tried out solo arrangements of various jazz tunes.  Later in the week, Matt Havilland (trombone) started his session by announcing that trombone players tend to be “arrangers,” and so spontaneously, small groups and soloists worked on creating arrangements unique to trombone and tap.


In the second week, Heather moved the studies squarely into jazz.  She provided a great example, as she premiered two choruses of Eddie Brown’s Lost Routine #5.  Heather considers Eddie to be one of her main influences and, from 1985 to 1992, the two of them spent hours working intensely in a studio in Los Angeles.  Eddie set a solo on Heather in the late 80’s, titled “Eddie’s Sounds” and Heather assisted him in many teaching situations over the years. 


In 1990, Eddie performed an intricate solo to the song Yardbird Suite while performing with Manhattan Tap at the Village Gate Jazz Club.  This was his first NYC performance in 50 years.  Heather, along with Dayna Szyndrowski, spent many hours transcribing the entire solo for the meat behind Routine #5. Demonstrating the pure genius of a true tap master, this improvised solo moves between complex phrases which slice the beat into tiny pieces, all the while moving smoothly and effortlessly from 2 divisions of the beat to 3, to 4 and onward- and the tempo is fast!  As the students learned the choreography, there were “fried brains” and furrowed brows all over the room.  The work is challenging and as Heather puts it “Eddie’s work will change your dancing forever.”  At the conclusion of that week, the students tried out the two choruses in small groups, with the rest of the students looking on.  After each group concluded, the participants cheered and applauded the dancers for hitting as many notes as they could!  Most of the tappers agreed that Eddie’s Lost Routine #5 was one they would practice for years to come. 



The afternoon discussions in that second week delved into questions of the tap dancer’s role on stage, in a jam session, and as a member of a band.  Are tap dancers soloing too much, and losing their connection to the music?  As the students worked through group and solo improvisations, Heather, who pointed out that “I teach by waking up the dancer’s need to ask questions,” pushed the students to ask themselves: 

Why do you hit the floor?

What is YOUR role, right now, in this situation?

What is YOUR focus?

What is the intention behind the music?  What is the intention behind YOUR music?

Are you collaborating with the music or dictating?


While grappling with those and other questions, Heather, along with Eddie Ornowski, Alan Murphy (bass), Tony Romano (guitar), and Michel Gentile (flute) offered a wealth of information on how to communicate effectively in jam sessions, or in band rehearsals, and on using correct jazz terminology.  The students learned the nonverbal signs for 'take it home', ‘lay out,’ and other terms like “head,” and “A,” “B,” or  “bridge,” all of which creates the structure of (most) jazz tunes. Most importantly, the students were given time to learn to use the vocabulary and were urged to work within 'the form' at all times.  Students learned to do things like playing a standard in an odd time signature, asking for specific grooves, changing a groove (like putting a latin beat on a tune), working with rubato, and even delving into free jazz.  They counted in the band, inserted vamps and fills, did trades, tried stop time, provided foundation, comped, and opened up during the “going home” choruses.   The supportive environment helped each student grow as a musician.  Kristel Baris, a participant from Holland, agreed that working with musicians “makes you conscious of your own style and what is important to promote that. Everybody went through their own process, each at their own level.”


The exercises often traveled beyond the classroom.  On Saturday night of the first week, Heather invited all of the students to her house for a barbecue, and then to a gig at Tasha’s Café in Nyack, NY.  Heather (balafon, conga, tap), Andy Algire (lead balafon, conga) and Adriel Williams (balafon, violin) played the first set.  In the second set, Heather invited all of the students to sit in.  This was the first time some of the students had ever jammed to live music, while others were more experienced.  One of the important aspects of Heather’s style of teaching is that all students learn together.  It is remarkable how much it enriches the atmosphere to have students of all levels and from all backgrounds and cultures feeding each other. 


After the long days in the studio, the group met up at some of Heather’s favorite New York spots.  They ate chicken at Flor de Mayo, the place where Heather and Buster Brown used to go every week, and went to Brazil Restaurant where, on the fourth night in a row, they reserved the whole restaurant with a live guitar player for a thank you presentation to Heather.   Each night, the students had the opportunity to go to the gigs of the musicians who leant their time and talents in class.


Heather concludes that the 58-hour annual event is “life-changing,” not only for the students, but also “for me.  This is where I get to re-set, re-charge my ideas, inspire and get inspired.”  Students who have returned to the intensive year after year echoed Heather’s sentiments. 


Carol Efron-Flier, a tap instructor at the Boston Conservatory, has attended the intensive almost every year since 2000.  As a professional tap dancer and teacher, she notes that “continuing education is a priority for me. Finding a tap intensive designed to fine-tune one's professional skills in musicality, dancing, and teaching is difficult. Finding a tap intensive that consistently propels one's skills forward year after year is almost impossible. Attending Heather Cornell's NY Tap Intensive which embodies all these unique qualities, is priceless.”


Lizzie Oxley, from London, United Kingdom, has attended the intensive for four years.  She says, “Heather promotes a beautiful relationship between tap dancing and music, inspiring so many to finally view tap as part of the music and not outside of it. Jazz music and tap dancing have never merged so stunningly as in a work by Heather Cornell. It is always a privilege to study with her."


Finally, Jussi Lindroos, a native of Finland who has attended the intensive for six years,  says "the Intensive is truly about you and what you want and need to learn.  Dancing as a musician is actually not so easy. It's not always pleasant to give up your ego and really try to develop a deep connection to music. This is one of the greatest opportunities to learn humility and get tools how to truly collaborate with live musicians.  The process is sometimes painful, but full of discoveries and new opportunities. This is a hardcore rhythm tap event."


Five Questions for Heather Cornell by Pam Hetherington


Why tap dancing?


Because it is inherently improvisational, combines music and dance in the most profound way, and is the hardest thing that I could choose to do.  And because it is and always was my medium, my raw material, my foundation.  When I became a modern dancer, while searching for an improvisational dance form, I never really understood the vocabulary and always felt like I was speaking a second language.  When I found tap, I knew immediately that it was my first language.


Where was your most memorable performance?


There are so many of them.  Obviously, the moments of dancing a duet with Ray Brown are irreplacable, also collaborating with him. The solo performance with the Lewis Nash trio when I was coming out of time off while having my kids, was another altering experience.  Guest artist in London at the Southbank Center where I hooked up with a wonderful flute player and she and I did trades for ever.  Almost all the shows that I do with the band in Greece - love Spyros (piano), Petros (bass) and their beautiful emotional playing. Loved all the performances with simply voice and wooden taps - with Malika Zarra and her Moroccan vibe, with Sotiria and the traditional greek songs, with all the singers in Greece this summer doign Bird Song sung in many part harmony with my wooden taps. Performing in China, in stadiums of 15,000 people, with Manhattan Tap during the Tianamen Square uprising.  Taking students to busk at the Berlin wall when it was 1/2 way down.  The many hundreds of hours on stage with Keith Saunders and Eddie Ornowski and Manhattan Tap.  The Ambassador Auditorium with Horace Silver and Ray Brown in the audience.  The Village Gate Jazz club when MT was hot and the line up was around the block and down the street and Gregory Hines was in the audience ready to sit in.  On stage with Cookie, with Eddie, Steve, Chuck, Harriet, Jimmy, Honi, Gregory....the list goes on.  They are all memorable.  But then there was one show in a funny little community theater in Vienna with a local sax player, Zigi Finkel, where we started a ballad, a duet, and it became a 25 minute journey that neither of us could remember a single moment of, the audience went nuts, and all I could say was "wow, that was really great sex."


What motivates you to keep creating and contributing to the art form?


I love the art form.  To me it is the heart and soul of life and spirituality - the intersection of music and dance.  This is understood as the heartbeat of the spirit in so many cultures and the fact that we have lost the connection in many places in the world doesn't seem to change that for me.  For me, it is my spirituality and that is why I am constantly checking myself to see if there isn't someway that I could get more clear and honest with what I'm doing.  And guess what, there always is.  I am constantly falling into those places where I know I can work harder as a human being and this art form seems to be able to consistently remind me of that.  The challenges are huge in navigating this community, and the elements of the art form, and so it is really a great place for me to exist – to continue to move forward as a viable artist and maintain an integrity for myself that I can live with and honour and teach my kids with.  I love to play music.   I love that my body is how I do that.  One of my solo shows is called "Finding Synesthesia".  It's that constant search for balance that keeps me creating, the blurring and unblurring of the lines


Who inspired your artistic journey?

Who is inspiring you right now?


40 years ago - Dot Blakely.  She was the coolest "studio" teacher around, a great choreographer and an inspired teacher and artist.


30 years ago - Peggy McCann.  My comp teacher at York University.  She was a renegade, profoundly inspired, remarkably talented, terribly insecure and still willing to put herself in the line of fire.  She and I started a modern dance company together... Peggy McCann and dancers.  She taught me how to analyze a piece of music.  She got me started as a choreographer.  I was her muse and boy, did we fight!


25/20 years ago - Cookie Cook.  He was my first tap teacher in NYC and the person who told me to wear flat shoes.  It was when I heard the sound of him touching the floor that I wept and knew that I had found my language of dance.  Buster Brown for his love, his groove and his deep swing.  Steve Condos for his discipline and for embodying the spirit of inspiration.  Chuck Green for his wild creativity and his perfection with time.  Eddie Brown for his sweetness, his emotion in each phrase, and for teaching me to really be an improvisor in the greatest sense of the meaning. Gregory Hines for being the most generous and all-inclusive soul, and for being a truly great performer.  Baby Lawrence for blowing my mind and setting us all on fire.  Harriet Brown for her unique talent and her need to pass on the sand to a lady.  Juanita Pitts. Lois Miller and Jeni LeGon for being there to inspire the ladies to dance the rhythm.  Ray Brown, for encouraging me to be a musician first and foremost and for treating me as an equal.


10 years ago - my need to balance my art form to include my life.  People like Chango Spasiuk (Argentinian accordonist who brought Chamamé music back to popular culture in Argentine), who stopped his creative path for a number of years to be a stay at home dad. We collaborated in 2000 and he was my example of learning patience with life and the humility and value of focusing on your family and your children.  And then, my kids.


Today - every single musician who I work with, the more intimate the musical interaction the better. Right now I’m inspired by tonality and the personality of the sound and it’s led me to dance in wood again, as well as sand, leather and taps and blends of all those.  I’m curious, trying to find how all those textures fit with every type of music and instrument that I can work with.


Younger dancers inspire me - the ones who are emerging who understand balance, the need to dance the heart and not the head.  I'm really inspired by the dancers coming out of Canada right now - it's why I'm crazy enough to want to start a project like CanTap, because, for me, these are some of the most interesting dancers in the world today. They inspire me to want to learn a new way to create on them.


I'm inspired by dancers like Thanos Daskalopoulos in Greece, cause he's just so much better at the business than I am and at shooting from the heart.  I love collaborating and being on stage with him and with the musicians in his community.  Also dancers like Junior Laniyan, Chikako Iwahori, Guillem Alonso - they just seem to have an ease about them that the generations before didn't have the luxury to have and their work and their approach to work is something to learn from.  We were all too busy just trying to get any gigs going.  But they also seem to balance heart and head with a lot of wisdom.


And then my students inspire me.  Any time that I see a student take the chance to go to new places, and to transcend their fears, I get inspired.  I love to encourage students to go beyond themselves, and so it is a gift each and every time it happens.


When you became a mom, how did it change your life as a dancer and a choreographer?

It's simple.  When I became a mom, for the first time in my life, there was something more important, more prominent in my thoughts, more pervading, more constant, more confusing, more overwhelming, more wonderful than my art.  I learned to spend time worrying about my kids instead of obsessing on my next creation.  I'm a calmer person now.  So, my art is secondary to my life.  In fact, I have to go, cause my son just woke up and he needs me to hang out with him...not kidding.  So this will be brief. I'm finding a new way to create. One that comes from a search for balance, that of head and heart, that of life and work, that of humility and ego…all of it.  That's true in my improvising and my composing.  I'm still working as much as I need to, but it's way more intimate then in the heyday of Manhattan Tap, and a whole lot less public.  And it suits me and my kids just fine.


Note:  Heather Cornell has begun to teach by offering “Salons” at her studio in her home in Valley Cottage, NY.  These Salons are intensives that are limited to 5 participants, last a week and embody all of the elements of teaching music/dance that is spoken about in the article.  You can contact her at hcornell@manhattantap.org if you are interested in working this way.