Making Music with Their Feet

Waving at Class 2 from their Zoom boxes, performing artists Leonardo Sandoval and Gregory Richardson told the half-group of students that they belonged to a dance-and-music ensemble called Music from the Sole.

“It’s spelled s-o-l-e because we make music with our feet,” said Mr. Sandoval, kicking off an energetic virtual workshop that combined an interdisciplinary history lesson with lots of enthusiastic participation from the students. (The workshop occurred during Chapin’s post-winter break virtual period. In-person classes resumed on January 20.)

After explaining their different roles – Mr. Sandoval, a Brazilian tap dancer, is the choreographer and Mr. Richardson, who plays multiple instruments, serves as the musical director – the students and teachers were asked to stand up. “Let’s do a warm up!” Mr. Sandoval said. (The other Class 2 students took part in the same workshop later in the day.)

“Breathe in and bring your arms up to the sky,” Mr. Sandoval instructed as the students followed along. They bent their heads to each side, stretching their necks, lifting their shoulders and even warming up their fingers.

With muscles loose and curiosity piqued, the class practiced a technique known as call and response. “I’ll do a rhythm, and you do it after me,” Mr. Sandoval said.

In a quick succession of sounds, Mr. Sandoval and Mr. Richardson clapped their hands, tapped their legs, hit their chests, and stomped their feet. The students gamely repeated the increasingly complex patterns, some laughing as they tried to match the artists’ fast pace.

“What we were just doing with our bodies was percussion,” Mr. Sandoval noted, pivoting to a discussion about different kinds of percussive dancing, including flamenco, step and tap.

The students learned that tap dancing was born just six miles from Chapin in the former Five Points district, where today’s Chinatown sits. This cross-cultural art form evolved from dances performed on Lower Manhattan’s streets by emancipated African Americans and Irish immigrants, who were both living in the area in the late 19th century – a fact that connected perfectly with Class 2’s extensive study of immigration and New York City history.

After Mr. Richardson shared his screen, the students watched quick videos of various percussive dance styles, in particular those of tap-dancing pioneers Master Juba, widely considered the father of tap, and William “Bojangles” Robinson, a groundbreaking performer who danced in films with Shirley Temple.

“Bojangles Robinson was considered the most famous tap dancer of all time and known as the honorary Mayor of Harlem,” said Mr. Sandoval, adding that Mr. Robinson was the first to refuse to perform in black face in the minstrel shows of the time because the practice “denigrated African Americans.” In addition to traditional tap, Mr. Robinson popularized a form known as sand dancing, where a dancer slides across a sand-covered floor, making a scraping sound.

The students also enjoyed a sequence by another pair of legendary tap dancers, the Nicholas Brothers, who performed with the Cab Calloway Orchestra in the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.”

With a dazzling display of elegance and athleticism, the pair showed off their incredible talent, catapulting over tables, sliding down bannisters, and diving to the floor in a series of splits – all while continuing to dance. The students were mesmerized.

In the last part of the workshop, everyone stood up once again and got ready to move. While reciting the phrase “feet, clap, feet,” the students clapped their hands and stomped their feet, gaining speed and confidence with each step.

“That was awesome!” Mr. Sandoval praised as the Class 2 students jumped up and down in their Zoom boxes. Lucky for them, the fun continued following day when Music from the Sole presented an equally exciting virtual Assembly for all of Lower School.