The following is a guest post from the Music Division’s Dance Curator Libby Smigel.
Last year the Music Division was delighted to accept from master tap dancer and teacher Debbi Dee a gift of the records of her tap dance career and the teaching materials she developed. I recently interviewed her about her lifetime in dance. In this first half of the interview, Debbi Dee credits vaudevillian tap master Curley Fisher as being instrumental in getting her started, and she talks about her own love of teaching–a fitting topic during Teacher Appreciation Week.
Libby: How did you begin tap dance lessons?
Debbi Dee: I started tap dancing at age 5½. My parents noticed that I had a real love for music, and every time I heard a song, I would start dancing—or, I should say, bopping up and down to the music. They told me that I also was a little clumsy (I’m not sure I believe them on that one), but it was one of the deciding factors of getting me into some kind of dance lessons. My parents found this wonderful vaudevillian who was teaching private tap dance lessons out of his garage-turned-dance-studio. His name was Curley Fisher, and boy, could he dance! Curley didn’t know the names of the steps he taught nor that the steps had counts, so therefore neither did I. I learned the old traditional style passed down from one generation to the next. The foundation in dancing I received from Curley was priceless. But at my early age, he just scared me. He was so LOUD with his voice scatting out the rhythms, and his footwork was crystal clear. He never taught basics; he taught steps, routines, and rhythms. I loved it. My lessons were one-on-one. Curley’s dog, Tippy, had the run of the dance room, so I remember having to dance around her.
I learned from Curley for eight years, three times a week. During those early years, I started adding on classes in ballet, jazz, voice, piano, and baton. I participated in community theater, all the while performing at local venues, nursing homes, fairs, and anywhere I could get on a stage. Curley encouraged all of this, but never really influenced me or my parents on where to study these various art forms. I was one of those kids who loved to practice. In fact, I was obsessed with it. My mom and dad always had a place that was just mine where I could practice, a place in the basement with a record player, a mirror, a piece of wood, and I would go to town. I would create for hours. I would put on show-tune albums and become every character. My parents gave me so much, but only because they knew I loved it, not because they thought it would be my career.
As I child, I also studied ballet at the Eastman School of Music. Their classical ballet program was just the best, and I was there on full scholarship after the first year. It was my first experience of being in a class setting. It was also my first experience of hearing names to steps and exercises along with counts. Tap gave me musicality, weight distribution, balance, and power to create and improvise, where ballet gave me flexibility, core strength, fluidness, upper-body control, class structure, and stage movement. It gave me the importance of being in a class setting and the discipline. These two major “art forms” set the ground work for every other form of dance. I still say today, “If you take only two forms of dance, these two, ballet and tap, set you up for such success for all that will come later.”
Libby: You are so well known as a master teacher of tap technique. How does your teaching compare with the way Curly Fisher introduced you to tap dance?
Debbi Dee: When I first started teaching as a young person, I would copy how Curley taught as far as strength, scatting the sounds, and rhythms. However, as I began to take group classes in other forms like ballet, jazz classes, and voice lessons, I began to believe that classes were better than one-on-one lessons. My dad by this time had built me a full room with a wall of mirrors, sound system, hundreds of show-tune and big band LPs. It was a great studio, so I taught class with anyone in the neighborhood and their friends, and then their friends, and it kept growing. Their parents were okay with this, for I was getting the attention of newspapers for my professional gigs. A few months after my sixteenth birthday, I opened the first official Debbi Dee Dance Center. The combination of all my studies was incorporated in how I taught.
Later, I realized that I had to change my way of teaching tap. Students in a class setting compared to the way I learned one-on-one was not the same. I found tap challenging, but I never really encountered a step or routine I couldn’t do. I started to dissect my own practice. I wanted to understand why I was getting the speed, clarity, articulation, and shadings of the sound that my students couldn’t. When I started doing this, I was becoming a better teacher because I now understood that this was an “art form” to be studied and respected not just steps thrown to music.
I was asked to teach the blind and deaf in my community. This was the “Aha!” moment for me. I had to learn how to break down every sound to the most minute level. Those classes taught me how to teach. A teacher never stops learning no matter what they are teaching. How wonderful is that!
Later, I taught kids in wheelchairs. We would sew taps on gloves for them, and they would learn rhythms, and I would make formations and movements using the chairs. Every time I was faced with a challenge, I learned how to work around it to put forward what I wanted on stage or in class. What followed next was learning that all of this tap stuff had names and counts. I learned tap’s rich history and passed that along. I found teachers in New York who could bring me further in every subject, and then one of those teachers/mentors found me. His name was Henry LeTang. He taught me the value of a step, the musicality of a step. Henry became a lifelong friend. I taught at his studio in New York, another stepping stone for me.
I was a sponge, learning everything I could: how to work a stage, how to put a choreographed piece together for any level and make it showstopper, how to tell a story through the choreography and not just put steps to music. These were lessons that I still teach today, and they all stemmed from my foundation, from Curley Fisher. He was a master.
I once heard a quote that I love: “Learn to hear silence.” It relates it to what I want to express to my students. It was something I did naturally, but I didn’t know how to express it to my students. You can teach steps, technique, and choreography, but timing, musicality, and dancing from your soul is a gift. “Learn to hear silence.” Without the sounds of silence within your rhythm patterns, there would be no rhythm patterns. Breathe.
I love teaching. My heart is in teaching teachers and advanced students. I love teaching adults, for they have such a love for being there. I love teaching the younger students and seeing their eyes light up when they master a step they had difficulty doing. I have been called a “Teacher’s Teacher.” What an honor that is for me. I don’t take that title for granted. Never did, and I never will.
The Debbi Dee tap dance materials are currently being processed so that researchers and Library visitors can enjoy them. Check back for Part 2 of this interview to learn how Dee’s career grew into opportunities to perform and teach around the world.