Tap Dancing is Hands-Down Fun for Everyone

By Laura Muha

When former Radio City Rockette Mary Six Rupert was 9 months old, she rolled off her father's lap and wound up in a body cast with a broken leg. Her mother, Nita Braun, decided Rupert's legs needed strengthening, so once Rupert recovered, Braun signed the toddler up for dance lessons—something that led to Rupert's lifelong love of dance and, eventually, a decades-long career performing on stages from New York to London.

Rupert also credits her mother—or, more accurately, a stroke that left her mother unable to walk 15 years ago—with getting her to think more inclusively about the art form to which she's dedicated her life.

A woman with short blond hair is sitting against the mirror in her studio wearing black tap gloves with wooden plank in her lap.

Stroke Survivor Provides Impetus for Innovative Adaptive Tap-Dancing Method

The result has been an adaptive method of teaching tap dancing that she calls Tap Dancing Hands Down®, which she'll demonstrate on May 5 at the New York Metro Abilities Expo. Rupert's all-abilities tap company, Tap: On Tap, which includes both wheelchair users and professional dancers, also will perform.

Rupert said she got the idea for Tap Dancing Hands Down because her mother had always loved dance. She'd run a dance studio in Dallas, Texas, for decades and, although Braun was retired by the time she had the stroke, her passion for dance was as strong as ever. "She would sit in her wheelchair talking about tap and choreographing new combinations [of dance steps] in her head," Rupert recalled.

Three dancers, one man in a wheelchair and two standing women on either side, are dressed in black and gold lame jackets and bowties.

That got Rupert thinking: The stroke hadn't affected her mother's upper body; maybe there was a way for her to dance using her hands instead of her feet.

Rummaging through the closet, Rupert found a pair of winter gloves and some old tap shoes and got to work. Unscrewing the metal toe plates from the shoes, she stitched them to the fingers of the gloves. Then she stitched another set of taps to the palms and tested the gloves against a bamboo cutting board that she set in her lap, using her hands to execute the same steps she had been performing for decades with her feet. It took some trial and error to get the gloves to a point where she was satisfied, but when she did, she made her mother a pair as well, and showed Braun what she'd been up to. Braun caught on right away and soon the two were tapping away to routines they choreographed, using their gloved hands to create the same distinctive clickety-clack sounds that tap shoes make on a dance floor.

The two had so much fun that, after her mother died four years later, Rupert continued fine tuning her hand-tapping system, thinking other people with mobility issues might be interested.

Tap Dancing Hands Down Become a Hit at Recreational Therapy

She initially taught the method, which she trademarked as Tap Dancing Hands Down®, at a senior center; she also began certifying other dance instructors to teach it. Then, in 2016, she happened to mention it in passing to students in one of the "regular" tap classes she taught each week in New York City. One of the students worked at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan and knew that the hospital's recreational therapy center was looking for activities that would interest clients with mobility issues due to stroke, head injuries, spinal cord injuries and degenerative conditions. She put Rupert in touch with the program director, who signed her up for the summer session.

By that point in her career, Rupert had been dancing professionally for decades. She had spent 15 years as a member of the famed Radio City Rockettes, serving as dance captain and assistant choreographer; she'd performed in tours of Broadway musicals and TV specials and danced a duet at the London Palladium with famed tapper Harold Nicholas, who became a dear friend. She was an adjunct professor of tap and jazz dance at Wagner College on Staten Island, and had taught tap, ballet and jazz to hundreds of students all over the world.

And yet, as she walked into Mount Sinai on the day of her first class, she had no idea what to expect. With the exception of her mother, none of the dancers she'd worked with previously had had mobility issues, and she wasn't sure how the lesson she had planned would be received by the 20 students in her new class. "I wanted them to have fun," she said. "I didn't want anyone to feel embarrassed."

The Tap Dancing Hands Down and Tap On Tap groups of interabled dancers smile for the camera at Abilities Expo.

She needn't have worried. She started the class exactly as she would have with any beginning tappers: by introducing them to basic steps and terminology such as ball taps (a quick stroke with the toe plate of the shoe – or in this case, the finger taps of the glove) and cramp rolls (dropping each front tap, then each rear tap, in quick succession). "Before the class was over, we were all tapping away to music," she recalled.

She quickly realized, however, that the tap gloves she'd developed for her mother wouldn't work for every student. For example, one young man couldn't get gloves on because he couldn't unclench his hands. So Rupert modified a pair of compression socks that could be slipped over his fists, attaching taps that rested above his base and middle knuckles.

Another student was a quadriplegic as the result of a spinal cord injury. After Rupert modified a glove to fit his mouth stick, he asked her to lay a second glove on the table with the metal tap facing up so he could strike it with the glove on the mouth stick. "That way, I can clap," he explained.

The students got so good that Rupert choreographed a routine for them and they put on a well-received show in the hospital lobby, which got her thinking about whether she could take the concept even further.

All-Abilities Dance Studio brings Adaptive Tap to Students Worldwide

In 2019, she founded an all-abilities dance company called Tap: On Tap, which included three students from the Mount Sinai class along with several former or current Rockettes and several musical-theater performers. The professional dancers all learned to dance with their hands and they use a combination of hands and feet in their performances; the wheelchair users dance with their hands and their chairs.

The troupe calls itself an experimental dance company because unlike most companies, in which performers learn choreography that's handed to them, the members of Tap: On Tap work together to develop routines. "I know a lot about dance and a lot about choreography but I don't know a lot about wheelchairs so they [wheelchair users in the group] help me," Rupert explained. Two of the dancers use electric wheelchairs and one uses a manual wheelchair; the choreography has to allow for differences between the two. For instance, if the dancers are circling or spinning on the stage, they may have to adjust their tempo to allow for differences in speed and braking between the two types of chairs. "We need every member," Rupert said. "They all contribute different things."

Tap: On Tap held its first public performance in the atrium of Mount Sinai hospital on October 25, 2019, in honor of World Stroke Day. The company went on hiatus for the pandemic, but returned last year, performing at the New York Metro Abilities Expo. Members will perform again at this year's event on Saturday, May 6th at 1:00 p.m.; expo attendees also will have the chance to try Tap Dancing Hands Down.

Rupert teaches Tap Dancing Hands Down in person in New York City, and nationwide on Zoom; she also has certified a number of other instructors internationally. For more information on how to learn Tap Dancing Hands Down or to be certified as an instructor, contact Rupert at mary6rupert@yahoo.com.

For questions, contact Mary Six Rupert, mary6rupert@yahoo.com, or Laura Muha (author), laura.muha@gmail.com.

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