Those of you who know Rachel from Tap on Tap already know her as fantastic tap dancer – crisp, clear beats with a relaxed, effortless style. And possibly the fastest feet in Hastings!? But did you know that Rachel is also a physiotherapist?
With the increase in remote teaching and solo practice due to the current C19 social isolation, making sure we all understand how to dance safely is vital. Rachel took some time out from her busy role within the NHS to share her expertise with Tap on Tap on the importance of warm up, stretching and core strength to tap dancers.
Rachel started tap dancing at the age of three on the advice of her Paediatric Orthopaedic Consultant having had several surgeries on her left hip due to Hip Dysplasia. ‘He suggested it to help strengthen my wasted leg muscles’, she explains. ‘I went on to complete all the ISTD tap exams, taking my Advanced Tap exam in August 1999.
‘I wanted to keep on tapping, so I started working towards my Associates with Jackie Hutt, a local FISTD Tap and Modern examiner and my main tap teacher for the last ten years’. During this period Rachel also taught tap as a student teacher at a local dance school. ‘Part of the Associates exam – now DDI – was working with a pianist’, Rachel explains. ‘Jackie arranged for me to have a session with local musician Liane Carroll. It was such a privilege. Liane was incredibly patient with me and the session was so helpful’, Rachel explains. ‘Jackie and Liane taught me how to communicate effectively with musicians, ensure the timing, style and tempo was what I required and how to make changes to suit my needs’. I love that, through Tap on Tap, we can connect tap dance and the local music scene’ Rachel says.
Rachel loves all styles of tap, but – true to form – has a particular love of fast, precise tap. ‘Relaxed style, fast, close work… that has always been my thing’, she says. ‘I particularly love watching Honi Coles. Everyone can enjoy his dancing, but only those experienced in tap will understand quite how technically hard the performance is’, she says.
‘Watching the physiotherapist work with my Dad following knee surgery when I was about 13 made me want to be a physio’, Rachel explains. Rachel is Team Lead Physiotherapist in Complex and Vascular Rehabilitation and has a BSc (HONS) in Physiotherapy from the University of Brighton. ‘I lead a small team of Physiotherapists and Therapy Assistants, working across the acute hospital and a rural intermediate care setting to assess inpatients for discharge home or further rehabilitation to facilitate this. The majority of our patients are elderly and at high risk of losing independence without physiotherapy to regain or maintain muscle power, joint range of movement and overall balance and stamina caused by injury, illness or a period of reduced mobility due to these. We also treat both in and outpatient lower limb amputees following surgery and ongoing for prosthetic. I am fortunate to retain a very clinical role whilst managing and supporting the rest of the team’.
‘I love the patients and I love working with my colleagues’, Rachel says. I love working for the NHS; we can provide care to anyone who needs it regardless of their finances, social situation or any other detail which makes us all individuals. I love the fact that I can help people and hopefully help guide them to regain/maintain the life they want to live or, in cases where this is not possible, help them to accept their new normal’.
Safe Dance Practice
Why do we need to warm up?
‘Think of a cold lump of plasticine’, Rachel says. ‘When you pull it apart it barely stretches but instead breaks very easily. However, once you have worked it a bit and warmed it up it is more pliable and stretches more easily’. ‘Our muscles are exactly the same’ she says. ‘If you go into intensive movements without warming up your muscles appropriately, there is a much higher chance of injury’.
Why is stretching important?
‘When we work our muscles, we increase muscle fibres essentially making the muscle fatter and shorter’ Rachel explains. ‘By stretching muscles after they have been worked, we maintain their length. It is also the best time to increase their length and therefore range of movement, when the muscle is warm, whilst maintaining any increase in strength and again minimising the risk of future injury by maintaining good muscle length. Muscles are then less likely to rupture if you move awkwardly without warming up.
What muscles do we use most in Tap dancing?
Tap is a pretty holistic form of exercise however the leg muscles are most targeted and tap utilises the muscles in the lower leg more than most forms of exercise. The fine ankle work utilises the large calf muscles; gastrocnemius and soleus, as well as the muscles at the front of our calves when working on our heels – tibialis anterior, extensor digitorum longus, extensor hallucis longus and fibularis tertius. Core muscles and gluteal muscles and also well used, though harder to stretch.
What are the best stretches for Tap dancers?
The muscles in the front of the shin are hard to stretch. Some experts argue they can’t really be stretched due to their anatomy and therefore they rarely are. However, there is some evidence that by pointing your toes so that the top of the foot rests on the floor and then dropping the knee you can obtain a functional stretch to these muscles.
The muscles at the back of the calf are much easier to stretch, gastrocnemius crosses both the knee and the ankle so must be stretched with the knee in extension (lunge position aiming to keep the back heel on the floor), soleus can then be targeted by repeating this with a flexed knee.
Tap posture of dancing on the balls of the feet with flexed knees also works the quadriceps and hamstrings hard. The quadriceps – the large group of four muscles in the front of the thigh – are stretched by pulling the foot towards your bottom with the hip in neutral. If you have particularly long hamstrings you can increase the stretch by dipping the pelvis on that side. This can be done in standing or lying face down. The hamstrings – the group of three muscles in the back of the thigh – can be stretched by keeping the knee extended and bending from the hip to feel the pull on the back of the leg.
All stretches should be held for at least 30 seconds and to be effective should always be just a bit uncomfortable.
Are there any other important exercises Tap dancers should be doing?
‘Anything to strengthen core is good’ explains Rachel. ‘Pilates is particularly beneficial; as well as strengthening your core, it trains the respiratory muscles, increasing overall stamina, and helps teach isolation. This is important in tap dancing, where your legs and feet can be working like crazy but your top half looks like you’re taking an easy stroll on the beach’.
‘If you don’t want to take another class, simple core exercises such as the plank, bridging, the side plank are all helpful’ Rachel explains.
‘If you find your calves ache a lot after tap, it is weakness in the muscles in the front of your calf which aren’t so frequently used’ Rachel says. ‘Regularly bending your ankle to bring your toes towards your head, when sitting or lying, will help to activate these muscle fibres and increase their stamina so they will ache less when you use them with your body weight on them’.
Tap on Tap is not running during the C19 Lockdown. Rachel is working hard with her colleagues at the Conquest Hospital, in the physio team and in ITU with C19 patients. We are ever grateful for her knowledge and skills. Take the time to practice – safely – at home. Stay well, and we will see you as soon as it’s safe to be together again.