You can’t buy happiness but you can buy tap shoes, and that’s kind of the same thing according to a growing number of people who have taken up tap dancing following the release of the hit musical La La Land.
The all-singing, all-dancing feature, starring Ryan Gosling as cool jazz enthusiast Sebastian and Emma Stone as down-on-her-luck actor Mia, won six Golden Globes, five Baftas, and matched the record for the most amount of Oscar nominations (14). But notably, it has also inspired a new generation of filmgoers to take up the art once popularised by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“Our beginners’ classes have got really popular this year, tap has suddenly sky rocketed into the forefront,” said Rory Cubbin, 27, a dance tutor at City Academy in London. “People used to want to be Fred and Ginger, now they come to class and say they want to be Ryan and Emma.”
Cubbin has been tap dancing for nine years, having switched over to musical theatre from ballet at the age of 18. This year, demand for his classes has been so high that City have had to put on several more beginners’ courses as well as a separate one which just teaches the sequences from La La Land.
On a Friday morning in the studio, he ran me through a few classic tap numbers: toe taps, heel beats, four beat riffs, shuffle hop steps and more. Any anxiety, I quickly found, was replaced by the magical tenacity induced by a pair of clacking shoes on my feet.
“Our clientele is completely mixed,” Cubbin explained. “In the same class, I have an A-level student and a couple of ladies who have just retired. Some are even thinking about a change of career and want to take up tap professionally.
“I see lots more men coming to class too; usually I have one or two in a course, this year I have 16 male beginners. I try and make it fun for everyone. Tap doesn’t work if you’ve got too much tension, if you’re thinking too much. The studio is the one safe place you’re allowed to make mistakes.” One customer, he added, recently told him she always leaves his classes in a good mood.
Fiona Byrne, 30, a freelance illustrator, started a beginners’ class in tap because she wanted to do more exercise, but after a tour of her local gym was completely demotivating she decided to try her hand at something new. “I feel really good after tap classes – confident, happy,” she said. “They’ve had much more of a positive effect than I was anticipating. I was originally apprehensive about going, as an adult to go on your own to dance classes you have to be outgoing or brave, but it was completely relaxed and fun.”
Byrne signed up for the tap lessons and then went to see La La Land. “It’s nice to know there are a lot of people interested in tap now, and to have a contemporary reference. Before I saw the film, I was looking at videos online of people tap dancing and it was mostly kids doing recitals or videos from decades ago. It’s nice to have a modern inspiration. People in the class chat about the movie as well. In our first lesson someone said they wanted to learn the routine from the film.”
“I think La La Land makes people who haven’t danced before feel there is a possibility for them,” Lesley Osman from Danceworks said. “It touches people’s hearts, and dance is all about what you feel.”
Osman said Danceworks had had a spike in all of its classes, particularly tap and musical theatre, and colleagues in New York and LA had also reported “jam-packed” classes. “We’re going to introduce a tap class for younger kids as well, which we haven’t done for years. We have a ballet academy and quite a few parents asked if we could add tap into the curriculum because it’s coming back into fashion. People watch the movie and think that looks so fun.”
Such seasonal changes are not unusual, James Blackwell from City Academy said. “After Strictly Come Dancing there was a spike in young people taking ballroom. The perception of tap has changed because of the super slickness of La La Land. When you’ve got people like Ryan and Emma doing it, it becomes glamorous.”
Caleb Newman from Pineapple dance studios said they too had seen an increased interest in tap. “It’s a real treat to see so many young people becoming interested in the art form – once they start they quickly become aware of the legacy and influence of bygone stars such as Astaire, Rogers, Gregory Hines, and how much they influence today’s pop videos,” Newman said, adding that La La Land also resonated with Pineapple’s younger tutors, who are around the same age as Stone.
“The film shows the struggle young performers face as they pursue their artistic ambitions. This is a universal story; the fact that it is told in musical form engages the tutors on a deeper level – it may reflect their journey while at the same time offering them performances that inspire them.
“It’s also a great talking point with students. The more awards the film gathers the more it becomes a part of the everyday, impossible to ignore.”
Osman said: “It’s interesting watching people realising they don’t have two left feet, they don’t have to embarrassed, they can dance. Sometimes people just need a bit of inspiration. Dancing is good for everybody, for your health, your wellbeing. It feeds your soul, and La La Land catches that so well.”
While my hour with Cubbin didn’t transform me into an instant pro – I can’t walk in a straight line on a good day – I did return to the office with a special kind of souvenir, that of a Hollywood spring in my step.