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The other thing I do with my feet… (or, how tapping helped my running)

Vibrams give way to handmade wood-soled shoes with Capezio tap plates! Photo by Aldwin Lee.

Vibrams sat in the shoe cupboard on Saturday while I stepped out in handmade wood-soled shoes with Capezio tap plates! Photo by Aldwin Lee.

… is rhythm tap!

May 25th was International Tap Dance Day! With the Rhythm Tappers @ Malaysia flash mobbers outside Pavilion. Photo by James Quah Dance Photography.

Rhythm Tappers @ Malaysia flash mobbers outside Pavilion. Photo by James Quah Dance Photography.

A large part of my activities in the last few weekends in May had not included much running – I ended up taking a break of sorts from long runs (and a host of other things; such is the itinerary of a new mom of 8+ months) to be part of a series of flash mobs by the Rhythm Tappers @ Malaysia at several locations in Kuala Lumpur/Petaling Jaya in conjunction with International Tap Dance Day, May 25th.

No, you probably wouldn’t expect a running blog to talk about dancing. Me neither; much less expect to tap into (pun intended) the fundamental principles of one art to relate to the other. But here’s a bit on how tap technique has informed my run training to date. (And more photos and videos on our flashmobs further below!)

Not-so-strange bedfellows

Like many urban kids, I took up ballet and modern theatre dance during my schooldays. Tap was something I ventured into shortly after entering the workforce, and has been a part my weekend schedule for a very long time — I have been tapping for probably about 10 years now, with some breaks in between. I have been running for just about 2 years (with a maiden Half Marathon in an approximately-one-month horizon), and as my foray into running came at a time when I have had two knee injuries (no, not tap-related) I was keen to get the basics right and remain injury-free.

The approaches I took in correcting my gait and posture were primarily informed by advice from books and reliable online resources. I found it quite intriguing that these approaches were consistent with the instruction I have received in dance, and in particular, tap.

One could say that dance and running both have their roots in exploring the capabilities (and testing the resilience of) human locomotion. Not surprisingly, there have been similarities between the techniques of both. Rhythm tap steps can be broken down and dissected in almost the same way a runner’s gait can be analysed. Here are some likenesses that come to mind..

Natural movements; Less is more.

A regular exhortation in tap is to allow the lower limbs to yield to gravity when producing the desired sound on the dance floor, without artificially attempting to supplement the movement through extraneous motions like stiffening or flexing an ankle joint (the ankles should almost always be ‘loose’ when tapping). The focus is on letting a leg/foot land naturally, on whichever part of the metal plates of the shoes you wish to create a sound upon impact. This is in order to create a resonant, and not constrained, sound, and also so that your legs do not cramp in the long run, particularly when you execute a series of complicated sequences at high speed.

When running, one’s footsteps should also fall naturally, allowing gravity to do the work; and arguably landing mid-foot or fore-foot rather than on the heels; the feet relaxed and not stiffened. It is also recommended to land with one’s legs below the hips rather than outstretched in front of the body’s centre of gravity which may cause you to land heel-first. Why not heel-first? Imagine the opposing force equal to your weight rebounding on that heel, jarring through your frame. Then imagine doing that thousands of times. All that pounding on your heels can’t be good! Landings should also be naturally light-footed, for shock absorption, and the runner’s focus should be on propelling the body forward with the runner’s own bodyweight.. in other words, running should feel effortless (how else could you go on for 10, 21, 42 kilometres?). Less is more. Makes perfect sense.  [Ref: Chi Running by Danny Dreyer & Katherine Dreyer (2009)]

Pronation

In a rather more advanced tap step called a ‘pull-back’ (not a favourite!), particularly one done with the weight on one leg, your weight should be spread equally across the entire ball of the supporting foot before taking off and producing a sound with the toe-plate of the shoe, rather than turning out the foot and thereby causing imbalance (and resulting in just a scrape instead of a resounding ‘clack’ of the toe-plate).

In running, many people run with a gait that is either overpronated or underpronated. Underpronation was a particularly significant problem for me, possibly partly due to naturally inward-facing kneecaps, and my first few attempts at running often ended up with pains on the outer sides of the knees. Since pronation is key to proper shock absorption, I made adjustments over time. I didn’t quite manage to find the time to get someone to video my gait, so a lot of it had to do with feel, and responding to any ache or pain that came about during a run and adjusting accordingly. The act of listening to your body and making appropriate adjustments on-the-go is a skill in itself (the book Chi Running refers to it as ‘Body Sensing’), so I was actually quite glad to be practicing another skill! (Many specialist running shops offer gait analysis and recommendations on proper shoes for your particular case, so do seek out your local running shop for a proper pair of shoes!) In the dance department, I still can’t do single-leg pull-backs satisfactorily, ha ha, but as far as running is concerned, I probably do underpronate much less now – at least the aches, if any, are nothing more than the expected post-run muscle aches. *Keeps fingers crossed*

It was quite enlightening to note that similar concepts were pointed out at the barefoot running clinic I attended last week. (Not forgetting that dancers, like minimalist runners, also don very thin-soled footwear or none at all!)

The International Tap Dance Day flash mobs

The 2pm mob outside Tesco's - time to sweat!

Funky rhythms in the middle of the afternoon outside Tesco’s – time to sweat! Photo by James Quah Dance Photography.

In case you are interested in our flash mobs on May 25th, here’s what it was!

So, International Tap Dance Day falls on May 25th every year, as a celebration of the art form, and is the anniversary of the birth of celebrated American tap dancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The Rhythm Tappers @ Malaysia celebrated International Tap Dance Day with a routine, that started with a swing number danced to an excerpt of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Can’t Take That Away From Me’, followed by ‘Doin’ The New Lowdown’ (choreographed by Bill Robinson) performed by three dancers in the group, then a funk sequence with the entire cast, and ending with a Shim Sham routine (dubbed the ‘National Anthem’ of tap) incorporating three variations of the Shim Sham.

Doing the Shim Sham at Pavilion!

Doing the Shim Sham at Pavilion (a.k.a. BBGS, for those of you who know of my alma mater! ;-)) Photo by James Quah Dance Photography.

We kicked off the series of flash mobs at the Sunway Pyramid mall to Saturday shoppers at the Blue Concourse. Next was a scorching stint under the 2pm sun down the other end of the LDP highway (which traffic was mercifully bearable!), at one of the paved walkways outside Tesco Mutiara Damansara. We then took to the city, hitting our individually spray-painted 4′ x 3′ boards at the main Bukit Bintang entrance to Pavilion KL, which I felt was one of the most exciting venues of the day, bustling with activity in the city’s main shopping district on a Saturday afternoon. The final gig was back in the suburbs at Publika, as a guest/surprise item at the Publika Live talent search auditions.

Update (June 4): We’re in today’s Star Metro, at page 11! Also, view this video of us (also by Star Metro) tapping, plus interviews with instructor Kong Eu and the two young tappers in our group!

We're in The Star Metro! Check out the video too!
We’re in The Star Metro! Check out the video too!

I’m sure by now you would be curious as to what all this talk about shuffles, pull-backs, swing, funk and shim-shamming is about… we will be releasing our video of the day’s events soon – do stay posted for that!

Meanwhile, I shall leave you with this video of Bill Robinson’s New Low Down, performed by tap master Charles “Honi” Coles:

P.S. If you liked the group photos, view the whole lot at James Quah Dance Photography’s Facebook page!

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About speedshuffle (73 Articles)
Wen Li is a runner, blogger, mother, educator and artist. She is the Co-Founder and Cartoonist of Malaysia's first comic strip on running, Running Toons (facebook.com/RunningToons) and is a Compressport Ambassador. Her running story was featured in Marie Claire Malaysia's April 2016 issue alongside several other notable women running bloggers. She runs wherever the road takes her, come scorching sunshine, stifling humidity or relentless rain (and preferably to a Nasi Lemak breakfast!). Apart from pounding the asphalt, she also enjoys hiking and pilates, and is now attempting CrossFit!

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