Anthropology professor instructs popular tap-dancing class
Selena Ponio | Tuesday, May 2, 2017
A world-renowned expert on human parenting and infancy with more than 130 published articles in medical, anthropology and psychology journals, professor of anthropology James McKenna boasts a special talent: tap dancing.
McKenna, director of Notre Dame’s Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory, is a leading expert on “co-sleeping,” which involves conducting research on the benefits of mother and infant pairs sharing a bed together. However, when he is not knee-deep in his research, McKenna also teaches the Irish American tap class.
“I tap danced pretty much all my life in one form or another,” McKenna said. “I started when I was two or three years old watching a Fred Astaire film in black and white in Boston.”
McKenna said when he saw Fred Astaire dancing on the screen, his two-year old self ran to the two-foot wide hard wood space between the living room carpet and dining room carpet, looked at the television and “started tap dancing with perfect beats and rhythms and rolls.”
“I just could do it,” he said. “I could always tap dance to any music that has a beat. I don’t know why, but it’s been a great joy and a wonderful thing to do. It’s like playing drums with your feet.”
After this talent surfaced, McKenna said he pursued it further by taking more formal dance lessons. He taught tap for five years at Pomona College until he was recruited to be a faculty member at Notre Dame. When he arrived in the fall of 1997, McKenna said, he discovered the University did not have a dance department, so he worked on starting a tap class. After a year of preparation, McKenna taught his first tap class in the fall of 1998.
Senior Allison Griffith, a current student in McKenna’s Irish American tap class, said she and her friends planned to take the class together. With majors in English and American studies, Griffith said she thought there was no better time than her senior year to try something new.
“It is a blast,” she said. “At least for my friends and I, it’s what we look forward to for most of the week.”
Initially unsure of what to expect when enrolling in the class, Griffith said she now knows how much time and practice goes into a tap dancing routine.
“My expectation before was that it would be a class that people kind of trickled in and out of, and maybe they were just taking it for fun,” she said. “What I’m realizing is that tap is definitely a really difficult skill, and it takes a lot of time and practice to get down.”
Previous students have written to McKenna saying they performed their tap dancing routine at their wedding reception with friends who were also in the class, he said. He said he believes the class remains meaningful for the students that take it.
“I think Notre Dame students are usually very self-critical,” McKenna said. “There are very few classes where students are able to be non-judgemental of themselves, and to relax and be who they are without the kind of strain and struggles that all of us go through when you care about doing well.”
The class has proven a less-traditional, yet still learning-focused environment, Griffith said. McKenna tells his students from the start that they will make mistakes, she said, but that it is okay because they are learning a completely new skill.
“A lot of times at Notre Dame, we’re so fixated on making sure we do everything exactly right,” Griffith said. “A lot of us are afraid to make mistakes, and a lot of us are used to not failing — especially in a class setting. It’s very rare to have something to work towards that’s not a paper or an exam. We’re working towards a performance, and that’s really fun.”
Griffith said everyone should consider taking the class, regardless of their dancing background.
“I had not danced since like first grade,” she said. “Absolutely still take it. Probably a majority of the people in the class had never danced before, or did when they were really little.”
A transformation occurs once students put on their tap shoes for the first time, McKenna said, and students should not be afraid to sign up for the class.
“It is such a joyful exercise,” he said. “All your troubles blow out Washington Hall windows. It’s done in a very easy, relaxed manner. I have not had one single person — of all the people that have taken this class — that couldn’t do just fine.”
The class will present its end-of-the-year recital Tuesday around 8 p.m. in South Dining Hall, McKenna said. It is free to students, and the class performs about six numbers.
“It’s very raucous and joyful and really fun,” McKenna said. “These are students that never really saw a pair of tap shoes. I think they’ve all surprised themselves about how much they really learned.”
McKenna said he thinks the class is so popular among seniors because they take it for no other reason than their personal satisfaction and joy in tap dancing as an activity.
“It really becomes this really absolutely joyful, no-holds-barred experience for the kids, and they let themselves go in there,” he said. “It is one of their truly joyful, restful, self-assuring spaces at the University.”