Tap dance class keeps Malibuites on their toes

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Tap dance teacher Joe Giamalva's class begins with a basic warm-up: a simple shuffle on one foot for awhile, then the other, then circling the room behind the teacher, doing basic "flaps." As the hour-long class progresses, more steps are added until, almost surprisingly, they become an entire dance routine, with a flourishing finish. Photos by Cathryn Sacks

“Flap, flap, flap, ball-change, shuffle, hop step, flap, heel-drop!” Not just the unique percussive sounds but the words as well echo rhythmically from the fitness center at Zuma Beach Plaza three times a week as Malibu’s adult tap dance class hoofs it up with veteran dancer and choreographer Joe Giamalva.

The class is drawing a growing number of women and yes, a man or two, to its Monday and Wednesday sessions. With seemingly unbridled enthusiasm they enjoy a three-phase participation in the venerable American dance form: learning the basic steps, performing them in a group dance routine, and, far from least, getting valuable pound-dropping cardiovascular exercise while having a whale of a good time.

Students have come to the Malibu class for a variety of reasons, none apparently having anything to do with serious hopes of future fame on the Broadway stage.

“The greatest joy of my life is tapping,” said Malibu resident Joan Steiger, who first set foot to the dance floor at age seven. “You can never tap and not smile.”

Although she has tap danced occasionally in television commercials, Steiger said she didn’t have much time to practice her art during the years she and her late actor husband Rod Steiger traveled extensively. He urged her to take it up again when they settled in Malibu shortly before his death.

Hair stylist Bernie Safire, on the other hand, put on his first pair of tap shoes only eight months ago. An ex-gymnast, he occasionally works out on the trampoline and high bar to keep in shape, but now gets most of his physical conditioning in tap class.

“It’s just about the most fun of anything I’ve ever done,” Safire said enthusiastically. “People in the gym don’t know what this is all about; this is great!”

Wini Rutter of Broad Beach, who also had never set foot into tap shoe until now, probably harbored the idea subconsciously for some 20 years, from the time a friend first told her about joining a tap class.

“I’ve always remembered how much she loved it,” Rutter said. “I never thought about it for myself until I heard about this class, which I first thought would be a good way to enjoy aerobics. It is, and then Joe makes it so much fun I know just what my friend was talking about. I don’t have any great goals in mind; it’s just fun being in the class.”

Giamalva’s teaching method is strictly hands-on, or feet-on in this case, with liberal applications of fun and encouragement. He stands at the front of the class and demonstrates every step, then joins in practicing them with his students, slowly at first and gradually building up tempo to the accompaniment of familiar, lilting melodies played from the CD sound system.

The action starts with basic warm-ups: a simple shuffle on one foot for awhile, then the other, then circling the room behind the teacher, doing basic “flaps.” One by one, other basic steps are shown and practiced as the class circles the room in rhythm to the CD. Then, getting down to business, the students stand in horizontal rows behind Giamalva as he puts the warm-up steps together in combinations. As the hour-long class progresses, more steps are added until, almost surprisingly, they become an entire dance routine.

Students may not realize they are stepping back in time when they step out in their routines. Between the 1600s and early 1800s, tap slowly evolved in America from European step dances, like the jig and clog, and a variety of secular and religious African step dances. The unique rhythms of jazz music distinguish American tap dance from all other kinds of dancing based on percussive footwork.

After the Civil War, vibrant new steps were added to the tap vocabulary, such as syncopated “stop time,” “soft shoe,” “waltz clog” and “time step.” In 1989, May 25 was proclaimed National Tap Dance Day by a vote of Congress. Presidential awards have been given to tap legends Charles “Honi” Coles, and Fayard and Harold Nicholas, know as the Nicholas Brothers, for their lifelong contributions to the art.

Teaching, as well as performing, is nothing new to Joe Giamalva. For several years before moving to Malibu, he held classes in Agoura, and he still conducts a class in Woodland Hills on Tuesdays. He also teaches jazz, ballet and musical theater, and serves on judges’ panels at many major dance competitions.

Giamalva has a long and diverse career in show business as a producer, director, choreographer and performer. He has toured the world in shows with such stars as Raquel Welch, Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse, Donnie and Marie Osmond, and Cher. His movie credits include “New York New York” with Liza Minnelli, “Sextette” (Mae West’s final film) and “Mr. Saturday Night” with Billy Crystal. He choreographed many theater productions and the original Los Angeles Laker Girls learned their cheerleading/dance routines from Giamalva. Through his own production company, Giamalva continues to mount shows and special programs for film, television and industrial and commercial corporations.

The current adult classes will have a chance to exhibit their tap skills in public on Feb. 19 when Malibu Fitness celebrates its twentieth anniversary. The dance routines they are learning now will be part of the featured entertainment at a party to be held on the site, according to owner Lonnie Galate.