Now here's something we don't see and hear every day: nearly two dozen people tap dancing outside. On most Saturday mornings, their novel sounds and smiles fill Riverbend Park in Cambridge near Harvard Square.
Last fall, the jazz tapper and singer decided to put her faith in that idea to the test when she was feeling anxious and isolated at home.
“I had just quit my job,” Herzog recalled, "and I was sitting around in my apartment depressed, just like lots of my friends and family.”
So the 30-year-old invited anyone looking for a lift to join her for free, outdoor dance classes.
“First it was just some friends,” she said. “We put up this handwritten sign by the tree that says 'Tap for Joy every Saturday.'”
Passersby gave it a whirl, Herzog explained, “and then word just spread.”
It wasn't Herzog's sign that drew 23-year-old Natasha Stark to the class.
“One day I was walking home from somewhere and I could hear tapping,” she said. “So I went into the park to find the source of the noise — and it was Jenny running a class.” Stark jumped in the following week and has been coming here ever since.
When she started, Stark said the group members were still wearing jackets. Now they're sweating through the muggy summer. Stark picked up tap dancing in college and remembers being drawn to the form because, “I've never seen an
unhappy tap dancer — and that's still true.”
What exactly stirs such delight isn't easy for Herzog to capture in words.
“I think tap has just
this magical elixir of music and movement, and it's just a joyful artform,” she said. “So my goal specifically was to use tap dance as sort of a mental health tool for people, especially during COVID.”
Herzog begins each all-level class with a warm-up and goes over some basics. She designed two-by-two-foot wooden boards for the students so they can dance together from a distance. The platforms are spaced out on the grass forming a big circle.
Early on, Herzog said people would show up in sneakers and sandals, which aren't nearly as fun or satisfying as the real deal. So she put out a call on Facebook. “I now have bags and bags and bags of donated tap shoes,” Herzog said smiling. “It was the most generosity I've
ever witnessed.” People without their own tap shoes can sift through bags and bins next to a tree to find their sizes.
Another serendipitous moment happened when a student surprised Herzog with a wireless headset microphone to use during class. Then the teacher tracked down a good-sized speaker. Usually she plays recorded music, but when Herzog can, she enlists live musicians. On the day I was there stand-up bassist James Dale plucked rhythmic lines as she lead the group through beats, shuffles, heel-toe steps and improvisations.
Herzog approaches tap as a percussive instrument that channels individual expression. For her, it's as much about musicality as it is movement. Throughout class, she focuses on different phrasing, dynamics, texture and grooves. Because it's grounded in rhythm, Herzog feels it's a great tool for bringing people together.
“Tap dance actually has a very rich history of being integrated with live music and with jazz, but over the last 50 or so years, the two forms have sort of parted ways,” she said. “So my personal mission is to bring them back together through my own performance and through teaching.”
Since she's also a jazz singer, Herzog's class is filled with a lot of playful call-and-response scatting. The dancers mimic her patter with their voices and their feet.
Herzog has been able to expand her program thanks to a grant from the City of Cambridge's arts agency. She's shared her philosophy — and bags of tap shoes — with other communities in the neighborhood, including at an afterschool program, a senior assisted living center, public housing and the Fletcher Maynard Academy. That's where Herzog introduced Reis Jackiewicz to tap. Now the
8-year-old shows up for class in the park.
When asked what he likes about tap, Jackiewicz thought for a second before deeming it entertaining. “Because you get to move your body,” he explained, “you step back and forth, left and right, diagonal.”
Jackiewicz moved to Cambridge from New York during the pandemic with his mother Iyabo. She said Herzog's classes have been more than just amusing for her son over the past year.
“Reis is on the spectrum,” Iyabo Jackiewicz explained. “He's very bright but he's also very creative. And when I found tap, I was like, 'hmm, that's a kind of lost art.'”
Reis' mom says Herzog's class has been a lifeline, and watching her son definitely brings her joy.
“I was really choked up,” she said. “I'm serious — I had, like, a tear come to my eye when I saw him out there. This has been what has kept him going.”
Tap for Joy has also been life-changing for 62-year-old Kathi Drummy. She said it motivates her to get out of bed every Saturday, “instead of just sleeping in and feeling depressed about everything that's going on in the world. “
Drummy's usual tap classes at the Dance Complex in Cambridge were canceled during the pandemic, and she recalled how before finding this outdoor alternative, she would tap at home in her slippers. Working remotely from home since March of 2020 has been challenging, Drummy added, and she makes sure she comes to Herzog's classes religiously.
“Everybody's so happy when they come here — and that's rare, for me anyway," she said laughing. "You know, after working all week stressed out, thousands of emails. This is my Saturday sanctuary.”
Then there's Marilou Hakuta who remembers wandering into Herzog's class last October. She loves group exercise and used to take Zumba at her gym before the pandemic hit. Now, Hakuta is taken by tap and wishes Herzog would add another weekly class or two.
“Look how many people come out for it — of all ages and ethnicities,” she marveled. “It brings joy to a place like this, too, that you have something like this every week. It's so good for our neighborhood, our community. It's a special gift.”
Stories like these make Jenny Herzog feel like her theory has been proven, and her new goal is to take Tap for Joy to as many communities as she can.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the park. Jenny Herzog teaches Tap for Joy classes in Riverbend Park, not Riverside. We regret the error.
This segment aired on August 26, 2021.