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DANCE

In Cambridge, a tap-dance instructor teaches joy

Jenny Herzog (left) has been offering free tap-dance lessons on the lawn outside the Cambridge Public Library on Saturdays.
Jenny Herzog (left) has been offering free tap-dance lessons on the lawn outside the Cambridge Public Library on Saturdays.Daniel Gewertz

If you happened to walk near Broadway’s Cambridge Public Library at noon these last few Saturdays, you’d come upon a curious sight: tap-dancing lessons in the park. Perhaps eight people — spaced well apart and in a circle — stand, tap, and shuffle, each on his or her own individual square wooden board. If you stopped for a moment to look, the teacher — a tall, young woman dressed in white — would smile and call to you: “Join us! We’re tap-dancing! Or just watch.”

The casual, free classes are the idea of jazz singer-dancer-educator Jenny Herzog and were specifically designed as an antidote to the depression and alienation many of us are feeling in the COVID era. She calls these sessions “Tap For Joy.”

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“I’ve always found it really hard, if not impossible, to be unhappy while tap-dancing,” Herzog said before a class one recent Saturday. “Since we’re all isolated, indoors and staring at the news, I thought this was a perfect time to join together, especially for those who’ve never tried it, or haven’t tap-danced since childhood.”

News of the lessons has been spread by the Watertown resident’s Facebook page, and at www.JennyHerzog.com. Herzog never knows exactly how many people will show.

Tap-dance instruction itself is a world away from the often intimidating demands of ballet. But even those who’ve experienced other tap teachers may find Herzog’s low-key, nonjudgmental spirit refreshing. Yes, each fledgling dancer is placed on a board, but no one feels put on the spot. A tap step might be repeated if Herzog feels not everyone is getting it, but there is none of the individual focus that might intimidate a beginner. In other words, even those who think they’re bereft of rhythm can be taught this most rhythmic of dance genres.

“Miles Davis once said: ‘Do not fear mistakes … there are none,’ ” she told the group.

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Wafting about the park is the light-filled, fluid vocals of Ella Fitzgerald. Herzog also intertwines spurts of her own scat-singing with the instruction. “I think of tap as an instrument. It creates high notes, low notes, melody. A lot of tap taught today is too divorced from the music. It’s more about precision.”

The egalitarian impulse runs deep with Herzog. Recently, she taught music, dance, theater, and life skills at a therapeutic residential school for girls with a history of trauma.

Many dance teachers are imbued with a cheerleader-like energy. But you get the feeling that Herzog’s search for joy through dance is personal. “Isolation is one of the worst plagues on society, especially now. When I’m in a funk, the improvisational freedom of tap cheers me up,” said Herzog, who earned a master’s degree in improvisation at New England Conservatory.

One of the charms of tap is that age and body type matter little. And, as Herzog enthused, your arms are free to improvise — to literally do anything you want. The popular image of tap is tied to old-fashioned sophistication. Yet the word that comes to mind watching Herzog teach dance is “carefree.” To appear carefree in tap-dance takes work, but it starts with a throwing the world off your shoulders — to literally free yourself from care. Herzog’s easygoing teaching technique in the park on Saturdays begins with rudimentary steps, and at the end of the 75-minute session, concludes with a short routine. The range in aptitude, ability, and body type was both large and irrelevant on this day. And since most were not wearing actual tap shoes, if a student made a mistake, you couldn’t hear it.

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For the time being, the classes are free. No organization is behind the effort, and even the wooden platforms are handmade, by a boyfriend with carpenter skills. So a spirit of generosity and benevolence can’t help but permeate the lessons.

“My goal is to build community through tap dancing and music,” Herzog said. “To give people a chance to come out from behind their screens and enjoy the fall, before winter comes.”

For information, e-mail jennyherzogmusic@gmail.com.