By Catherine Laughlin
February 04, 2016
[National Park, New Jersey, USA] – Outside in the frigid air, what sound like thunderclaps come rumbling from behind the glass storefront on a dim thoroughfare in National Park. Inside, the culprit: Two diminutive 11-year-old boys are burning up the Royal Dance Academy’s wooden floor, tap-dancing to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
TJ Koger and Christopher Pietrowski, both of West Deptford, active in the dance and theater communities since they were toddlers, leaped into tap history in December when they won a gold medal in the children’s trio division at the International Dance Organization Tap Dance Championships in Riesa, Germany – the tap equivalent of the Olympics. They were among 35 American participants in the 1,500-person event, and two of three competitors from the Philadelphia area. Briana Daniels, 18, of Deptford, won a silver medal.
For more than a century, tap dance – a mix of African step and Irish jig – has been shuffling its way across stages (Broadway, cruise ships, cabarets), enjoying bouts of mainstream momentum (Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire during the 1930s and ’40s, then Happy Feet movies in the 2000s, and last summer’s documentary Tap World), only to recede again into the wings. But tap enthusiasts say the dance discipline never goes away; in fact, recent events show another tap wave a-comin’.
In September, 36-year-old artist Michelle Dorrance (she and her tap troupe Dorrance Dance debuted in Philadelphia in December) was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, receiving $625,000 over five years to pursue creativity in tap dance.
Nancy Chippendale, director of the American Tap Company in Boston, and organizer of TEAM USA for the IDO competitions, says Dorrance’s MacArthur Fellowship gives incredible exposure to the art form. “And there are reality dance shows and the Internet keeping tap in people’s minds,” she said. And Broadway’s Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, opening in April and starring Audra McDonald. The all-black musical is a reprise, created by accomplished tapper Savion Glover and director George C. Wolfe.
On this January night, Koger, Pietrowski and Daniels, wearing red-white-and-blue TEAM USA sweat suits, take turns hoofing in two-minute stretches before a wall of mirrors. Slap, stomp, shuffle! They go through a repertoire of routines, smiling at a make-believe audience. After the music stops, they pivot to a lunge. But Koger doesn’t stop shuffling. “I just like performing,” he says cheekily.
Asked who inspires them as tappers, immediately Pietrowski says, “Elvis!”
Hmm, because of the way he moved those hips?
“No. I want to be a tap dancer who becomes as popular as he was!”
The instructor, Stephen May, 24, wearing an atypical wardrobe of jeans, boots, and an athletic shirt, shakes his head in mock disbelief. No doubt the tap scene would welcome some “All Shook Up” craze.
Mays says that when he was growing up, famous tappers Gregory Hines, known for his heavy, low-to-the-ground funky style, and his protégé Glover were his inspiration. Today, he singles out Israeli dancers Avi Miller and Ofer Ben as fixtures fostering tap dance.
Like so many other male dancers, May’s career in the female-dominated tap world (some estimates are one to 10) began when he accompanied his cousin to her recital. “I was about 4, and I pointed to the stage and said, ‘I want to do that,’ ” he recalls. He later moved to New York City and “really immersed” himself in tap’s myriad styles. “I teach my kids a little of everything – Broadway, soft-shoe, buck and wing, waltz clog . . .”
Theresa Pietrowski, Christopher’s mother and owner of the Royal Dance Academy, admits she worried her son wouldn’t be considered cool among other guys when he started taking lessons, even though most famous tappers are male. And yet, a couple of boys in his class have asked him to teach them.
Whether they are boys or girls, older or younger – “Tap dancing can be picked up at any age,” she says – Pietrowski encourages her students to attend tap festivals for their inclusive spirit, the chance to take master classes, and see performance and award shows.
Although festivals aren’t new – dozens have been around for 20 years – more festivals spotlighting the American art form have popped up internationally in Brazil, Australia, Tokyo, Vancouver, and Stockholm.
Tap City, the American Tap Dance Foundation’s weeklong festival in New York City, draws participants from across the United States and 15 countries. It’s one of the oldest and more viable, entering its 16th year in July. Tony Waag, a 40-year tap veteran and the foundation’s director, says he sees more producers nationally creating buzz with versatile tap shows. “I just came back from California, and it seemed like there’s a tap dance studio in every little town.”
The tap scene is diversifying, as well. Kat Richter, founder of the Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble in Philadelphia, formed her all-female company in 2011, partly to give female choreographers a platform. But the ensemble’s dance philosophies don’t always stay faithful to tap tradition: It has featured a barefoot tap show and another in which dancers played plastic milk crates, à la Stomp. Another of Richter’s methods for revitalizing tap in Philadelphia is the company’s weekly Sunday drop-in class.
When Pamela Hetherington noticed the lack of a tap subculture in Philadelphia’s dance world more than 15 years ago, she “started pushing it.”
Eventually, in 2013, Hetherington quit her day job as a publishing editor and founded Take It Away Dance. Her tap troupe not only showcases movement and sound, but collaborates with live vocalists and instrumentalists. Like her spring performance at the Singing Fountain on Passyunk Square, the cross-cultural events often are outside. The vibe is engaging, supportive. “I want the audience to see and hear how tap dance sounds with a cello, a violin, or drums, at the same time someone is singing jazz. These are all parts of its early roots.”
Copyright 2016 The Inquirer