Whoever says that tap dance is a dying art form has not done their due diligence. This month alone, the city boasts a plethora of tap dance programming that is sure to satisfy even the most diehard tap dance fanatic. Check out the amount of tap shows and events appearing in Chicago from one end to the other and everywhere in between.
Making a triumphant return to in-person performance is the new production, “Tap Secret,” presented by Chicago Tap Theatre at the North Shore Theater in Skokie. “Tap Secret” is set in the ‘90s pop music industry where a greedy music mogul, played by company director and founder Mark Yonally, unleashes a duplicitous plot to sonically brainwash the masses into consuming his cookie-cutter, poorly produced music. It is up to the protagonist Paulie, played by Sterling Harris, to infiltrate the evil record company and counter the villain’s harmonic-hypnosis with his own brand of “Paulie’s rhythms”—a play on the musical term “polyrhythm”. The story is conveyed almost exclusively through live music, featuring original musical compositions by J.C. Brooks, and tap dance, choreographed by Yonally with additional direction by Mike Weaver.
Very few tap dance companies are able to blend musical theater, tap and storytelling, but CTT has refined and defined their own brand, dubbed “tap operas,” over their nearly twenty years in existence. “To me, the most important thing is that it has to be musically and rhythmically engaging and inventive and appropriate to the music,” Yonally told me in an interview. “To the show, the primary priority of the choreography is that it has to be true to the characters that are doing the choreography and it has to convey the narrative accurately.” This is no easy feat and the subgenre of dance known as “dance theatre” often veers towards the abstract, but Yonally aims to make his works’ intentions clear. “I first was interested in creating tap operas because in college I was exposed to the work of “DV8” out of England, “La La Human Steps” from Canada and Pina Bausch out of Germany,” said Yonally, “However, historically in dance theatre there is often a purposeful attempt to let the story be symbolic and allegorical and open to interpretation; However, my touchstone for these shows are more musical theatre than dance theatre in that, when you see a musical theatre show you know who the main characters are and you have a general idea what their objective is—why they’re doing what they’re doing, how they’re trying to accomplish it, whether they succeed or not—and that’s the joy, that you get emotionally invested in the character.”
The tone of “Tap Secret” aims to be fun, light and effervescent and serves as the sugar that sweetens the bitter subtext that lies beneath the narrative regarding the homogenisation of popular music and the grooming of pop stars—the conceptualization of this show occurring? Add a company of capable dancers and Yonally’s staple choreography and “Tap Secret” looks like a good fit for tap dance aficionados, music and culture geeks and a general theater audience of any age looking for a unique experience.
“America’s oldest and most comprehensive festival of tap” returns July 26-Aug. 14 with Rhythm World 30, presented by the Chicago Human Rhythm Project. Students can once again enjoy the tried-and-true festival format of week-long classes that culminate in student and faculty performances that, this year, includes a variety of instructors from across the Midwest and the East Coast. Courses include short, à la carte master classes; more in-depth, week-long courses; a choreographic residency; a teachers certification course and the return of the popular Youth Tap Ensemble Conference (YTEC) for young dancers to really cut their teeth while cutting a rug. New this year is the American Tap Conservatory program, a two-week immersive experience where students can jam with live musicians at the historic Jazz Showcase and learn and perform works from the weekly-rotating faculty.
Public events involve a refreshing and diverse roster of industry staples, Broadway veterans and contemporary darlings. The first week offers a performance at Navy Pier’s Lake Stage featuring Jason Janas, Karissa Royster and Robyn Watson. The second week closes with a performance at the Black Legislator’s Theater in the DuSable Museum of African American History featuring Caleb Teicher, Naomi Funaki, Kaleena Miller and legacy tap dancer Ivery Wheeler and special guests. The third week’s performance, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, culminates the festival with performances by “virtuosos from the concert, Broadway and commercial stage” accompanied by the Erich Hochberg Trio. In addition, there will be more intimate, jazz club-style shows at the Jazz Showcase every Tuesday during the festival.
The most exciting new addition to Rhythm World is the announcement of a new artistic director for the festival, venerable jazz-hoofer Jumaane Taylor, a M.A.D.D. Rhythms alumni and recipient of the prestigious Chicago Dancemakers Forum and 3Arts grants. Former artistic director and co-founder of CHRP, Lane Alexander, will continue in his role as the director of the CHRP organization.
“Lane and I are trying to create something where that next generation of tap dancers can really find a place to educate themselves,” said Taylor. “We’re trying to create a ‘cypher,’ a real cycle of generations.” Through this multi-generational approach, Taylor is optimistic about the future of the festival. “I am trying to shine light on all the things that brought us here today,” expressed Taylor, “and hopefully the things that bring us to the proper future so that we can really respect this art form of tap dance.”
Chicago tap dance is revered throughout the world, and with so many ways to experience tap this Summer, it is easier than ever to see why. The sheer amount of variety proves that tap dance in the Windy City is not just alive but thriving.
“Tap Secret” takes place July 10 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd, and is in-person only with limited seating available to accommodate social distancing. Check out ChicagoTapTheatre.com for show and ticket information.
Rhythm World 30 runs from July 26 – Aug. 14 at the Fine Arts Building, 410 S Michigan Ave, and at venues throughout the city. Check out ChicagoTap.org for more info on class schedules, faculty bios and how to purchase tickets for performances.
More tap this month
Joining the array of tap dance on offer this month is M.A.D.D. Rhythms with two free performances in West Pullman Park. Beginning in February, the 20 year old tap company released a terrific set of videos and offered virtual tap classes and jams, staying very active during the pandemic. Taking place July 9 and Aug. 13, the shows mark their return to live performance ahead of October's Chicago Tap Summit. —Lauren Warnecke
M.A.D.D. Rhythms performs July 9 in West Pullman Park, 401 W 123rd St, with an encore performance on Aug. 13. While this is an outdoor event, COVID safety precautions are still in effect and audience members are urged to wear face coverings and maintain social distance while enjoying the performance. Visit MADDRhythms.com or ChicagoParkDistrict.com for details, or click below.