'Speaking in Rhythm' at customary Jazz Showcase kick-off to Rhythm World 2019

Kicking off the 29th annual Rhythm World Tap Festival, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) gathered a full audience into the warm and intimate Jazz Showcase June 22 in Chicago’s South Loop for a night of live jazz and flying footwork. The cabaret-style performance featured tap dancers from young students to Chicago legends, spanning both in age and roots across the globe. 

With the evening consisting of 15 solos and duets in two and a half hours of ferocious tapping, occasional singing and marvelous accompaniment by the Eric Hochberg Trio (and a couple guest musicians), it’s hard to write about the experience without going into pages of detail. But I think Lane Alexander, the showcase’s emcee, summed up the magic of the night in a few words following a dynamic improvised duet between two Rhythm World international students. While the two had just met—with one dancer calling Brazil home and the other Japan—on stage, they shared a connection that stemmed from one commonality: “they both speak in rhythm.”

In celebration of this visceral language, Rhythm World’s Jazz Showcase brought life, laughter and a pure love of tap and music to the stage, surfacing that gut feeling of, “Yes, this is why we dance.” And each act uncovered a new facet of tap dance, an endless discovery of foot patterns and quick sounds. From Demi Remick’s wicked fast opener to Star Dixon’s lyrical, yet beyond intricate closer, each performer showcased a different side of rhythm through their individual connections with the musicians and through the various ways the sounds lived in their entire bodies. 

In Bril Barrett’s performance with guest drummer Monti Ellison, a reprise of last year, an immediate connection between musician and dancer was apparent, with Barrett’s subtle tapping that somehow seemed to hit every available sound in a second complementing Ellison’s impassioned drumming. The two percussionists mirrored each other in a call-and-response-type set that blurred the lines so the audience couldn’t tell where one call ended and the other response started. 

The duets between CHRP artist in residence Dani Borak and singer Johnny Bash and between Star Dixon and Eric Hochberg also emphasized this connection—Borak beginning with soft taps and fluid slides of the feet then building in complexity as Bash’s voice strengthened and deepened, and Dixon adding a constant beat to the poetic notes of both the piano and her own vocals. 

And with so much tap talent showcased, one performance could have easily blurred into another. But I found myself fascinated by the visible differences in each individual’s embodiment of rhythm, beyond the variety in choice of step or combination of sounds: Remick’s seemingly surprised response to her feet that manifested in cute facial expressions and shoulder shrugs. Cartier William’s relaxed upper body amidst hyper-quick tapping. Donnetta Jackson’s spunk as she travelled in circular patterns across stage, rolling taps highlighting the ebb of the music. 

In a fun evening that highlighted what was to come in more formal performances later this week, the 29th Rhythm World Jazz Showcase not only displayed raw talent, but also a community of tap dancers and musicians dedicated to the full-bodied exploration of rhythm.  With performances every night happening at The Dance Center at Columbia College Chicago and Navy Pier, Rhythm World provides the rare opportunity to see innovative tap talent from around the world in one place. 

Rhythm World performances continue June 23-27. Tickets are $15-$75, available by clicking the event page below.