Chicago’s tap roots go deeper than its famous pizza
By Kay Waters
Chicago is known for many things—Barack Obama, the comic lineage of The Second City, the blues tradition of performers like Buddy Guy, the lakefront, harsh winters, rough-and-tumble politics, Michael Jordan, the hapless Cubs, and the hockey champion Blackhawks. And oh yes, that distinctive deep-dish pizza.
But tap dance?
Those outside of the Windy City may be surprised to hear that the answer is a resounding yes.
“Chicago, in my opinion, is the hub. It’s the center of what’s gone on in tap dancing over the last 25 years, especially when you talk about the educational component,” says renowned tapper Dianne “Lady Di” Walker. “They’ve got all these amazing dancers that come from there, too; just a lot of Chicago is really putting it out there. But the education part of this is what has put Chicago on the map.”
Festivals = workshops
When she mentioned tap education, Walker was referring to the rich number of workshops offered through festivals in Chicago, like those presented by Lane Alexander’s Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP). Walker, who has been a regular presence teaching in Chicago since CHRP started 20 years ago, was honored by the organization in August, during its 20th annual Rhythm World Festival, for her contributions to the tap world.
Though CHRP started as an annual festival of classes and performances, it has grown into a year-round presenter. Programs include a lecture-demonstration, “We All Got Rhythm,” for elementary-through-high-school-age students throughout Chicago, and four major tap events each year, including a winter Tap JAMboree that focuses on youth and includes scholarship auditions and choreography competitions. CHRP also runs outreach resident programs at area schools and youth centers.
In addition to CHRP’s programs, other groups in the Chicago area present tap programs. The company M.A.D.D. Rhythms, founded by Bril Barrett, will host its sixth annual Chicago Tap Summit this fall. The event includes performances, master classes, history classes, panel discussions, and film showings. And Footprints Tap Ensemble, a youth group, hosts a Tap Jam each fall that includes master classes and performances.
Walker says Alexander’s business savvy should not be taken for granted. “What Lane has done has been incredible. He has what a lot of us in the field don’t, and that’s a really good and strong business sense along with a good artistic sense,” Walker says. “That business side of him was able to grow and nurture and develop this festival. That business side is why tap is everywhere around Chicago.”
Why not tap?
Alexander says his work stemmed from an attitude of “why not?”—as in why not tap—when it came to the art form’s place among the city’s major arts institutions and projects. “I was motivated by that sense of wanting to promote American tap dance and bring tap dancers together,” he says. The national proclamation designating Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday, May 25, as National Tap Dance Day also served as an impetus, he adds.
“The resolution said the art form had roots in African and Irish rhythmic culture and traditions. It was an example of a positive outcome from a negative circumstance,” says Alexander. “To me, that was the kernel, the most important point. This art form was developed in this country from different communities, and it continues to evolve. But we should embrace it as an example of something good that has [resulted from] us being on this continent together.
“The Human Rhythm Project is about bringing people together to share this human impulse to express themselves rhythmically, to try to find common ground through rhythmic expressions.”
The reality of that lofty mission is that CHRP has become a nexus for two parts of the Chicago tap community that together have catapulted the city to the front of the national tap scene. Chicago has not only produced a series of soloists emanating from some of the city’s oldest, most storied dance schools, but it is home to a contingent of tap companies that have sprung up over the last 30 years.
“You have cities and areas that a lot of dancers call home. You have a few tap companies here and there across the country,” Walker says. “But I can’t think of another city that has both of those, that has programs in the schools, and has not one but several regular tap festivals.”
In many eyes, the tap company component of Chicago’s tap scene is the most unusual part of this story. Chicago is home to at least seven professional tap companies: BAM! (Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s repertory company, overseen by Alexander and directed by artistic associate Kristi Burris); Especially Tap Chicago, directed by Julie Cartier; M.A.D.D. Rhythms (Making A Difference Dancing Rhythms), directed by Bril Barrett; Chicago Tap Theatre, directed by Mark Yonally; Jus’LisTeN, directed by Tre Dumas III; Perfect Timing, directed by Jimmy Payne Jr.; and Rhythm Iss . . , a female trio led by Idella Reed Davis.
“You fly into Chicago and get off the plane and you can hear tap dancing. There’s so much tap dancing going on it’s unbelievable.” —Jay Fagan
Two other Chicago companies, Mary Beth Kisner’s Chi-Town Jazz Dance Company and Billy Siegenfeld’s Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, also have tap as part of their creative DNA. The Chicago area also has a number of youth and senior ensembles, including M.A.D.D. Rhythm’s Junior Squad, and the youth group Footprints Tap Ensemble, based in suburban Libertyville, Illinois.
In addition to the vibrant company scene, many well-known performers live in the Chicago area or have roots in its tap community. Payne, Dumas, Davis, and Alexander are widely recognized on the national tap concert circuit. Other nationally known tappers with Chicago ties include Skip Cunningham, Ted Levy, Reggio (who toured for many years with the late, legendary hoofer Ernest “Brownie” Brown, another Chicago resident), Jay Fagan, and Jumaane Taylor, who is assistant director of M.A.D.D. Rhythms. Walker’s teacher, the late hoofer Leon Collins, was a Chicago native, as is one of Bojangles’ partners, Jeni LeGon, who gained renown dancing in films and on television.
Individual style, cooperative attitude
Those involved in the current Chicago tap scene say the dance form is an integral part of the community there. “You fly into Chicago and get off the plane and you can hear tap dancing. There’s so much tap dancing going on it’s unbelievable,” says Fagan, a popular performer in Las Vegas. “There’s always something going on—people coming into town, workshops, classes, performances. There’s good communication between all of the different artists who are based in Chicago. We always see each other around the country at the different festivals, too. We try to go to each other’s concerts. It’s like a disease, a good kind.”
Dumas says the Chicago scene is also special in that there are so many different approaches to tap represented among those who call the city home. “There are a lot of variations in style and intentions, and with all of these companies you’ve got dancers who are making waves on their own as choreographers and as teachers,” he says. “It’s not like you go see one company and they look like everybody else. You go see Mark Yonally’s company and it’s totally different from M.A.D.D. Rhythms, which is totally different from what Julie Cartier is doing.”
Yonally says the remarkable part of the Chicago tap story is the peaceful coexistence of the different artists and companies. “It’s not competitive like a ‘We have to be better than them,’ or ‘Why are they getting this and we didn’t?’ type of thing. The dancers here aren’t interested in having that kind of vibe or energy,” he says. “We’re more interested in supporting each other. We help each other out. There’s a sense that the bigger the pie is for everyone, the better. We all feed off each other’s energy and we all have very distinct identities. By no means would you feel you’ve seen the same thing twice.”
Schools: where it all started
A big part of the reason why Chicago has such a dynamic tap community is the collection of schools founded by black performers during the middle of the last century. While many of them trained white students privately, these performers opened their own schools in the black neighborhoods to give back to their communities.
There were the separate schools founded during the Depression by the archrivals and sisters Sadie and Mary Bruce, and in the 1950s, the hoofers Jimmy Payne Sr., Tommy Sutton, and Sammy Dyer all opened schools.
Alumni from these schools form the backbone of the current scene. LeGon is a Mary Bruce alum. Cunningham is a Sadie Bruce alum. Payne Jr. and Reggio trained at Payne Sr.’s studio, Jimmy Payne Dance Studio. Dumas is an alumnus of Sutton’s Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts. And Levy, Davis, and Taylor all studied at Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre. With the exception of the Bruce sisters’ studios, these schools are still operating.
During the 1970s and ’80s, other area studios began to offer strong tap programs, including the downtown Lou Conte Dance Studio (home to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago), and out in the suburbs, Jo’s Footwork Studio in Western Springs, where Fagan began his training. Talent Forum studio in suburban Libertyville has been home to Footprints Tap Ensemble since 1995.
“The tap scene in Chicago grew out of this group of dancers who were performing in and around the clubs back in the ’30s and ’40s,” says Peggy Sutton, whose father, Tommy Sutton, founded Mayfair Academy. “There was definitely a hoofer scene in Chicago back then. My dad moved to Chicago when he was 5, during the Depression, and he started dancing. They would dance on the streets. The ’40s were when you had a big club scene, and they would all dance at clubs like the Club DeLisa and the Rhumboogie.”
The glue: Lane Alexander
Sutton and others credit Alexander for not only acknowledging Chicago’s tap roots but for bringing the tap community together. “It’s wonderful what Lane and his organization have done. He and some of the other dancers in the area have really come together as a group to preserve the legacy of tap dancing here in Chicago,” Sutton says. “Jimmy Payne, my father, the Bruce sisters, Sammy Dyer—they all left a wonderful legacy, but it was just waiting for someone to pick up the ball and run with it. And that’s what Lane’s organization has done.”
Dumas points out that for whatever reason, the major schools used to keep to themselves. “When I was younger, the kids from Sammy Dyer and Mayfair did not interact. You might know someone from school who went to one or the other, but it wasn’t like the schools ever got together,” he says. “It wasn’t like now where you have these dance competitions and big conventions and kids get to know kids from other studios.”
CHRP became the glue for the tap schools, Dumas says. “When CHRP started, that became the one time of the year when everyone was all together. I’m sure that had to have helped some of these relationships between people. People started to realize that hey, maybe there’s not that much between us. Maybe we can coexist. Maybe there’s this wall that was there for no reason.”
Alexander says he also had the advantage of looking at Chicago and its tap community from an outsider’s point of view, even questioning long-held geographic, racial, and cultural divisions that were an intrinsic part of the city’s fabric. “When I came to Chicago in 1983, I didn’t know I was Irish—I thought I was a Texan until I moved to Chicago. But I became much more aware of the way things here were segmented,” he says. “It wasn’t that people were outwardly biased against each other. But they lived in their own communities, operated in their communities, and didn’t necessarily venture out of their communities.
“Part of what got me excited doing our first program was that I invited everyone I could find who loved to tap dance,” Alexander continues. “The big foundation had been laid by the studios like Sammy Dyer and Mayfair. I just tried to connect the dots.”
While Chicago is fertile ground for tap, Dumas and Fagan say the tap scene in the neighborhood schools is still fairly casual. “No matter what studio you go to, there’s always just a handful of kids who are really serious about tap,” says Dumas, who teaches at Mayfair. “We offer them all the same information, all the same training, and you see which ones get that real buzz.”
The kids who get that “buzz” are the ones who keep going to the CHRP festivals or get involved with youth companies. Fagan sees the same thing out in the suburbs where he teaches. “For most kids, tap is just a hobby. They get into high school; they start doing more and more things, and you start losing them to cheerleading or the travel soccer team or whatever,” he says. “You keep your eye out for the ones who really are into it.”
Fagan adds, “We try to instill everything we know and tell them and show them what it’s all about. You can’t force someone to listen, but we do our best to pass on what we know.”