An impressive gathering of American tap convened at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for JUBA! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance. The Chicago Rhythm Project collected twelve performances of professionals, amateurs, students, and superstars of the American tap world for this sold out performance.
Juba means king in Zulu, and it was a title awarded to American William Henry Lane, a minstrel dancer from the 1800s who won a series of competitions and was named the “juba” or master of all dancers, beating out a major step dancer from Ireland who was thought to win. Lane Alexander, co-founder and Director of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, borrowed the name for this tap extravaganza.
The Chicago Human Rhythm Project is dedicated to building community with American tap and other percussive dance through performance and education. They’ve more than succeeded with this one.
Some music was recorded, but the live music for the evening was provided by the Greg Spero Trio, led by pianist Greg Spero, accompanied by the excellent Makaya McKraven on Drums and Mathew Ulery on upright bass. Their jazzy style was perfect for tap and Greg Spero handled the classical piece Reflections easily as well.
The night was brilliant not just because of the high caliber of performer but also because of the differences and contrast between them. They danced to jazz, hip hop, rap, and Brahms. Some wore boots and some were barefoot. Many were dressed in street clothes, but one group was wrapped in black fabric and one danced in suits. Alexander took advantage of the contrasts, pairing up performances to compliment each other as he MC’ed the evening.
It started with the biggest contrast of the night. The first to take the stage was M.A.D.D. Rhythms, a troupe of young people from Chicago. Alexander states that tap is the jazz of dance – an American, improvised art form – and this group best epitomized that. Clad in bright yellow pants they battled with each other and then broke out with fast, impressive solos. Beyond the acrobatics, the main focus was the rhythm.
In the rap performance that followed could not have been more different. The Jump Rhythm Jazz Project took the stage in combat boots for a shouted, pounding number entitled “There never was a war that was not inward.” It was an emotional and impressive demonstration of an innovative style created by Billy Siegenfeld of Chicago called the Jump Rhythm Technique – which is a form of vocal-rhythmic movement.
The next performances showcased the future of tap. They consisted of top students from two tap training programs. It started with a tapping walz and ended with the national anthem by Radiohead. The first group was choreographed by rising tap star Michelle Dorrance and featured dancers from the Chicago Rhythm Project’s own training program, the Youth Tap Ensemble Conference. It was a fun dance filled with marionettes and one boy who seemed to lose control of his body to great effect. The next group of youth came from Jacob’s Pillow Dance of Massachusetts. These guys are so good, so young.
In the next pair of performances, Michelle Dorrance took the stage herself with two other dancers in the most unique, humorous, affecting dance of the evening. The two dancers accompanying her were barefoot and they were all barelegged and dressed in black. She has already made a name for herself as a choreographer and this piece was a fine example of the way she plays with tap and dance – twisting her body into right angles and precise rhythms that are still quintessentially tap but miles away from the freestyle that began the night.
The loudest group of the evening was local group Step Afrika! They do a rhythmic style of dance that includes hand clapping, feet stomping, chest pounding, snapping, and shouting. The totally acapella piece began with several people waiting for a train…impatiently. And then the train arrived in a celebratory, pounding chain of people. The piece branched out from there into solo performances and a finale that brought the house down.
After intermission, Chicago’s Tap Stars took the stage for another improvised, impressive performance of leaps and slides and tricks and fast, fast feet.
In another contrast, Lane Alexander put down his MC duties and took the stage with members of the Chicago Rhythm Project’s group BAM! to tap dance to classical music, which is apparently a long-standing subculture of the tap world. It was an intriguing combination of ballet-like arm movements and precise, beautiful tapping.
Spero and the trio were featured alone for the jazz piece “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kasma in a song that signaled the final part of the evening, because after that it was the superstars.
Derick Grant, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Sam Weber took to the stage for a classic Thelonious Monk piece in what they called “Improvography.” It’s impossible to describe with words how amazing these three are at this deceptively loose, informal art form. Their feet are impossibly fast and they don’t seem to obey the same laws of gravity as the rest of us. They were equally happy dancing on the sides of their feet, on their toes, on their heels, and up in the air. It’s a testament to the Chicago Rhythm Project and what it is doing for the world of tap to be able to draw these three greats onto the stage together.
And they weren’t the end! Dianne Walker, known to the world as Lady Di, took the stage for an understated, humorous solo. She’s known as the first lady of tap because she was a big part of ensuring tap’s resurgence, popularity, and diversity today. She doesn’t indulge in acrobatics so much anymore, but you could set a metronome to her tapping, if you could get one to go so fast. She is just on and perfect and was clearly enjoying herself.
The finale of the piece brought every dancer back on stage with all of their very different styles for a shim sham where they let loose a jazzy “We Three Kings.” I believe gatherings like this one will prove important and historic for this relatively new art form as it continues to evolve and grow and dancers continue to innovate and improvise new impressive dances, but that’s not why everyone was on their feet at the end. It was just so much fun.
Running Time: Two hours with a 15 minute intermission.
Juba! Masters of Percussive Dance was a one-night only performance on December 7, 2012 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. Click here for the calendar of events.