Dallas — Walking into downtown Dallas’ Majestic Theatre is a step back in time. Opening for the first time in 1921, it hosted vaudeville acts, film, and other live entertainment. Tap dance began to evolve into its current state during that same time period, alongside jazz music. A whole world of rhythm and artistry opened up with those early pioneers. It’s only fitting that the historic theater house the city’s first tap dance festival, which celebrates and nourishes those roots.
The Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF), produced by Katelyn Harris and Malana Murphy, boasts a packed schedule. Classes for all levels span three days, and competitions and concerts are sprinkled throughout. I had the honor of participating in two of the classes offered for teachers and adults on Saturday, and while they each focused on something different, the emphasis is still rhythm.
Justin Lewis, a Washington, D.C. native who currently resides in L.A. and is working on a new tap show for Universal, opened his class with some warm-ups he performed in a pre-professional tap group as a young teen. Seemingly simple steps (flaps, flams, paddle-and-roll) became quite the challenge as the various rhythms grew more complex and other layers were added on.
Since this class was at 3 p.m., everyone else had pushed through a full day of dancing, so this session seemed a little more low-key. After the warm-ups, we worked on a short combination in between spontaneous Q&A’s and story sharing. A couple of things stood out, though.
First, that man’s feet can fly! It’s one thing to see a brilliantly fast and articulate tapper on YouTube or television, but it’s even more awe-inspiring to see it in person.
Second, it’s vital that events like this offer education for teachers. Many times I heard comments of frustration over a certain step that stemmed out of a teacher’s consistent movement pattern, proving that it’s good for someone to come along and shake things up. Also, it was helpful to not only hear a new way of teaching a familiar step, but to also see that even the great tap dancers make the same “teacher mistakes”, like forgetting the combo during class or changing your mind about a sequence midway through teaching it.
It seemed kind of odd that we didn’t get through that much material, but when I asked him about the differences between teaching adults and teenagers, his answer made sense. He’s found through teaching and his learning experiences that adults need more time throughout one class to process the info, and before I could get insulted that he was calling us slow, I realized that he’s right.
After the vigorous hopping, flapping, and shuffling of Justin’s class, the next lecture-only session was much needed and probably the most intriguing concept in tap dance I’ve heard in a long time. Jenna Werhun is a Canadian tap dancer who got into music school solely (pun very much intended) by her tap shoes.
Given the historic connection between tap dancers and jazz musicians, it should make perfect sense that the two could be interchangeable, but Jenna’s experience proves that preconceived notions on what makes a dancer and a musician are hard to overcome.
She started dancing at 16, which is a little late given the lifespan of the dancing body, but with hard work, inspiring teachers, and massive amounts of practice, she quickly became proficient at tap and found herself drawn to the music side of the art form. She decided to take the bold step toward training to become a musician through her dance, an idea put into practice by only one other person in North America.
By receiving apprentice-style training from jazz musicians in her hometown of Edmonton, she developed the skills needed to audition for a post-secondary music program. Her challenge was now to convince others that she should even be granted an audition, since her only instrument was her tap shoes.
Her research produced articles, recordings, and videos that displayed how tap was vital to the jazz music greats, such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, and illustrated the symbiotic relationship between hoofers and musicians that is pretty much lost these days. She was accepted into the school and continued to find new ways to educate people on this concept and find new ways to develop it.
She truly is a pioneer, even at the tender age of 20. Her humility, innocence, and youthful determination have carried her through the muddy waters of doubt and prejudice. Every time someone thinks “What can a dancer contribute to music? How did you get here in the first place?” she boldly proves them wrong. She’s not only out to educate, but she’s working to change the current mindset on a variety of topics. She speaks a musician’s language, thinks like a musician, but her feet move with grace and elegance. To the dancer, she encourages a mutually beneficial relationship with the accompanist, rather than the “I dance, you play for me” mentality.
This “Musician’s Dancer” is out to bust down walls and erase labels. She’s definitely one to watch in the coming years.
» Cheryl Callon will report from some of Sunday's classes, and on the faculty dance concert Sunday night, which is open to the public (tickets can be purchased here).
Here's the complete RIFF schedule: