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The Art of Tap Dancing

‘Knock on Wood’ at Danceworks Studio Theatre

Aug. 10, 2010
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Perhaps because it bears no relation to the court dances of any aristocracy, tap dancing has never been considered a high art form. It’s said that when percussion instruments were forbidden to African slaves in America, they remembered the foot dancing of the Irish crewmen on the ships that had brought them here and began to communicate with their feet. Fred Astaire “classed up” the slave folk dance by combining it with ballet and ballroom moves. Tap is fundamentally an aural art like drumming, rooted in the heartbeat and lungs. It has provided a powerful and witty means to celebrate individual and communal identity and freedom in the face of the direst oppression for both its African and Irish progenitors.

“A step is a word,” says Amy Brinkman-Sustache, artistic director of Danceworks on Tap (DOT). “You put steps together to make a sentence. Questions are raised and answered through rhythm. It’s like listening to a conversation.”

Then there is the giddy pleasure that tap dancing invariably brings to audiences for reasons beyond words. Brinkman-Sustache founded DOT in 2000 to “sustain tap as a recognized art form.” Group members teach, choreograph, perform in outreach programs and create concerts that explore the history and currency of the form. DOT’s “Knock on Wood” concert will conclude Danceworks’ 2010 DanceLAB series.

The scope of the concert is wide. The Rince Nia Academy of Irish Dance and Culture returns for the second year; its artistic director, Sean Beglan, a former lead with Riverdance, will perform a solo Irish dance. The Irish dancers and the Danceworks tap company will then perform a conversation between the styles. A similar work last year emphasized conflict; here, the focus is on creating a unified work.

There’s also a soft-shoe dance on sand. Lamont Johnson, a “hoofer” in his mid-50s, will improvise a traditional tap solo, and seasoned 12-year-old tapper Gabi Sustache will freestyle a contemporary approach. Sole 2 Soul, a hip-hop and tap collaboration set to a Jamaican chant, will feature dancers from Pius XI High School.

Brinkman-Sustache choreographed Driven, a unison work for the eight company dancers set to music by Wa Dai Ko Matsuri Za performed on Japanese wood drums. Rhythms and tempos shift drastically and the dancers must follow. “It’s about accepting change as you stay with someone or follow a vision that motivates you,” she explains.

“Knock on Wood” will be performed 7:30 p.m. Aug. 13-14 and 4 p.m. Aug. 15 at Danceworks Studio Theatre.


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