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Jazz Tap Ensemble

Tap for dummies

by Jeff Kuo

March 19, 2005 -- Founder's Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, California

It’s not as if tap dancing hadn’t been presented here before (tours of Broadway shows with tapping showgirls, etc come here all the time). Jazz Tap Ensemble (Lynn Dally, Artistic Director), appearing as part of the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s “Founder’s Family Fun” series, asked: tap acts will play in Peoria, but the real question was would it play for the more exacting audience of Orange County grade schoolers. If you have a winning cast of three enthusiastic, young, and extroverted dancers matched with a smart sounding jazz quartet, the answer is a resounding yes.

For myself (and I'll be the first to admit my unfamiliarity with the form), tap dance has often seemed synonymous with a fading past of old MGM movies, vaudeville halls, and its illustrious pedigree decipherable only by tap enthusiasts. Arlene Croce once observed that the dominant mood of the 60’s tap revival was elegiac: “it fits in with the recycled old musicals, the fads for forties clothing and hairstyles and furnishings, and the Preservation Society reverence in which we now hold the popular art of the past” (1980).  I’m not sure tap always evokes an uncomplicated reverence for the past, either. Croce commented that it was sad to hear a legendary performer like Charles ‘Honi’ Coles say he could have done better except for racism, as if reminding us that the era of "Shuffle Along,” the Harlem Renaissance, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was also the era of Jim Crow, the burning cross, and the lynch mob.

The show began with “Shim Sham” danced by Channing Cook Holmes (who doubled as MC), and local tap wünderkinder, Melinda Sullivan and Josette Wiggan. An ensemble number, “Shim Sham” was a lively and upbeat introduction, quickly plunging the audience into a good mood with its easy sounds and accessible tap rhythms. Then, after introducing the dancers and musicians, Holmes demonstrated the mechanics of the tap shoe and how not only the toe and heel could make sound but also the sides and soles.

Josette Wiggan brought us her original “Felicidade” choreographed to a composition by Antonio Carlos Jobim.  If tap dance's customary masculine, competitive nature makes it easy to overlook its ability to nuance mood, "Felicidade" was a corrective. “Groove” brought back Holmes and Sullivan for a more complex sound to a composition by Jerry Kalaf followed by "April in Paris" which was a kind of percussion dialogue between Holmes' taps and Kalaf's drums.

Musicality was the name of the game, whether the music of Kalaf and the musicians performing an original composition ("Brooklyn Heights") or the musical layering of the dancers' rhthyms.  At times, it was easy to imagine the dancers as instrumental soloists with a jazz band, and at other times supporting the melodies as part of an ensemble.  Jerry Kalaf was on drums, Brian Scanlon on saxophone, Rich Eames on piano, and Chris Conner on bass.

The show ended with excerpts from "Interplay" created for Jazz Tap Ensemble by Jimmy Slyde to jazz standards and original compositions arranged by Kalaf.  The excerpts consisted of brief solos for Holmes, Wiggan, and Sullivan with an extended audience participation section where Holmes challenged the audience to repeat beats and rhythms created by clapping, slapping, and thumping his hands, thighs, torso, and legs. Obviously, there's no competing with a professional tapper, but everybody's a winner in this good natured competition.

Tap dance is so many things.  By this contemporary age, tap's accumulated cultural baggage must be overwhelming, so it was the shrewd artistic director who decided to market upon JTE's youth and energy rather than upon a nostalgia for a past increasingly foreign to today's audiences.  No musical comedy Pullman porters, grinning house servants, or minstrel shows -- no Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, or Fred Astaire.  And, of the contemporary urban image, nary a stir nor stomp (but this is conservative Orange County ...).

Channing Cook Holmes, who has a pleasing, natural charisma, presented himself in various casual, untucked shirts over loose black slacks; looking delicious like salt water taffy, Melinda Sullivan tapped in a blue top over grey pin striped slacks while Wiggan was in a black salsa top and black tights.  Only Josette Wiggan's slender build and hyperactive persona seemed to allude to a recognizable media image - the precocious Sammy Davis, Jr.

This educational program is tap for for non-connosieurs - for those for whom Sandman Sims, Brenda Bufalino, and the Nicholas Brothers, alas, mean little. But instead of elegy, JTE is tap with hope.  Tap for the future.  

The Education Department handed out a jazz and tap themed children's activity sheet  with a word finder's puzzle, simple definitions, and so on, but no production credits to speak of (the titles and credits came from the JTE's managing director, Gayle Hooks).  And, just a final note about Founder's Hall.  The customary venue for small jazz or chamber music ensembles, Founder's Hall is completely unsuitable for concert dance.  With the seats set up like bleachers, and the performing space pressing the dancers practically into the laps of the front row, everybody from second row rearwards was unable to get more than a glimpse of those dancing feet.


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