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Friday, December 15

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Dance Sun Nov 15 2009

Chicago Human Rhythm Project

In the American cultural landscape, tap dancing has fought hard to be regarded the same as other dance forms. Lane Alexander, founder and director of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP), explains tap's global impact, and why it is finally being recognized as an equally integral part of American dance culture.

Why was CHRP founded?
I went to a tap dance festival in Portland, Oregon, but before that, I was in a tap repertory company. At this festival, there was a different kind of tap dance, taught by the masters like Charles "Honi" Cole and Eddie Brown. What they were doing was what I know now is "rhythm tap," which is more African-based. It had lots of syncopation and rhythmic complexity, as opposed to the more European tradition, (e.g., Rockettes) which was more about presentation rather than rhythmic complexity. I fell in love with these masters and this art form and said, "Why doesn't Chicago have something like this?" Now I was aware of both the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre and Mayfair Academy on the south side, but I realized that most of the tap dancers in Chicago didn't know each other. For reasons like this, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project was founded to bring people together, using tap to create relationships.

You use tap dance as a way to reach the community--in what ways?
We hold year-round presentations for organizations; also, every day of the week, we're in an elementary or high school or cultural center spreading the gospel of tap.

You say "Tap is to dance what jazz is to music: America's contribution to global culture." Explain.
History, as it's told, is that when the slaves were in the holds of the ships, they were brought to the decks so they wouldn't die. During their brief moment on those decks, they would dance a little to shake off the feelings from being shackled. Tap dancing was born from this.

Tap's roots really go far back.
Tap, like jazz, has often been relegated as second class, although jazz has overcome that now. Tap dance isn't always regarded as serious, but now it's recognized as a real aft form. But the word "tap" is so loaded because of images it evokes.

Images like "Stepin Fetchit?"
Exactly. There is definitely a stigma attached [to tap dancing] that has sort of been kept at arm's length. Some of the memories are not good the way the dancers were portrayed.

Speaking of the history of tap dance, is it difficult to get youth to see both the beauty and history behind it?
A lot of kids have seen [the movie] "Happy Feet," but most of them watch old videos on YouTube that feature masters like the Nicholas Brothers. They see what they were doing rhythmically and they appreciate it.

Also, most people don't know there are serious [tap] artists, or as I like to describe them: percussive dancers/drummers. As tap dancers, we "drum" with our feet, and some of that drumming is unbelievably complex and gorgeous. Savion Glover illustrated this with Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, by showing that you can tap to any kind of music. When kids see that rhythm-based tap, they get it!

CHRP is very community-oriented--not only with dance performances, but also with workshops and scholarships.
This year, we are offering $20,000 in scholarships (some based on economic need, others based on talent) to talented, deserving teens. These are kids who are already involved with tap but don't have the economic means to attend our summer festivals. At the festivals, we bring in masters from both here and abroad, to teach tap to kids. The kids who receive the scholarships can come from Schaumburg or Englewood. The beauty of the festivals is they all dance together and keep in touch--they meet kids they [normally] wouldn't have met and share an art form they all love.

CHRP is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a major event this week--tell us about it.
We are celebrating the legacy of William Henry Lane, who was the first African-American minstrel dancer allowed to dance with white minstrel dancers. To get by, he had to "cork" his own face even though he was already black. You see, tap has always been competitive, and it was on the minstrel circuit, too. Lane always came out the winner and was given the title, "Juba," a Zulu word that means "king." Our award is named "JUBA!" to salute him. He had a lot to overcome and we celebrate his achievement and the ability to fight adversity.

Describe the 20th anniversary's events.
The South Shore Drill Team will start the evening, followed by a performance by tap dancer Jason Janas, who is our special guest. The awards ceremony, "JUBALEE!," comes next, then a performance by Step Afrika.

Lane Alexander is very passionate about tap and its place in the dance world. He feels it is the most recent contribution to contemporary dance and over time, has become very refined. He also feels tap hasn't really been given its place in U.S. culture and he notes that no colleges or universities in our country offer tap dance as a major like jazz or ballet. That said, he feels, "We've got a lot of work to do."

NOTE: Lane Alexander isn't just the founder and director of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project; this year, he is also a JUBA! Awardee.

The Chicago Human Rhythm Project's 20th anniversary kicks off with Global Rhythms at the Harris Theatre for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph. Shows are Thursday, Nov. 19 at 7:30pm, and Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20 and 21, at 8pm. Tickets are $15-$55; call 312.334.7777 or visit harristheatrechicago.org. For more information on JUBALEE!, call 773-281-1825 or visit chicagotap.org.

 
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