The enduring cool of tap


It wasn't the usual ladies room chatter the other night during intermission of "Anything Goes" at the Ahmanson Theater. "Damn, why didn't I take tap?" one woman said. Others murmured in agreement . I myself was still in a daze, recovering from the blast of energy we had all just witnessed. "People love the finale of act one" said Sean McKnight, dance captain for the national touring company of the 2011 revival of the Cole Porter musical. "They love a huge tap number. It's like coffee. It's energizing and puts people in a good mood."

I couldn't find the Los Angeles cast on video, but here is the first act finale performed by Sutton Foster and the Broadway cast, from the 2011 Tony Awards broadcast.

"Anything Goes," originally produced on Broadway in 1934, takes place aboard an ocean liner traveling from New York to London. It's pure escapist fare with iconic songs one after another, so the Ahmanson audience was already in a happy place when the theater filled with the pounding of tap shoes on floor boards. The cast here stars Rachel York as Reno Sweeney.

It's clear that dancers (and sometimes critics too, it seems) keep a special place in their hearts for tap. Robert Fairchild, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, told me he studied tap as a child, long before he started his ballet training. "It's great for a kid. You get to make noise with your feet." Fairchild, whose dance idol is Gene Kelly, got the attention of New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay during a gala performance last September of "Not My Girl", a Peter Martins choreographed pas-de-deux inspired by music composed by Fred Astaire. "'Not My Girl' began with a tap solo for Mr. Fairchild...that was the evenings freshest dance moment," Macaulay's review noted.

Says Fairchild, "it's a real treat for me to tap with the company. Some people think it's not new age or cutting edge, but tap has evolved and it's such a huge tool to have." Explaining the appeal to audiences, he says "they are watching AND listening. People enjoy the sound of tapping. It just adds another aspect to the dance experience."

Rogelio Douglas Jr., a triple threat performer (singer, dancer, actor) who has appeared in LA in "In the Heights" and on Broadway in "The Little Mermaid" and "Riverdance," started his tap training at age 8. "My mom was a big fan of Sammy Davis Jr. and I loved Gregory Hines. What makes tap different [from other forms of dance] is that you have to be a musician. You are creating music, different rhythms and patterns...Tap is a hybrid art form."

"A lot of singers I know do tap," says McKnight, the dance captain for "Anything Goes. "For them it's part of musicality, and the form of dance they are most drawn to." McKnight frequently teaches dance to children and at the college level. "I always tell tap, you'll find yourself smiling. Tap dancers are a different breed, they're always happy to tap. The minute you put on the shoes you want to make sound."

Audience response at the Ahmanson confirmed tap's enduring allure. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a sudden rise in L.A. tap class enrollment.

Anything Goes runs at the Ahmanson Theater through Jan.6, 2013

Bonus video: Fayard Nicholas and Harold Nicholas from "Stormy Weather," in what some consider the best tap dancing scene ever filmed. It was shot at 20th Century Fox, per IMDb. Fayard Nicholas died in Burbank in 2006.

Photo of touring company of "Anything Goes," by Joan Marcus

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