Not Your Typical Tap: The Bay Area Tap Festival

By Lou Fancher


The eighth annual Bay Area Tap Festival hits the boards August 16-22. A rapid-fire week of workshop classes, free panel discussions, and community showcase performances, all hosted by Alonzo King LINES Dance Center, will build energy and enthusiasm for the festival’s grand finale, The Bay Area Rhythm Exchange concert performances.

Director John Kloss, founder of STEPOLOGY and festival creator, describes the two-night, festival-ending extravaganza as “an all-star rock concert where artists who aren’t known for duets suddenly get together and perform a duet or appear with several others in a jam.” Held at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre, the shows place artistic collaboration and audience imagination at center stage. Kloss is big on tap, make no mistake, but he’s even bigger on making it familiar, accessible and available to all.

Tap, an inherently American art form, developed in the late 1800s as a stage dance, then moved into a serious period of growth during the 1920s and 30s. Like jazz music and other home-grown products, people make assumptions about tap: it’s a museum piece, it’s Broadway, it’s only for hard-core rhythm enthusiasts, it’s Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Kloss works diligently to expand the perspective of students, audiences, and even the guest artists who participate in the festival.

“These artists are open to new ideas,” he says, about this year’s faculty and performers. “We share a common interest in breaking away from conventional festival formatting.” Pushing aside the cobwebs of percussive dance showcasing, the festival moves beyond a daisy-chain of solos to introduce new technology, (like last year’s light suits, featuring black-clad tappers with only their glowing outlines visible,) and embraces improvisation, the heartbeat of percussive dance.

After a nod to traditional structure, with guest artists soloing in the first act, the Rhythm Exchange evenings bust loose. Kloss, having programmed enough hang time during the week of classes for performers to step beyond conventional interactions, says the two shows are never the same. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, on this year’s roster of stellar artists and, “for my money, the best tap dancer out there today,” according to Kloss, embodies the festival’s improvisational spirit. In rehearsals, she tells the band, “Hey listen, when we do the performances, I’m gonna’ dance and you play something.” Pairing this seasoned, intuitive dancer with live musicians is like bringing two electrical wires together: sparks fly and audiences come alive.

This year’s festival also brings back Channing Cook-Holmes as Music Director, Drummer and master tap dancer. Mark Mendonca, listed on the festival website with an asterisk and “schedule permitting,” has recently confirmed. “He’s a spot on performer,” says Kloss. Mendonca was the first person to receive a Princess Grace Foundation Award for tap dance and teaches at dance festivals throughout the U.S. Lukas Weiss, who integrates juggling into his performance, represents innovation. “He totally blew me away when I saw him in Chicago two years ago,” Kloss raves.

Eventually, Kloss hopes to feature artists from Asia, where interest is strong, or India, where percussive dance is already established and bringing diverse cultures together adds up to ground-breaking collaborations. This August, tap, the visceral, acoustic physical art form, will storm across the Herbst stage, leading audience and artists to new frontiers of imagination.

Herbst Theater, SF

“Bay Area Rhythm Exchange,” featuring tappers from Broadway, film, and the concert stage, including, Channing Cook Holmes, John Kloss, Mark Mendonca, Jason Rodgers, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Sam Weber, Lukas Weiss, and more. 415-392-4400

This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of In Dance.

Lou Fancher is a freelance ballet mistress and teacher currently the Rehearsal Director for Dancing People Company in Ashland, Oregon. A published author and journalist, she writes in the Bay Area for The Bay Area News Group, Diablo Magazine, WIRED, East Bay Express, Berkeleyside and other East Bay publications. She is the author of two original children’s books and has designed and illustrated over 50 picture books. You may visit her website at