Finding Tap in the Bay Area

By Gail Barton


THE NOVEMBER 2015 In Dance article, Finding Flamenco by Heather DeSaulniers, inspired me to focus my own research on a unique dance form, therefore I have pulled together a variety of information on the vernacular American art form known as Tap, Jazz Tap or Rhythm Tap. I see around 40 dance performances a year—from college showcases to international touring companies, spanning many genres, but rarely do I see a tap performance. I’d love to see more, so I’ve researched the state of tap performance and the opportunities to study tap in the Bay Area.

It turns out there are a lot of tap classes available. They can be found in a variety of settings, from community colleges, to recreation centers and many private studios.

It’s easy to find studios offering adult and/or children’s tap classes using Google or even a phone book. A quick scan of offerings reveals a range of options: from combined jazz and tap classes, by age cohorts (as young as two) or by levels. (Some advanced classes are “by invitation only.”) Some studios have as many as eight or more different classes a week to choose from, as well as private lessons.

For example, consider Melodic Remedy in San Carlos and Dottie Lester’s classes at Menlo Park Academy of Dance. Melodic Remedy has eleven tap classes, in addition to six classes in Musical Theater. Dottie Lester-White, a Broadway dance veteran, teaches in the Musical Theater Department of Norte Dame de Namur. She also offers 10 classes a week at the Menlo Park Academy of Dance. The level of interest, abilities and ages in class can fluctuate greatly. Currently, her class rosters include as many as 10 boys, ages 5-12, and a 91 year-old former musical theater performer still hitting the boards.

No one knows Bay Area tap better than Sam Weber—protege to legend Stan Kahn. Sam currently teaches at many Bay Area locations including: ODC, Dance Mode, City Dance, and Stagebridge. Sam was a big part of Stepology’s annual Rhythm Exchange, which took place from 2003-2012 and included workshops and performances. In conversation, he reminded me of the Bay Area’s creative expansion of categories, i.e. Keith Terry’s Body Music and the Corposonic Ensemble, along with Namita Kapoor’s work as an “interdisciplinary rhythm dancer.” (Kapoor’s upcoming show is entitled Hindu Swing)

Given this abundance of tap classes, I then turned my attention to the question of watching tap performance.

There are many options for seeing excellent tap performance on film (from Fred Astaire to White Nights with Gregory Hines), TV (including So You Think You Can Dance recent season winner, the tap dancer Gaby Diaz), and YouTube fun (please check out the Lombard Twins dancing to Piazzolla’s “Escualo”). But where are the live tap performances in the Bay Area?

The region does get the occasional opportunity to see a touring tap group. Savion Glover and Co. performed at Marin Center in 2014, but his shows are rare in they Bay Area. The company’s 2015 shows at Cal Performances were cancelled, unfortunately. The tap-heavy show Stomp had a two year run at SF’s Marines Memorial Theater in 2000 and still plays New York. We’ve also gotten touring companies of TapDogs and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. Of course musicals featuring inspirational tap numbers occur in touring shows and in many productions by regional theatrical companies.

The Jazz Tap Ensemble, which started in California, toured the US and the world between 1979 and 2012. They performed regularly in the Bay Area during that time. Admired for its original work in creation of full evening productions that included live music, the Ensemble featured a rotating cast that included local dancer Sam Weber for over 10 years and original drummer/percussionist, Keith Terry, as well as many other tap legends.

But overall, compared to the local flamenco scene, for example, opportunities to see tap live are rare. There are regular live flamenco shows at Pena Pachamama, Thirsty Bear and Redwood City’s Angelica’s. Several local professional companies produce home seasons and appear in the annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. It’s wonderful to have many opportunities to see flamenco shows that feature homegrown talent. Why not for tap?

Joan Walton, who teaches at Dance Connection, San Jose State, College of San Mateo and Google, suggests that, “People go to Flamenco shows or Riverdance not only because they enjoy percussive dance, but because it represents their culture. Tap dance has no single definable culture to support it; it is a hybrid dance form.”

But there are some bright – and interesting – lights.

In an Izzie awarded performance with Jason Samuels Smith in 2005, Pandit Chitresh Das paired Indian Kathak with tap. This synergy was continued recently at Z Space in SF with a group of stellar women performers. The aptly titled Speak brought together artists Rachna Nivas, Rina Mehta, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Michelle Dorrance delivering a multi-faceted production that represented Kathak and tap coupled with amazing jazz and Indian musicians.

Other notable appearances by Bay Area tap dancers in a professional setting have included Kimi Okada’s Two if by Sea, part of an ODC home season at YBCA and choreographers Roquisha Townsend and Chi Chi Okonmah’s New Day as part of 2013 Black Choreographers Festival.

Stanford University’s student run TapTH@T is another local performance option. The group of advanced tap dancers has been around since 2008 and performs student works in four to six shows per quarter. Club president, Daniel Washington says the group includes freshmen to graduate students, and offers free workshops (with rental shoes available).

This article is certainly not definitive. My apologies for anyone left out of the conversation. For us lovers of tap, there are many opportunities to learn, and a few opportunities to watch. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover, appreciate and find space for more tap dancing.

Gail Barton retired recently from City College of San Francisco, where she taught dance and yoga for over 30 years.