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Jazz, Tap Dance Come Home to Africa

By Louise Fenner | Staff Writer | 20 March 2012
Three tap dancers on stage (Courtesy of Jazz Tap Ensemble/photo by Rose Eichenbaum)

From left to right, B'Jon Carter-Burnell, Maya Guice and Kenji Igus of the Jazz Tap Ensemble

Washington — One of America’s pioneer tap dance companies, the Jazz Tap Ensemble of Los Angeles, will travel for the first time to Africa, the source of many music and dance traditions that evolved into tap dance and jazz in the United States.

Starting April 9, several members of the troupe will spend a month engaging with audiences, dancers and musicians in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. They are part of DanceMotion USA, a cultural diplomacy program sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“We’ve toured 35 or 40 countries, but we haven’t been to Africa,” said Lynn Dally, artistic director of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, which she co-founded in 1979. “I am so looking forward to this new experience."

More than 300 pairs of tap shoes in various sizes will be distributed free to young Africans interested in pursuing tap dancing. Some were donated by the dance-wear manufacturer Capezio and the rest were purchased by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. 

In addition to performing, the company will hold dance workshops and music sessions in schools and other venues. “We would love to interact with other performers and also nonperformers, to bring them into the idea of improvisation. It’s a big part of what we do,” said Jerry Kalaf, music director and drummer. “They may not all be dancing, but they’ll be clapping rhythms and creating the music themselves.”

A special dance program was created for this tour, Dally said. “It has a theme of classic jazz and contemporary rhythms. Anyone who knows jazz music will recognize these songs.”

THE ROOTS OF TAP

In tap dancing, performers wear shoes with metal plates on the toe and heel that make a percussive sound. Tap dancing has roots in African dances performed and modified by slaves in the United States. Elements of Irish step dancing and English clog dancing were incorporated, and then in the early 20th century jazz was added to the mix.

“Jazz music for a long time was the only music that tap dancers had the opportunity to dance to,” Kalaf said. Later, show tunes and flashy new moves were added to the tap repertoire.

“The dancers people are going to see on this tour are really contemporary American tap dancers,” Dally said. “They’re well-schooled in the [tap] traditions, but they’ve moved on in their technique and what they’re trying to do creatively.”

The music will be jazz, with a trio led by Kalaf along with Doug Walter on piano, keyboards and alto saxophone and David Dunaway on bass.

“I’m really looking forward to going [to Africa], because so much of the music I spent my whole life trying to master came from there,” Kalaf said. “To me it feels like going home. I tell you, if you’re a jazz musician living anywhere on Earth, Africa is ground zero in a lot of ways.”

It will be the first overseas trip with the Jazz Tap Ensemble for four young dancers: Maya Guice, Sandy Vazquez, Kenji Igus and B’Jon Carter-Burnell. “In our conversations here in America about dance, we all come from similar backgrounds, so I’m looking forward to a new conversation about it,” Guice said.

“I’m looking forward to an exchange between groups, performing and then teaching and/or jamming with the community,” said Igus. “This is what really makes me excited about the tour.”

Wherever the ensemble goes, Dally said, people are enthusiastic and curious about tap dancing. “Once we begin to engage with people, they catch the rhythms and want to share,” she said. “Our music carries so much power and history.”

Three other U.S. dance companies are touring overseas through DanceMotion USA: the Seán Curran Company of New York; the Trey McIntyre Project from Boise, Idaho; and Rennie Harris Puremovement, a Philadelphia hip-hop dance troupe.

Find more information on the Jazz Tap Ensemble on the group’s website and at DanceMotion USA

Lynn Dally tap dancing on stage (Courtesy of Jazz Tap Ensemble/photo by Rose Eichenbaum)

Lynn Dally, artistic director of the Jazz Tap Ensemble