Spring always brings flowers, but in the Bull City, this season also heralds the Cake Walk, Shirley Temple, Slim Slam and other tap moves like the slide and smack when the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble’s show comes to town. Featuring some 40 performers ages 8 to 18, performances take place Saturday and Sunday at the Carolina Theatre.
The ensemble has been putting on annual shows since 1983; Gene Medler started the ensemble in 1982.
The show also features live music by Robbie Link on bass, John Hanks on drums and Mark Wells on piano.
This event is not a recital but rather a show organized by the ensemble’s high school seniors. This show’s title, “In Time,” signifies the history of tap told in three acts.
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This show also features guest artists and Chapel Hill natives Michelle Dorrance, 2015 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and founder of Dorrance Dance, and Elizabeth Burke, founding member (2010-2011) of Dorrance Dance and rehearsal director with the company. Burke performs both days and Dorrance performs on Sunday.
Dorrance and Burke also danced in honor of Medler in 2014 when he received his most recent award, the Tap Grace Award presented by the Vancouver Tap Dance Society.
“N.C Youth Tap Ensemble is built upon knowledge and respect for the dancers and the dances that have come before us,” ensemble member Zoe Foote, a high school senior, said in an email interview. “Gene [Medler,] tells stories of some of the ‘Greats’ and his personal experiences with them,” Foote said. Medler also shows videos of historical tap styles and presents information on the roots of tap such as Irish step dancing and traditional African styles. And he weekly assigns two ensemble members to research historical tap topics and share it with the group at the next rehearsal, Foote added.
In addition to organizing this year’s historically-themed show, the seniors also end the program with their performance of “A Place in Time,” which they choreographed. In it, they address current tap trends as well as possibilities for the future. They were specifically inspired by Carolina Performing Arts’ September presentation of Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Young’s new work, “ETM: Double Down,” in which they performed as well as members of Dorrance Dance. In it, small trigger pads, coupled with a software program and digital audio work station, enabled dancers to create live, electronic music.
“I had been dancing for 14 years and had never imagined that such a performance was possible,” Foote recalled. After the performance, she and fellow NCYTE member Jared Kirkpatrick had met outside UNC’s Memorial Hall and realized that they were both thinking the same thing: “How can we try that?,” Foote said. So, Kirkpatrick had contacted Dorrance and Young to find out how to make the trigger pads used in “ETM: Double Down.” Then, he and his dad made these devices. Then, they and the other seniors had to learn how to make their motions on those pads to create, in real time, their live music track as part of their performance of “A Place in Time,” Foote explained.
When Foote graduates from Needham Broughton High School in Raleigh and heads to George Washington University, Foote said she will carry with her what she’s learned in NCYTE in addition to tap moves, which includes how to be an efficient, effective leader because Medler allows members to have the power to make many of the creative decisions.
“I’ve gained a sense of responsibility for myself and for others because Gene likes to remind us by asking: “Whose company is it?’ Every member knows the correct response: “Mine,” Foote added.
When asked what she had learned from Medler, Burke said, in a phone interview, “What hasn’t Gene Medler taught me? I wake up every day wishing I were regularly in his classes at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill. The way that he educates and teaches his dancers is unparalleled. It was not just about the dance steps. It was always so much more.”
Burke also spoke of Medler’s character. “He’s just the most incredible human being. He has an incredible sense of humor. He’s empathetic.”
Burke was 6 when she first took tap lessons with Medler at The Ballet School of Chapel Hill. The year before, when she was 5, Burke’s mother had taken her and her older sister to see the NCYTE show. Wearing her shiny, black Mary Jane tap shoes, Burke had been tapping around the house. She also liked to watch tapper Savion Glover on Sesame Street and Shirley Temple hoofing it in movies, so her mom had figured she would like the show. Burke added. She did. “My eyes were glued to the stage the whole time. After the show, I told my mother, “I have to do that. Find out how,” Burke recalled.
Looking back, Burke realizes that the quality of that show had drawn her young self to it like a magnet. “I was looking at such a high-level concert of really sophisticated choreography and talent,” Burke added.
After a year of classes with Medler, at age 7, she had auditioned for and made it into the ensemble, where Dorrance was also her teacher early on when Dorrance would periodically return to the ensemble to teach as well as perform. “She’s still a teacher of mine,” Burke added. Burke, who counts Dorrance as a close friend, also admires what Dorrance is bringing to tap. Dorrance has received recognition as an innovator, such as combining tap and modern dance, which is carrying the tap art form into the future. Burke said she also respects Dorrance’s work ethic and the way she cares about people. “She’s a force. She is so driven and so dedicated and willing to do whatever it takes to make something happen. She’s so selfless and generally cares for humanity, the company, her students,“ Burke added.
“I wouldn’t be standing here in this [New York] coffee shop talking to you [by phone] had it not been for Gene and Michelle Dorrance,” Burke said.
GO & DO
WHAT: N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble’s Spring Show
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (April 22), 3 p.m. Sunday (April 23).
WHERE: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham.
TICKETS: To purchase, call 919-560-3030 or visit www.carolinatheatre.org