Still loving tap dancing, alums gather for ‘Homecoming’ show

Nov. 28, 2013 @ 12:24 PM

At most homecomings, people generally bring food to share. But when a group of more than 40 people come home this time, they’ll bring only their shoes. Make that tap shoes. 

These alumni from the Chapel Hill-based NC Youth Tap Ensemble join the 38 current members, age 9 to 17, for the “Homecoming” grand finale of the ensemble’s 30th Anniversary Season. The event takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday at Kenan Theatre at UNC’s  Center for Dramatic Arts in Chapel Hill.

Three of those alumni -- Whitney Goodman, Zans McLachlan and Elizabeth Burke -- spoke recently about the show and experiences in the ensemble. McLachlan is a charter member, having joined at age 10 in 1983 when ensemble founder/artistic director Gene Medler formed the group. Goodman joined at age 10 in 1991 and Burke started at 7 in 1999. The three Chapel Hill residents stayed in the ensemble until they graduated from high school.

The show opens with first-year ensemble dancers leading all of the alumni in “Coles’ Stroll,” which pays homage to tap dance great Charles “Honi” Coles. “You walk out in rhythm to the music and every 32 counts, you add something to the walk,” McLachlan said.

About two hours later, the evening ends with all the dancers -- more than 80 -- in the Shim Sham.

“I’ve never been in a group that large,” McLachlan said. “If everyone stays on the beat, it will sound like one person -- one loud, large person.” Performed to “Take the A-Train,” this dance embodies the motto: “If you can walk, you can dance,” Goodman said. “It’s like the tap dance national anthem. It’s the first thing we learn,” Burke added.

Favorites from years past comprise much of the show.

McLachlan and Joe Mohar include other alumni in numbers they used to do together 10 years ago. They’ll include the 1983 “Hoofin,” one of Medler’s first numbers for the troupe. This dance quotes moves from some of the great hoofers from the past including Charles “Honi” Coles, Bunny Briggs and Eddie Brown.

Goodman named “Last Chance to Dance” from 1999 as a past favorite she’ll perform, with others, in this show. “A lot of it comes back. We really worked and honed those performances,” Goodman added.

Burke claims 100 percent recall of the 2002 “Cut Tide,” choreographed by ensemble alum Michelle Dorrance, because Burke performed it for eight years with the ensemble. Learning the unusual rhythms of the music, “Philadelphia Freedom” by The Philadelphia Express, initially proved challenging but she’s always enjoyed the solos in it because she gets a chance to improvise. She calls Dorrance a mentor, role model and big sister. There’s a 12-year age gap so they were never in the ensemble at the same time. But Dorrance would come back on a regular basis to work and perform with the ensemble. And, when Dorrance formed her own company, Dorrance Dance, in 2010, she asked Burke to be in it.

Goodman and McLachlan have also continued to dance professionally in the Chapel Hill- based Footnotes, a non-profit, professional, adult tap troupe formed in 2002 by Mimi Benjamin and Robin Vail. This past April, Goodman and McLachlan took over as co-directors of the troupe and continue to dance. Goodman also teaches tap at Ninth Street Dance Studio.

All profess a love for tap that continues to this day. McLachlan recalls how his parents signed him up at age 8 for lessons with Medler in order to channel his foot-tapping tendencies. “At school, I’d be tapping constantly underneath my desk,” he said.

Before they go onstage Saturday, some alumni will, no doubt, encourage each other with a good luck saying specific to tap. Earlier this year, Dorrance said that instead of saying “Break a leg,” the theater version of good luck, tappers say, “Hold your screws,” a reference to the screws that attach the metal taps to their shoes.

McLachlan knows full well the importance of doing just that. He still remembers the time when he was about 14 and performing with the ensemble in Raleigh. “In the middle of the dance I realized my screws were loose. One of my toe taps flew off my shoe and landed in front of the audience,” he said. “It’s important to check your screws.”

For the Homecoming show, he plans to bring extra screws just in case.