When drummer Jerry Kalaf hooked up with the Jazz Tap Ensemble in 1984, more than his musical talents were called into play. The troupe hired someone to teach him the "shim sham"--one of the oldest traditional tap routines, which the ensemble's musicians perform along with the dancers at the end of every show.
Though that might be a strange sight at most dance concerts, it's a logical extension of the philosophy on which this group was built. Jazz music and tap are different sides of the same coin, the company has always maintained.
"Tap dancers, more than modern or ballet dancers, have to think like intuitive, unschooled musicians," says Kalaf, who's also music director of the group. "Essentially, they're playing the drums with their feet."
Angelenos will get a glimpse of those percussive skills at JTE's "Concert Under the Stars," taking place at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater next Sunday. The troupe will present signature pieces such as Eddie Brown's "Doxy" and "Interplay," choreographed for the company by veteran Jimmy Slyde. Also on the program are the West Coast premieres of "Groove," which Gregory Hines created for them, and "Noche," a dance based on Latin rhythms by ensemble co-founder and artistic director Lynn Dally.
The dance company has also organized a weeklong tap festival--the first in the city in nearly two decades. Hines is expected to participate in a weekend of open-to-the-public master classes (Saturday and next Sunday) at Culver City's Conjunctive Points Dance Center, and Cholly Atkins, who worked out moves for Motown's Aretha Franklin and the Temptations, will deliver choreographic pointers. A July 1 performance at the Jazz Bakery is also part of the event, which winds up with "Kids on Tap," a three-day youth workshop.
Twenty years ago, the Jazz Tap Ensemble helped salvage a dying tap tradition and repackaged it for younger audiences. Three modern dancers--Dally, Fred Strickler and Camden Richman--hooked up with three jazz musicians and came up with a program called "Riffs." It premiered in their Venice loft over a barbecue restaurant in January 1979, and the Jazz Tap Ensemble was born.
A conscious effort was made to reach out to old-timers such as Honi Coles, Brown and Harold Nicholas, who were plucked out of clubs and asked to guest-star with the troupe in concert halls traditionally reserved for Paul Taylor or Martha Graham.
"JTE was one of the leaders in getting tap into the concert world--which helped it get accepted as an American art form," says Atkins, 85, who danced with Coles from 1946 to 1971 and is now a Las Vegas-based teacher-choreographer. "The presenters needed to be convinced there was an audience out there. Lynn Dally and a handful of others paid homage to the tap tradition and made us old guys feel we left some footprints in the sand."
Dally, 56, says she regarded these legends as source material and got much more than she gave. "It was a time of rediscovery--seeking out mentors and looking for roots," recalls Dally, a down-to-earth woman with an easy laugh, reminiscing at Conjunctive Points, where the company has been based for the past two years. "We weren't trying to be politically correct, but to show people that tap wasn't limited to Fred Astaire."
Dally and Strickler had studied tap together at Dally's father's studio in Columbus, Ohio, and were dance majors at Ohio State University. She headed for New York, where she studied with Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon and Graham, and at the Joffrey school, before starting Lynn Dally & Dancers. Strickler headed west and performed with Bella Lewitzky before creating Eyes Wide Open Dance Theater. The two companies were both housed at Venice's Pacific Motion dance studios in 1978.
That year, Dally and Strickler approached Richman, a Bay Area dancer also interested in tap. After exchanging steps, the trio decided they had enough repertory to fill half an evening--and determined to create the rest.
"The JTE was unique in bringing together the world of modern dance and rhythm tap," says Sali Ann Kriegsman, president of the Dance Heritage Coalition, who booked the group at the Smithsonian Institution in 1981. "Longtime tap artists used to dance improvisationally in short bursts--five-, seven-, nine-minute routines--but this group choreographed full-evening programs. It also took a medium that relied on individualized expression and created a new kind of ensemble."
Success followed in short order, much to the co-founders' surprise. After performing in their loft for the first year, they lined up some college gigs and were touring internationally by 1982. In 1986, they lined up the Joyce Theater, their first big Manhattan booking. Other highlights include a 1989 Carnegie Hall performance with Hines and a high-profile appearance at the Lyons Biennale de la Dance in 1991. Since then, they've toured extensively in Europe and play a week at the Joyce almost every year.