Reflecting the 1930s concept that tap-dancers are musicians, a group of teens--members of the Jazz Tap Ensemble Caravan Project--will be doing the shim-sham shimmy at the Falcon Theatre this weekend.
They will perform contemporary tap-dance and duplicate some of the works of America's foremost tap-dancers, the Nicholas Brothers, known for flashy high jumps and for splits without using their hands.
"The steps in tap-dancing are very basic," said Gail Hooks, managing director of the group. "It's how you are able to master and organize them and articulate your feelings that makes it unique to each individual."
The Jazz Tap Ensemble was formed in 1979 to carry on the traditions of rhythm tap-dancers and features top-level dancers. To give teenage dancers professional experience and the opportunity to perform with jazz musicians, the Caravan Project was formed in 1986.
The dance form evolved from African rhythms and the Irish jig. In New York City in the 1800s, freed slaves living in housing projects with poor Irish immigrants shared pastime activities. And Americans got a new art form: tap-dancing.
Refining rhythmic variations, rhythm tap-dancers were considered percussion musicians. "We do the same rhythms that a drummer can do," said Jerri Lynn Henning, 17, who graduated from the Caravan Project and is an apprentice with the Jazz Tap Ensemble. "Instead of using sticks, I use my feet."
Early tap-dancers looked a lot like Irish cloggers, with a stiff upper body and lightning-fast feet. But when the Nicholas Brothers came along in the 1930s, they added arm movements and made it a full-body dance.
"We reconstructed steps from old [footage] from the 1930s and 1940s of the Nicholas Brothers and taught them to the kids," said Beck Twitchell, master teacher for the Caravan Project. "They had never seen that before."
Along with the historical aspect of their performance, the dancers will scuff up the stage with funky rhythms, waltzes and all types of jazz--slow, upbeat and Latin.
They also do lots of improvising. "That's hard for them," Twitchell said. "They have to be relaxed, focused and listening to the music."
Fayard Nicholas, 85, of Toluca Lake, the surviving member of the Nicholas Brothers, taught a workshop for the Jazz Tap Ensemble and recently saw the Caravan Project perform at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater during a tribute to the brothers.
"I feel like my dance came alive again when I saw those kids performing," said Nicholas, who danced in more than 60 films.
The Jazz Tap Ensemble Caravan Project will perform Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Tickets: $12. Call (818) 955-8101.