American Moves: Swing and Tap abound on Houston dance stages

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Tapestry Dance Company

American dance forms dominate the concert stage this February. Theater Under The Stars (TUTS) plans a rousing version of the Broadway hit Swing, while the Jewish Community Center (JCC) celebrates Dance Month with Austin’s outstanding tap company, Tapestry.

Swing, the dansical, is a non-stop dance marathon tracing the history Lindy Hop from its beginnings at the Savoy Ballroom (and other places) in the late 1920s to today. With Mark Stuart Ekstein, a two-time Lindy Hop champion at the helm, you can expect an authentic experience through and through. Ekstein was a 19-year old music composition student at Syracuse University when he first spotted some champion swing dancers at a local bar. “I was blown away,” he remembers. “And I knew I wanted to do it.” He was hooked and had to give it a try. And try he did, joining every group he could find and eventually making his way to New York to study with the pros. Within a year’s time he won his first lindy hop championship in 1999.

When Swing hit Broadway in 1999, he was excited that his passion was finally getting its due on the Broadway stage. “I was disappointed that they didn’t use real swing dancers at first,” Ekstein admits. “But now that I’ve been with the show for a number of years, I see the need for trained dancers; Swing dancers don’t have the muscular strength to get through the show.” He’s been involved in three national tours and several regional productions, first as a dancer and now as co-choreographer with Beverly Durand and assistant director. He’s done a good big of choreographic tweaking to give the show its authentic feel. “There’s something about performing partnering dances that brings the cast together,” says Ekstein. “It makes you come together as a family.” The TUTS production, directed by Marc Robin, has been considerably spruced up by all involved.

Ekstein trains his dancers continually to get a more historical style by showing actual footage of Savoy dancers and other educational opportunities. He also urges them to go out dancing as often as possible and see the real thing. “There’s something about swing dance always touches people,” he says. “The original swing dancers lived through the great depression and World War II.” For Ekstein the spirit of rebirth shines through to audiences. Harold Wheeler’s on-stage 8 piece band—that sounds like 12—also sets the mood.

The partnering demands are big, with numerous lifts and other acrobatic feats. “We need tall men and tiny women,” Ekstein says. “And we have to be very careful about injuries. It’s not an easy show.” Since catching the dance bug at college, Ekstein has been involved with numerous musical productions, including Cats, Miss Siagon, and the feature film, Idlewild. Reactions from audiences are like nothing he has ever seen. “People are jumping out of their seats and dancing back to their cars in the parking lot,” he says. “It’s two hours of pure joy.” Local swing dancers take heart; the Houston Swing Society will be doing a pre-show demonstration on February 2nd which will include audience participation.

Maxine Silberstein, the dance director at the JCC, has always taken an inclusive approach to dance for the winter celebration known as Dance Month. “We go for a broad approach for dance month,” says Silberstein, whose line-up includes modern, folk, ballroom, and the fiery tap dance troupe. “When I heard Tapestry was putting together a historical look at tap I knew it was a match.” Silberstein has had a long association with the company and its director, Acia Gray, so she was thrilled that the timing was right for Dance Month. Gray has been shaping her moving tap museum she calls The Souls of Our Fee: A Celebration of American Tap Dance for over a year now. With a touring grant from the National Endowment for the Arts she’s ready to take the show on the road. The idea is to restage the best rhythm tap masterpieces, from Fred Astaire to The Nicholas Brothers, and create a moving tapestry from the masters to those tapping today. Live jazz music by the Eddy Hobizal Jazz Trio will accompany 18 tapping feet.

The first part will be actual recreations of famous movie routines like the Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly duet from Singing in the Rain. “I’m not asking the dancers to be these great dancers,” says Gray. “The idea is to put the dancers in the style and be able to see it in three dimensions.” The second half will be devoted to demonstrating the work of American masters. Gray has studied with the best, including Charles “Honi” Coles, Jimmy Slide, Buster Brown and others. She in turn has handed the work down to her dancers, as the work travels from generation to generation. Her troupe of versatile dancers also trains in ballet and modern dance. Recently, company member Jason Janas was featured in the January issue of Dance Magazine.

When you ask Gray about the origins of tap, she responds, “It depends on who you talk to. Percussive footwork has been around forever.” Street meetings between Irish and African Americans in the five point region of New York were key in looking at the roots of tap. Irish Step and African Juba both influenced the development of tap. Gray, a former percussionist, sees tap as an inherently musical form. “We are truly listening to our feet as musical instruments,” she says.

Whether it’s been a decade or a day since you donned your tap shoes or burned up the dance floor, February bursts with American dance energy for your enjoyment and education.

Theatre Under the Stars presents Swing from January 30-February 11th, Call 713-558-8887 or visit http://www.tuts.org/.

The Jewish Community Center presents Tapestry Dance Company in The Souls of Our Feet: A Celebration of American Tap Dance on February 3rd and a family show on Feb 4th at 10am. Call 713-551-7225 or visit www.jcchouston.org.

Reprinted from Artshouston.

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