Tapping into 20th anniversary

By HermineBloom

As the organization’s name suggests, Chicago Human Rhythm Project was founded to celebrate the history of tap dance—the African and Irish roots of the art form—and, as founder and director Lane Alexander puts it, existing as a perfect expression of the grander, American experience of cultural collisions.

“In some cases, the sparks that fly off are actually positive, and tap dance is one of those positive outcomes from the collision,” Alexander said. “That’s why it’s called the Human Rhythm Project and not the Chicago Tap Presenter or Tap Fest Chicago, because there’s a social mission, which is really to build a bridge between diverse individuals and communities through the shared practice and appreciation of rhythm.”

What once started as a tap dance summer festival in 1990 at the Gus Giordano Dance Center in Evanston, Ill., with a single performance at Northwestern University, has evolved into a year-round presenter of concerts, education events and community outreach programs. This year marks CHRP’s 20th anniversary as an organization. The plan is to celebrate on April 27 at Katerina’s, 1920 W. Irving Park Road, with performances by jazz musician Jivay Tellis Nayak, Tim Davis, members of resident tap group BAM, Kristie Burris, Heather Brown, Jessica Chapuis and young tap dancers who are recipients of CHRP’s yearly scholarship.

The fundraising event is being held to support the Leo Harris Tap Scholarship Program, which was increased from $15,000 to $20,000 this year, to honor 20 years of existence. The scholarship program translates into either a $500 or $1,000 tuition waiver for an intensive tap dancing program with renowned tap dance instructors, Alexander explained.

Chicago Human Rhythm Project hosts a major public presentation quarterly and organizes after-school tap dance programs at Chicago Public Schools for aspiring young tap dancers.

“We’ve seen young people who’ve gone through the program for three or four consecutive years, grow up, become life-long friends,” Alexander said. “[It’s] people who wouldn’t necessarily have ever met each other if it weren’t for their love of tap dance and the ability to study together.”

Though Alexander realizes budget constraints for CPS is nothing new, he said providing arts education has become an important focus for cultural organizations such as CHRP.

Since 1995, 39-year-old tap dancer Martin Dumas has taught classes through CHRP at the Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts,

for example.

More recently, Dumas has worked as an associate arts director of sorts to help facilitate their quarterly tap dance events and additional workshops. Watching his students grow is the most rewarding feeling, he said.

“It opened a lot of doors in that these students are privy to training that they definitely wouldn’t have got any other way with top level dancers and instructors,” Dumas said. “You can’t beat what you can’t see and giving children the role models and the actual tangible examples, they say, ‘OK, I can do this. He or she does it, so why can’t I?’”

One success story is 20-year-old Columbia student Nico Rubio. The performing arts management major recalls listening to his sister and her friends talk about tap dance in his mom’s carpool at age 10.

“After a while, I was able to answer people’s questions about tap just from the stories I would hear,” Rubio said.

Now, he takes tap classes, teaches tap classes throughout the city four to five times a week through CHRP and hopes to teach at their summer festival. Rubio has also earned scholarships through the organization, which helped him pursue his love of tap dance.

“Some students may see how advanced I am, but they still see I’m taking classes and there’s no ego involved because I’m still open to learn,” Rubio said. “And then they’re still open to learn [as a result].”

In the fall, he plans to start a Columbia-based tap dance club called Columbia Tap Club, or CTP, partly because tap dance as an art form doesn’t get the respect it deserves, he said.

As a tap dancer for 22 years, Alexander shares a similar sentiment, which is one of the initial reasons why CHRP was founded.

“Almost every dance program in the U.S. is dedicated to contemporary dance or ballet,” Alexander said. “Tap classes can be found, but usually in very limited amounts and with very limited goals.”

Regarded as folk art or street art, tap dance was being practiced 150 years ago but was never treated like ballet, which was an art form that originated from the French courts, Alexander explained.

Although, after 20 years of education and community outreach, CHRP continues to honor tap dance’s rich history and spread appreciation. The sheer growth of the organization is a testament to their success.

“The big vision is to have a cultural center and that means education space, administrative space, performance space all devoted to the practice to American tap and contemporary percussive art,” Alexander said.

On April 27, CHRP will celebrate their 20th anniversary at Katerina’s, 1920 W. Irving Park Road, from 6 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. For all other information, visit ChicagoTap.org.