REVIEW: Tap Team Two: A Smorgasbord of Philadelphia Rhythms

By Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Sitting in the last row of the crowded Starlight Ballroom in north Philly on Saturday night, I couldn’t help but think of the word “smörgåsbord.”  This was rather unfortunate, seeing as I was there to review a show and not a new restaurant, but the evening’s fare, Philadelphia Rhythms starring Robert Burden’s Tap Team Two and nearly two dozen independent artists, was just as varied, and just as peculiar, as the very best Swedish buffet.

The program began with two rather long tap/rap sets performed by Marcus Carl Franklin and Justin Ballasy.  Franklin charmed the crowd like a modern Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, dropping in and out of full jazz splits with the same easy nonchalance that made the Nicholas Brothers famous, whereas Ballasy took a more hard-hitting approach.  Dressed in purple skinny jeans and a pair of black and silver tap shoes, he danced five consecutive solos, pausing numerous times at the request of the audience to adjust the microphone and again to ask for a bottle of water.  His taps were crystal clear, and the boy can do more with a shuffle pullback than most tappers can with an entire arsenal of steps, but in a venue with poor sight lines and lousy acoustics, one hopes that his upper body will eventually catch up to his feet.

By the time Tap Team Two finally took the stage it was nearly 11:30pm.  (And this after two poetry readings,  a rather impassioned but out of place performance by Christian rapper Nick Wilson, a variety of musical acts and a bizarre plug made by Will Smith the elder—the city’s most famous father since the eighteenth century—for his new book.)  By then, the crowd had begun to thin but the company’s classic “Opening Number” shook things up.  Dressed in colored Tap Team Two t-shirts, the dancers stomped and clapped their way across the stage, borrowing steps from some of taps most beloved routines and ending in a series of Burden’s signature jumps: one foot straight out in front and the other bent, like a funk-i-fied Irish step dancer.

The dancers paddle rolled like rain on a tin roof in “Chance Meetings” and sailed effortlessly through Buster Brown’s “Laura,” nailing the repeated triple stomps that intersect perfectly with the score in Brown’s original choreography.  Burden’s son eventually took the stage with a dozen or so unnamed student dancers for a meditation on the broken relationship (complete with a unexpected cannon of old school Broadway jazz moves) and six company dancers performed a new work in an inventive, if at times awkward, pairing of three men, three women and a handful of chairs.

The evening concluded with an improvisatory tribute to Philadelphia’s own LaVaughn Robinson and a tri-part performance of the traditional Shim Sham Shimmy: the original, the Philadelphia, and the “new”—a metaphor for Philadelphia Rhythms and perhaps for the state of the tap community in general.

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist.  Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.