By Ashabi Rich for The Dance Journal
Trained in tap by the world-renowned, National Heritage Fellowship award winner, legendary virtuoso and Philadelphia native La Vaughn Robinson, artistic director/producer Darrell “Tapmaster D” Williams continues to be instrumental in the revival of tap dancing. Evidenced by the success of his youthful company FOOTWERX, dedication, talent, and discipline have resulted in a multi-generational company of enthusiastic tappers. Using his training as a dancer, actor, choreographer, martial arts master, graphic arts designer, former semi-professional football and soccer player, ex- U.S. Army Sergeant, life coach and Bachelor of Science candidate in Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Williams brought the company’s 23rd production, In the Shadow Recruits, to the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Built around an I Spy, Mission Impossible plot, Recruits is a full-length theatrical production and result of their summer intensive workshop. Intriguingly, the theater, located at Broad and Lombard Streets, is coincidentally located one block north of the historically significant corner of Broad and South Streets. Philadelphia hoofers have been great contributors and influences to the dance art. In the tap dance world, Philly was a “tap Mecca”. In particular, the corner of Broad and South was number one in the city for” busking” (the ability of a performer to “catch the attention of passerby, build a crowd, and then pass the hat”). Fierce competition for the most lucrative location required dancing prowess (Wikipedia). Also historically significant is that one block north of the theater is the location of the University of the Arts where never formally trained Robinson was a Distinguished Professor.
Acts, In the Shadow Recruits, consist of swiftly changing scenes with some connective, informative dialogue to cue the audience; but most of the conversation and acting is done through tap choreography, some individual and group improvisations, all interspersed with other dance form movements from ballet, hip hop, modern, and jazz genres. The backdrop is a changing palette of graphics coordinated with the movement of the plot. The plot involves senior agents played and danced by assistant choreographers and dance veterans D’Andria Williams of Chester, Pa., Matthew Soojian of West Chester, Pa., Brielle Johnson of Media, Pa., and Emily Brong of Telford, Pa. who serve as not only plot characters, but also as solid examples of the level of proficiency and professionalism within the company.
The story revolves around a precious sapphire containing a secret message. The gem is stolen and the senior agents are tasked with training the class of new recruits in counter-intelligence and espionage. There are two rival teams, Colbolt and IMF, whose crème de la crème will be used to identify the shadow recruit who is the security leak. A cast of 34 presents an almost two hour show that involves a lot of dancing guised as athletic skills’ competitions and drills. The drill sergeants put their recruits through the paces and even compete against each other displaying some impressive dance skills. Tapping, by the veterans, is solid, which means that you can hear the distinct rhythms. Tapping, besides needing a floor with great acoustics so as to be heard over an expanse of area, is distinguished by those tappers who can “hit”, that is those who dance “hard and loud in every step” showing “one’s ability to express oneself, to complete a tap sequence, or to say something.” (Savion Glover). Sitting at ground level in the second row front and center, I was able to hear this, more particularly from the vets as individuals and the cast as a group. I’m not sure if the audience further back and in the balcony was able to do the same. Development of that quality lends immeasurable pleasure and appreciation to the listening audience. As well the quality of a relaxed upper body allows for greater expression, follow through and flourish to the tapping phrases. D’Andria Williams and Emily Brong stood out in this regard.
Overall the young people (little ones to teens) displayed a level of concentration and accomplishment that speaks to the value of this artistic discipline. Instilling confidence, poise, expression and joy in our young people is of the utmost importance in a world that is increasingly impersonal and in which one can easily become lost. Enjoyably, we were treated to some tap-offs between Williams and a number of his students from the youngest to the oldest as they demonstrated their tap skills mastery and ability to follow in a call and response of rhythms. We were also treated to a solo from Tapmaster D himself and his wealth of talent. Special guest artist, Steve Pollack, treated us to some strong singing and spy role playing in a café scene with a veteran tapper. I applaud Footwerx for its valuable investment in the future of so many lives. See them at their next production on October 14th at the Arts Bank Theater as they Tap Out Cancer (Raising Breast Cancer Awareness Through Dance).
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