International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

Forget top hat and tails: tap dancers of all ages and abilities are now turning up at 'tap jams' to show their nifty moves.

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith
Friday 28 August 2015 14:35 BST
Hoofing: from left, Chloe Arnold, Luke Spring and Jason Samuels Smith in the new film Tap World
Hoofing: from left, Chloe Arnold, Luke Spring and Jason Samuels Smith in the new film Tap World (Yourbren)

Sat upstairs at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho, tucked into a corner, I am leaning as far forward in my seat as I can to catch the detailed footwork happening on stage. Six tap dancers are taking it in turns to mount the large, square-shaped platform made of wood while the drummer-led Michele Drees Trio throws everything from swing to Latin and hip hop beats at the dancers.

They in turn are getting up and showing the crowd and musicians everything they've got, earning whoops of pleasure and shouts of "Yeah!" from the audience as they leap, slide, and hammer their toes and heels across the boards.

"People think of tap as musical theatre or top hat and tails," says Melody Lander, a co-founder of the London Tap Jam held once a month at Ronnie Scott's. "People don't think it's cool or realise that it's all about the rhythm, and that you can dance to any style of music," she says. "That's why we do the Jam, to show people that this is tap, because when people see it they love it."

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This tap dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic, and it's clear the audience is having just as much fun watching it as the dancers are up on stage doing it.

But while this night has been going for some years, seeing people of every age and ability get up and dance, a recent surge in interest in tap beyond the idea of Swing Time and 42nd Street has led to the birth of the UK's first International Tap Festival on our shores.

"Our mums had the idea of doing a festival, and it just grew and grew until it became a reality," says Kate Ivory Jordan, who together with Jamie Spall [both aged just 18] has created the event." The pair proved there is a new appetite to see tap when their hour-long, three-woman show Tap That! won the audience choice awards at the Brighton Fringe Festival earlier this year. "People loved the show we put on, that's why we've got so many people in the Tap Gala," Spall says, referring to the event that will close the festival. "Hopefully we'll have people in the audience who have never seen tap before and will love it."

So what is it about tap dancing that has got people on their toes all of a sudden? The element of fun is an undeniable appeal: "When you're watching it you just want to join in," says Adele Joel, one of the tap dancers who took a turn on the stage at the jam, and who will be performing at the gala. "People from all walks of life want to learn it – one guy I teach is a lawyer, another works with disabled kids," she says. Even journalists enjoy it.

New film Tap World documents the growth of tap globally
New film Tap World documents the growth of tap globally (Yourbren)

"[American tap dancer] Sam Weber has had a hip replacement and that guy still keeps going - and he's getting better as well," he adds, proving that injury need not hinder a life in tap, whether it's a career or a hobby.

One of the festival's big pulls is American dancers Jason Janas and Maud Arnold, regarded as some of the best in the business, and who are part of a new film, Tap World, which documents the growth of tap globally and why it is still thriving today.

"People always say it's a dying art form but it's not at all, it's getting stronger all the time," says Avalon Rathgeb, a tap dancer and one of the main teachers at the festival. She started her own tap company, Old Kent Road, last year, which will also be performing, and she teaches regularly at the tap festivals that have started appearing across Europe over the past five years.

"This gala is going to be a show of just tap dance, and we haven't had that in the UK for a long time. People are going to see different styles and influences, become more exposed to this American art form and be able to see that there's another kind of tap dance out there."

Just don't expect any top hats or tails.

The Brighton Tap Festival runs from 31 August to 2 September

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