A Woman’s Tap

Women in Tap: Taps are Talking

There are a lot of tangled branches in the tap-dance tree -- there are jazz, rhythm and show tap, to name a few of the principal limbs -- but Ellie Sciarra's not willing to sort them out. An athletic dancer with more than twenty years in and out of the genre, the Boulder resident says the main reason she taps now is for the sheer joy of it. Besides that, perhaps it's for the novelty of learning to do it well: When Sciarra came up tapping in New York in the Seventies, the style was only just beginning to recover from the throes of popular hibernation. And, besides, it was generally still considered a man's world -- Shirley Temple and Ginger Rogers notwithstanding, most of the hardworking chorus-line women who'd tapped in high heels behind the male stars during tap's vaudevillian heyday remained anonymous, pretty faces with long, incredibly strong gams and the tenacious ability to hang in there, no matter what.

It's for those women -- and the ones who've followed in their footsteps in modern times -- that Sciarra is staging Women in Tap: Taps Are Talking in Boulder this weekend and next. The culmination of two years of collecting oral histories, creating dramatic choreography and music and working with some of contemporary tap's biggest female components (as well as a few from the perservering generations), the dance/theater performance in part does for the history of women in tap exactly what Savion Glover did for African-American history in Bring in Da Noise Bring in Da Funk. But it will also have a flavor all its own, combining humor, style and a thoughtfully feminine kind of drop-dead dancing with the history lesson.

Sciarra, who in addition to teaching tap and running her own massage studio is pursuing a Women's Studies degree, thinks women bring something unique to the genre that's lost in the breathless, staccato attack of such ensembles as the all-male Tap Dogs crew. One of her goals in creating Women in Tap has been to discover exactly what that something is. "Tap is very hard and aggressive," she says. "You have to compete. I wanted to discover: What is the feminine side of that?" Part of it, she notes, is pause. "Women bring breath to tap," Sciarra says. "Hopefully, there's something that comes with breath -- a kind of sensuality, a female quality. I think it allows the audience to breathe." In that spirit, the performance opens with a piece scored entirely with sounds of breathing, recorded with help from local musician Mark McCoin.

But don't expect to be lulled. "I do one piece about anger, and it's very driving," Sciarra says. "People will not be able to breathe in that piece. I'm like a maniac -- I saw some videotapes of myself, and I wanted to say 'Will you just calm down?'" In addition, a Thirties-throwback piece in heels injects humor, and Chicago phenom Idella Reed contributes her more fluid but no less mercurial style to a contrasting duet with Sciarra. And veteran dancer/choreographer Brenda Bufalino contributes what Sciarra calls a veritable work of genius. "It's a tap dancer's dream dance," she gushes. "She does polyrhythms and counter-rhythms that overlay each other like an orchestra. It's not exact every time, and that's the real beauty of it."

The highlight, however, might just turn out to be 76-year-old Denverite Harriet Butcher, a wartime dancer/singer who spryly portrays her friend, onetime tap partner and a bit of a legend in Denver's African-American society, the late Delno Polk Bailey. The show is dedicated to Bailey, who died not long after Sciarra met and interviewed her. "One thing about her: She made me cry," Sciarra says of Bailey. "She was sick and recovering from cancer in Texas at the time, but she just had all kinds of things, and nobody had ever asked her. Oh, my God: What it must have been like to go on the road at twelve with your grandmother, driving in a car on the black theater circuit and never being allowed to dance on same bill as a white person."

Butcher thinks she must have first met Bailey, a community-minded beauty with a mane of knee-length hair, at Whittier Elementary School, where a group of kids would congregate during recess to try out new dance steps. "One would know the steps, and the others would just fall in," she remembers. "It was fun for everyone to learn to step together. But I thought it was too expensive -- taps weren't cheap, you know, from a child's viewpoint, and of course, I was too young to know what the Depression was. Then, I never pursued it any further because of my build -- I was not all rounded off like I thought I should be. I loved to sing, though," Butcher says. "I had a fair voice -- what they called a sweet voice; you know, with not much belt to it. I participated in shows at places like the Roxie on Five Points and Cole Junior High."

Butcher returned to dancing after she retired, forming the geriatric Park Hill Tappers in recent years and performing in the community. Of her erstwhile career with the Tappers, she says, "It's nice to say to folks, 'Do what you liked to do when you were young.' You can't be twenty and skinny all your life -- after the last number, we all blab out our ages, and it's a good way to get an extra hand." Though she frets about how well she'll do dancing in Women in Tap, Butcher's still a gamer: "It's a pleasure to be working with such heavyweights -- I mean, these girls are serious dancers. I didn't know a woman could dance like Idella does. Me, I'm there probably as a historic character."

But, Butcher points out, what goes around comes around, and she's glad to hop on the bandwagon. "I think the conceiving of this show is very timely," she says. "People are a little sick of the fad music, and they want to go back to the basic, good stuff. In fact, I just heard our finale song, which is almost as old as me, on the radio yesterday -- 'It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing.'"

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