Although Heidi Malnar has studied classical ballet and has “lots of respect for it,” she leans more toward what she calls “the noisier side” of the dance medium. More specifically, tap dancing.
An Emmy Award-winning artistic director from Chicago, Malnar arrived in New Orleans about five years ago and carved out her niche in the city’s thriving dance community. She founded Gulf Coast Theatre on Tap and, with the hoofers from her company, she has staged four critically acclaimed productions over the past two years.
Thursday through Sunday, Theatre on Tap will reprise “Hoofing for Heroes: A Tap Dancing Tribute to America’s Armed Forces,” a production it premiered before a full house at the National World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen on Memorial Day 2015.
Twenty-two dancers from the New Orleans area will tap out nearly two dozen standards from the Great American songbook, patriotic songs and dance scenes from classic films.
The dancers will be accompanied by a seven-piece jazz ensemble. Ainsley Matich is the music director.
Malnar choreographed or restaged most of the individual performance numbers and she dances in more than a half-dozen of them.
This year’s “Hoofing for Heroes” performances will be staged at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where Malnar teaches tap dancing. Portions of the proceeds will benefit the Wounded Warriors Project, and admission is free to all active and retired military personnel.
The performances coincide with National Tap Dance Day, May 25, the birthdate of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), a World War I veteran and troop entertainer who is one of the pioneers of modern tap dancing.
“None of us would be doing any of this studying or tapping had it not been for everything he (Robinson) did,” Malnar said.
A self-described “army brat,” she grew up in a military family and has been studying dance since the age of 3 — especially tap. She also watched many of the tap dancing films that starred Robinson, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers duo.
“You could definitely say there was a connection between military life and tap dancing for me,” Malnar said, adding that tap was very popular during the two World Wars and the years in between. “Many of our greatest entertainers served in the armed forces or entertained the troops with their performances, and I admire them for it.”
“This show is my way of giving back and saying thank you to the men and women of the armed forces for their service,” Malnar said.
“Hoofing for Heroes” encapsulates many facets of what authorities now consider to be the Golden Age of film, theatrical dance, songwriting and big band swing music. The dancers will tap to melodies made famous by such composers and lyricists as Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Billy Strayhorn, Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields, Cy Coleman and others.
Some of the dance routines were originally choreographed by Robinson, Kelly, Astaire, Charles “Honi” Coles, Charles “Cholly” Atkins and members of The Copasetics, a tap group founded in Robinson’s memory.
The show will open with the national anthem, then segue into a tap accompaniment to “Reveille,” the traditional Army morning wake-up call. This will be followed by “Cadence,” in which the tappers simulate the sounds of a regiment marching. Malnar dances in both numbers.
The remaining 11 numbers in Act I primarily are dances to classic songs from films of the 1920s through the early 1950s, including “Take the A-Train,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Ballin’ the Jack” and others.
There also will be re-creations of memorable tap dance sequences from films such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which troupe members Ross Quinn and Aaron Richert duplicate the “Moses Supposes” duet made famous by Kelly and O’Connor.
Act II will feature dances to a trio of Andrews Sisters hits, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets” and renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Theatre on Tap’s featured vocalist, Arsene Delay, a member of the Boutte family of performing artists.
The show will conclude with a “Service Salute” featuring John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” and the official songs of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.