Company taps into the rhythm of New Orleans _lowres

Photo by Michelle DeMontluzin -- In “Neutral Ground,” the latest production from Gulf Coast Theatre on Tap, the sounds of New Orleans and rhythm tap collide on stage.

“I do think it’s tap’s time, no pun intended,” said Heidi Malnar, artistic director of the Gulf Coast Theatre on Tap.

Last year, Malnar founded a new dance company in the birthplace of jazz to revive tap traditions and promote “America’s indigenous dance form,” with an emphasis on rhythm tap.

In the late 1800s, people of Irish and African descent gathered in the dance halls of New York’s Five Points District and created an exuberant new dance form by combining parts of the shuffle and the jig. Motion pictures brought tap into the mainstream in the 1920s and ’30s.

When vaudeville was at the height of popularity, the grand theaters along Canal Street showcased variety acts, comedy and tap dancing. But with a shift to modern dance in the ’50s and ’60s, tap largely went out of style.

“Tap didn’t really die. It just went underground with the music,” Malnar said.

The two main distinctions in tap are Broadway and rhythm. Broadway tap emphasizes presentation and spectacle, while “rhythm tap is essentially focused on the rhythm that you are making with your feet. The tap dancer is a musician along with the other musicians. There’s also a really strong emphasis on improvisation in rhythm tap,” Malnar said.

The improvisational quality of rhythm tap comes from having evolved alongside the development of jazz; the two are syncopated arts that naturally play off each other.

In “Neutral Ground,” the company’s latest production, the sounds of New Orleans and rhythm tap meet onstage. A seven-piece jazz ensemble and four vocalists will accompany 32 tap dancers from the junior, preprofessional and professional dance companies that make up the Gulf Coast Theatre on Tap.

In this New Orleans music revue, the genres range from jazz, R&B and soul to Mardi Gras Indian chants and marching band drumlines.

The show will open with a medley of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and “Bourbon Street Parade,” followed by “Iko Iko,” a song about busking, the songs of Louis Armstrong, Galactic, Irma Thomas, Rebirth Brass Band and Ernie K-Doe, among others. It closes with a suite of Louis Prima songs.

Malnar moved to New Orleans a few years ago and was surprised to find that although there were world-class tap dancers living here, there was no organized company.

With an ever-thriving jazz scene in New Orleans, creating a tap company here just made sense.

“With Gulf Coast Theatre, we are responding to the amazing creative world and magic of New Orleans, and we’re keeping tap current by not doing the same thing over and over again,” Malnar said. For example, an a cappella dance piece interprets the sound of a Mardi Gras parade’s marching band drumline with tap steps.

Malnar’s vision for the company is twofold, giving equal weight to performance and education. The company offers community classes for all levels at NOLA Spaces.

“We are trying to — in gratitude and celebration of the city — offer what the rhythmic dancer can give back to community in the way of entertainment and education,” Malnar said.

In addition to running the Gulf Coast Theatre on Tap and choreographing local productions, Malnar teaches tap as part of the dance curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

“Here at NOCCA, kids get excited about tap dancing. They really look forward to coming and working with the material. You could say that tap is trending right now, but what I find is that people can latch onto a part of it, whether it’s the music, the presentation or the rhythm of it, and the communal sense of dancing that makes it different from other dance forms,” Malnar said.

“In our show, there is the rhythmic component that people connect to just being humans with a heartbeat and also the pure joy you see the dancers having onstage. I hope that no one is sitting still in their seat by the end of the show,” Malnar said.