RAT-A-TAT-TAP As Tap Dogs stomp their way around the world in ragged jeans and scuffed work boots, they're changing the look of dance.

February 05, 1997|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

Clickety clack, shimmy sham sham, a-one and a-two, tea for two, and shuffle off to Buffalo.

Classic American tap.

WHAMMA-BAM-BANG STOMP-

STOMP-STOMPETTY-STOMP-STOMP CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-HEY!

Australian for tap.

Like the steel town that they hail from, this is tap at industrial strength. From their 5 o'clock shadows to their ripped blue jeans and work boots, the Tap Dogs are distinctly a breed apart from the top-hat-white-tie-and-tails school of tap.

Started just two years ago, the six-man group has been filling theaters around the world with its heavy metal tap. The group opened at the Mechanic Theatre last night, and performs through Sunday.

Like fellow traveling performers Stomp and Riverdance, not to mention spiritual brethren like "Rent" and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk" on Broadway, Tap Dogs have broadened the traditional dance- and theater-going audience with a downtown, street sensibility.

"I looked out in the audience one night, and in one row I saw a priest, a drag queen, a grandmother and grandfather with their grandchildren," said Tap Dog Darren Disney.

The group was created by Dein Perry, also one of the dancers, who as a choreographer has won successive Olivier Awards (the British version of the Tony). With his bristle-cut hair, construction-worker body and man-of-few-words demeanor, Perry sets the style for his fellow Dogs.

It's not just a pose: Perry was once a machinist in his native Newcastle, a coal-mining, steel-producing town about 100 miles from Sydney.

His first love, though, was tap dancing, something he began studying as a 4-year-old. He eventually gave up his machinist job and moved to Sydney to pursue the footlights. He won roles in the usual fare, "Man of La Mancha" and "My Fair Lady," as well as the lead in "42nd Street." He broke out, though, in "Hot Shoe Shuffle," the first all-Australian musical to play London's West End. He performed as well as choreographed the show, winning his first Olivier in 1995. His second, the following year, was for Tap Dogs.

Tap Dogs emerged out of his extensive dance work in television, video and stage. Perry began gathering friends he had studied tap with as a youngster and dancers he knew from various shows. Rather than the barn that Andy Hardy was always using for his productions, Perry drew from his industrial background: A television station asked him to make short tap-dance films to use as filler material, and he used a shed filled with old tools as a location. Perry drew inspiration for his group's name, in part, from a similarly down and dirty source, Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

The troupe has won both critical acclaim and huge crowds, and has spawned two other groups, which are currently touring the United Kingdom and Australia while the original Dogs are busy in the states.

The Tap Dogs arrived in Baltimore yesterday, a bit sleepy-eyed from staying up late watching movies the night before, Perry said.

"It's been hectic," Perry said. "Many times we do eight shows in a week, and then get up early Tuesday to travel on to the next city."

There, they do the publicity necessary for emerging acts: A short version of their performance. Interviews. A few impromptu lessons for TV reporters to follow along for the benefit of their cameras. A mini-class for student dancers who have shown up with their own tap shoes in hand.

They have the occasional lingo gaps. A teacher is explaining to dancer Chris Horsey the sorts of steps her students can do. "What's a turbo turn?" Horsey asks politely. "What's a six-beat cramp roll?" Even their shoes are different: The American students have the usual glove-tight lace-ups with taps. Horsey, like the other Dogs, is wearing heavy Blundstone boots -- a sort of Australian version of Doc Martens -- with tap cleats.

While their draw is the wonderful visual idea of lunky, hunky men on taps, make no mistake: These are professional dancers. Their footwork is breathtakingly speedy and sharp, the choreography inventive. While the show is all dance and no dialogue, with just six performers, characters emerge.

Most are veterans of traditional tap dance -- the "42nd Streets" and the "Me and My Gals," but felt there must be something else out there for them.

"Being in the chorus, you can't be yourself. It's all in a line," dancer Ben Read says. "That's the beauty of this. Everyone's an individual."

Read offers these capsules of who's who in Tap Dogs:

Slim, curly-mopped Chris Horsey is "a bit of a funky sort, with a smooth style."

The burly, broad-chested Drew Kaluski is "rough and tumble."

Nathan Sheens, in the turned-around baseball cap, is the "loud one who gets away with murder."

Darren Disney, whose lank hair falls into his eyes, "would be like the showy one."

Which leaves Read himself, and Perry, who at 21 and 33 respectively are the youngest and oldest dancers, and thus do a sort of student-teacher routine.

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