The art & world of tap

Vancouver is front and centre

by Bruce Mason

World tap dancer Travis Knights, performing at the VITF, was the featured dancer in the 2010 Olympics opening ceremonies in Vancouver.

For seven decades, hundreds of thousands of people have danced on a thousand square feet of sprung maple at 2775 East Hastings Street. In a city that has gutted its cultural heritage, small venues and rehearsal spaces, the ongoing story of the local tap dance community is world-class classy. The bottom line and foundation: That glorious-sounding old dance floor with a shiny future.

When hundreds of dancers “Tap it Out” for free at 700 Granville Street on Sunday August 31, 5 PM, there’s more than enough cause for celebration to share – the city is now universally recognized as a hub and hotbed for the art form, renowned for the Vancouver International Tap Festival (August 28-31), which, in its 15th year, is the finest event of its kind in the world, eclipsing New York, LA, London and Chicago.

The programs and community outreach of the non-profit Vancouver Tap Dance Society (VTDS) are enviable; its activities include saving a beloved, irreplaceable studio, the home-away-from-home that houses the only dance floor dedicated to tap on the continent, while also meeting the space needs of more than 10 arts groups.

First, forget everything you think you know about the enduring and evolving art form of tap dancing. Suspend disbelief. Shuck the stereotypes. Admit that, occasionally, you wouldn’t mind hoofing a buck and wing or shuffle yourself.

Indelibly etched black and white flashback images of Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson might dance through your mind when you think tap. It is the most musical dance form, the floor, an instrument, as well as a blank canvas, on which to craft complex, rhythmic excitement and sound, highly accessible to all. But its artists spend years studying and perfecting the essential intricacies of past masters, improvising at the highest level of creativity, striving for an individually expressive sound, while craving hardwood that has been intensely, but lovingly, played on and aged like some old Strat-like violin or Pre-War Martin guitar.

Tap has moved on, big-time, embracing Hip-Hop and World Music and embraced by folks who want to Moon Walk like Michael, emulate the ubiquitous, unreal, televised dance contests or add some innovative new sparks from an explosion on YouTube. Tap is hot, its flame re-ignited, the torch being passed on by rapidly growing numbers of dancers, fans and assorted aficionados, world-wide.

Back in the 50’s, on her way home from elementary school, Sas Selfjord – now VTDS executive director and festival producer – pressed her nose against the window of the wildly popular Evelyn Ward Academy of Dance and dreamed of walking through the doors. She was drawn to join in the joyful and magnetic activity that was so close, on the other side of the glass wall, yet so far from her childhood reach and grasp. Selfjord longed to learn the exciting, unmistakable and mesmerizing steps and combinations echoing onto the street – to make music with her feet, to tap dance.

She would translate the dream into a vision and then a reality, learn other complex steps in business and finance, choreograph new moves and form a non-profit society (in 1995) of like-minded, highly motivated die-hards and newcomers. They not only wanted their kids to tap dance, they also wanted to pick up where they themselves left off, perhaps disappointed at never having had an opportunity. Vancouver’s tap community required a headquarters to begin, among other things, taking tubs of dance shoes into schools and establishing scholarships for those who couldn’t afford classes.

Evelyn Ward was a legend in Vancouver’s past who shared this passion for dance. At age 16, she had rented a basement and offered tap lessons for 25 cents an hour, making enough to pay her way through the UBC. Then in the early 40s, she bought the plot of land at Slocan and Hastings streets to build herself a dance studio with two residential suites.

For decades, until well into her 80s, she taught tens of thousands of students at the Evelyn Ward Academy of Dance, including majorettes who led the PNE and Easter Day parades for 40 years and the generations of performers at Theatre Under the Stars, in Stanley Park, the Kitsilano Showboat and Star-Lit Follies recitals at the Orpheum, Queen Elizabeth and Centennial (North Vancouver) theatres.

The fiery, energetic, child-loving dancer (whose married name was Dalton and sometimes spelled her name with an ‘e’) was recognized when the city paid tribute to her role in the arts by declaring May 25, 2003, “Evelyne Ward Day.” There was no doubt who was being honoured or why. For 60 years, Ward had instilled a sense of confidence, self-esteem and responsibility into an inestimable number of young dancers.

Selfjord’s society also started in church basements or any other spaces it could afford to establish satellite tap classes. Making a leap of faith in the mid-90’s, when the octogenarian Ward was closing her doors, VTDS leased the space and created its own academy, this time inviting the best in the world to share that floor and their artistry.

“I was 40 years old before I finally strapped on some shoes and took classes,” Sas recalls. “In 2011, when our leased studio went on the market, we didn’t want to leave the neighbourhood and couldn’t find or afford any other space to satisfy the insatiable demand and need. Of course, there was that floor, every pore of wood endlessly pounded by metal. It embodies our mission to preserve tap and raise awareness.

“It seemed inevitable that our beloved studio was about to become a paint store or pizza place, until we we reached out into the community,” adds Selfjord. “An anonymous donor stepped up to the plate. And Vancity got involved – a tremendous source of real support, both financially and in presenting opportunities. It’s a struggle, but it’s meant to happen and each step forward is inspiring to everyone involved at every level, dancers, volunteers and our sponsors.”

“We really wanted to see them succeed,” said Vancity account manager Jenn McGinn, “and it was a privilege to make it happen.”

The world’s most in-demand tap dancer and troupe – New York’s Michelle Dorrance and Dorrance Dance (August 30, 8PM, Norman Rothtsein Theatre) – headlines the Vancouver International Tap Festival. It also includes more than 20 international tap masters as faculty and mentors, staging seven world-class presentations, a gala unveiling of the Tap Grace Awards to key players in VTDS success, week-long intensives, residencies, 60 master classes and show-stopping presentations by the four top youth ensembles in North America: New York, North Carolina, Calgary and Vancouver.

And the free, grand finale, Tap it Out, of course. Why not consider tap dancing through the bad news and our endangered future? And we haven’t mentioned that it is the ultimate workout for all ages. You’re in the right place and everything you need to know is posted at Call 604-253-0293 or be welcomed in person at 2775 East Hastings.

five female tap dancer in a row
The TapCo Ensemble

Welcome to the top of tap

“I was three in the 50’s, when my mother’s carried me through the door,” recalls Mary-Lou Brien. “Getting a gold star on my tap shoe was the first step in a life-long dance career.

“I returned to that sweet little welcoming building and its glorious floors decades later,” adds Brien, VTDS artist and program director and director of the youth ensemble TapCo, which has performed for several hundred thousand people. “The quality of faculty drew me back. No one in Vancouver has to travel to be inspired and mentored by the best in the world.”

Like many, Suzy Birstein danced as a child, but dropped out in high school, opting for a career as a visual artist. “I didn’t want to be an object of art and don’t like solo performance. As an instructor at Arts Umbrella, I watched tap classes and caught the bug again, wanting the exercise and artistic expression.

‘”I take two or three classes a week and dance with Heart and Soul, the adult VTDS performance ensemble. The sense of community and group support keep me involved; so does the fact that tap works so well with contemporary music, especially Hip-Hop and World music, Birstein says.” See how tap figures into her art at

Veteran Vancouver Sun reporter Karen Gram was walking past 2775 East Hastings, with her daughter Sophie, who at age 5 had just had a bad experience in a community centre ballet class. “There is nothing pretentious here; VTDS is an antidote to corporatization; performance is valued far above competition and there is no discrimination over age and ability” says Gram, now chair of the VTDS board of directors.

“It‘s a slog and constant struggle, but we‘re saving our heritage and we‘ve stayed in the neighbourhood, planning for our future, long-term, cleaning out the basement to meet the needs of the community and to create more space for art in Vancouver. Everyone is welcome to become involved,” she adds.

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

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