Sweating to the Aussies

Tap Dogs -- flinging sweat and flipping skirts as it arrives in Houston this weekend to wind down its U.S. tour -- has been lauded for reinventing tap dancing, for making tap down and dirty and, perhaps most of all, for making tap very, very male. So male, in fact, that Tap Dogs makes you wonder just where all the sexual energy is directed. Featuring a group of well-built, exclusively male dancers outfitted in construction boots, tank tops and shorts, Tap Dogs is a working-class show with cross-gender appeal -- lots of noise mixing with lights, flying sparks and plenty of tap dancing action.

Launched in Australia in early 1995, the show has been compared to the percussive Stomp in terms of noise and energy. The reason is obvious: Like Stomp, Tap Dogs blends production elements -- in this case troughs of water, drum machines and multiple layers of scaffolding -- with streetwise dance. What choreographer Dein Perry has not done, though, is reinvent tap. Instead, he's loosened the form's traditionally stiff upper body and allowed performers to cultivate their own flair, as well as added new surfaces on which to tap. More important, Perry's Blundstone-booted troupe has created momentum in an art form that, in the late '80s in Los Angeles and again in the '90s in New York City, lingered briefly on the edge of choreographic breakthrough. But unless you were glued to your TV, it's not likely you noticed the change in tap. Indeed, the widest exposure that new tap had in America during the boom was a solo performance by a kid in a McDonald's commercial -- a meager recognition of a fundamental change in a style of dancing with a long, and fairly distinguished, history. And it wasn't until last year that Broadway, the traditional tap hub, found new blood in the form with Savion Glover's hit show, Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk.

Perry kept up with the mainstream American dance exports -- awards shows and film -- but he found little tap dancing there. Not that contributing to the history of tap particularly mattered to him; he wanted something new, something that didn't use familiar swing or jazz music. The lack of dance opportunity in Australia -- where, as he puts it, a choreographic career means you spend a good deal of time teaching -- led him to experiment and build on the style that eventually became a blockbuster touring production. As he tapped away in Newcastle, an industrial town north of Sydney, Perry realized he wanted to do a show that would draw a younger audience to the percussive music of metal taps. Where the new American tap has tended to be slick and technical, Perry's tap is gritty with raw energy.

The rough-hewn look of Tap Dogs goes deeper than the costuming: Perry gathered most of his company from the blue collar working men of his hometown. Perhaps because of its technical difficulty, tap appealed to the strapping blue-collar boys, not to mention that it has a pleasing ability to make a good deal of noise. Leaving behind construction jobs, the six-member company hit the road to find that while touring was a good way to see the world, performing demanded the same kind of work ethic that a day of welding did. It just happened to be a bit more fun to have people clap for you at the end.

Perry decided to take Tap Dogs on tour after meeting up with rock concert director Nigel Triffet, and after Tap Dogs had hit performances at the Sydney Theater Festival and Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival in early 1995. Though the show's come quite a way in its short history, and now has American and U.K. touring companies, Perry still auditions his dancers on a personal basis to keep a check on quality. One of his most unlikely dance finds was a plumber who came to fix a problem in Perry's studio in Australia. When asked if he could tap, the plumber was happy to demonstrate that he could. He was hired on the spot. The next day, he drove back to town to quit his plumbing job; he's now dancing full-time in Tap Dogs's U.K. company.

In many ways, Tap Dogs is a new kind of hybrid performance: It's meant as pure entertainment, but it's entertainment that seems to have appeal for a broad range of audiences. This was especially true during the company's performance at the Edinburgh Festival, where Perry took delight in finding "a distinguished gentleman sitting next to a guy with a huge green Mohawk."

Unlike choreographers who get a show right and leave it alone for the duration of its run, Perry still tinkers with his routines on a regular basis, making sure that the energy stays high. The show Houston audiences will see, the choreographer says, has been honed for the past month, though he continues to "tighten the screws on it."

Perry's attentions aside, it's impossible to ignore that a large part of Tap Dogs's appeal is the spectacle of well-tuned male bodies in ripped clothing -- a rare occurrence in a road show setting in which thong leotards and push-up bras are often de rigueur for female performers. All the better, these men look like postcard versions of the Aussie male. They may act like it as well. When asked about the men's post-show cool down -- do the performers have special stretches to preserve the somewhat delicate tendons and muscle groups in the ankle? -- he laughs. "A couple of beers," he says, "seems to do the trick."

Tap Dogs will be presented by the Society for the Performing Arts Thursday, November 21, through Sunday, November 24, at the Wortham Center, Cullen Theater, 500 Texas, 227-

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Megan Halverson