At a recent Columbia Falls Community Market, six girls took the stage as the evening’s main act. They matched, all wearing dark shirts, blue jeans, and tap shoes. After a quick final huddle, a few giggles, and a brief introduction, they spun out across the wood floor and began to dance. The sharp sound of tap shoes rung throughout The Coop, and the bustle of the market soon faded as people stopped to watch.
“Damn,” one spectator murmured.
As long-time company members of Feat x Feet, one of 12 youth tap ensembles in the country and the only group in the state, these girls have danced with each other since childhood. Though their June 24 summer show ‘Tap Live!’ is on the horizon, the performance at the market wasn’t a preview. It was pure improvisation, pure fun. It didn’t have the polish or perfection of a choreographed act, but they performed on the fly with playful ease, thanks to their skillset, experience, and familiarity.
“Other dance forms, if you screw up, you don’t notice – like in ballet if you miss a turn, who’s going to know? In tap, you’ll hear it,” Ashley Smith, Feat x Feet’s artistic director, had said earlier that evening, emphasizing the stakes of improv tap.
They didn’t rely on a single teammate to take the lead, and each dancer shone at different turns, keeping the others in sight as they dipped and whirled in circles. They seemed to be delighted by the challenge, grinning like co-conspirators who couldn’t believe they were pulling off such an orchestrated heist. And when they did misplace a step, they erupted into laughter and danced on.
“It’s not like you’re going to get docked any points, and people in the audience laugh, too,” Gabbi Paulson, a 15-year-old dancer from Kalispell, said.
After a flurry of jumps and stomps for a finale, the dancers lined up and bowed grandly for the cheering marketplace, flipping their long hair as they leaned over.
“Yeah girls!” someone bellowed from the back of the crowd, and the market kicked back into gear, patrons still shaking their head with surprise.
Though it was the first time Feet x Feat has performed at The Coop, the company has been tapping across stages in the valley for nearly 20 years under Smith’s guidance. And for the last eight summers, the dancers have also improved under the watchful eye of Derick K. Grant, who Smith calls “the Michael Jordon of tap.”
A New York City-based dancer, he visits Montana once a year to instruct students during a multi-day public summer workshop, which kicks off this year on June 20 as a lead-up to the summer show.
“He’s one of a kind, nobody teaches like him,” said Maddi Paulson, a Feat x Feet alumnus who performed alongside her sister, Gabbi, at the community market. “In one hour, you leave so much better. He pushes you, he says things that stick with you.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ golden years, tap plateaued in popularity and “almost died out,” according to Smith. Then in the 1900s, with the success of Tony award-winning Broadway production “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk” and the spread of a new rhythmic style, the community found fresh energy. Grant was there to usher in the new era, like “the godfather of tap,” Smith said. An original company member and Dance Captain of “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk,” the award-winning dancer is now working on a show called “And Still You Must Swing,” which he’ll soon take on tour. Yet he always finds time to visit Montana, which he now considers a second home, to watch his students grow.
“You have kids here, who are maybe into winter sports or outdoorsy mountain sports or lakes and mountains and all of that,” Grant said. “And to even consider tap – I don’t even know how they found tap – but they found it and they love it and that’s magical. Many students from Ashley’s studio have become professional dancers and I’m very proud of that because I feel like I had something to do with it. Their devotion is amazing.”
Get a taste of Feat x Feet’s rhythm and devotion at their show on Friday, June 24, at the O’Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish. The company will be joined on stage by the workshop’s 45 attendees as well as Blue Avenue, a Whitefish band with Rmi Strauser on saxophone, Marty Anderson on guitar, Josh Weller on bass, and Ethan Pothoff on the drums. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $25 for reserved seating. Light appetizers and beverages will be served through the evening. The show is at 8 p.m. and doors open at 7:30. Call 471-4400 for tickets.
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