The closest that I ever came to becoming a professional tap dancer was watching TV. I never pursued dancing for myself, but I still love to watch others dance. So, when I first found out about about an all-female tap dance ensemble in Philadelphia, naturally I was intrigued.
The closest that I ever came to becoming a professional tap dancer was watching television in the late 1990s. On “The Jamie Foxx Show” or “Saturday Night Live,” I would occasionally catch a dancer performing something fantastic. I was captivated by their fluid movement, as if their art were just second nature to them.
I never pursued dancing for myself. I have no rhythm. But I still love to watch others dance.
When I first found out about about an all-female tap dance ensemble in Philadelphia accidentally on Facebook, naturally I was intrigued. They are called the Lady Hoofers, and I had to find out what was behind that name.
Breaking away from the boys’ club
Like anything else in life worth pursuing, tap takes a lot of time and energy to get right. I could hear just how determined the Hoofers are to perfect their craft when I visited them one chilly Sunday evening at the Institute of Dance Artistry in Plymouth Meeting. As I sat talking to Kat Richter, artistic director for the group, I could hear music and the echoing rap-a-tap-tap of the dancers coming from the adjourning room.
“Not only is [tap] a dance form, it’s a musical form, so you have to have a good sense of rhythm,” Richter said. “It’s very fast, especially with what we we’re constantly shifting our weight. I think people either love it or hate it. It either clicks for you and you like it, or you don’t really have it.”
Richter grew up in a co-ed company and always felt intimidated by the men in it. Tap dancing was already a male-dominated discipline. Often Richter would lose a solo to a man, even though she knew she was much better than him.
“Part of the reason for that is because guys are just heavier on their feet,” said Richter. “They can be louder, and they can make more sounds.”
Richter developed the idea for the Lady Hoofers in 2011, seeing it as a way to give female dancers and choreographers like herself professional opportunities to share their work in a supportive environment.
In the beginning, Richter reached out to other female tap dancers who she knew in the Philadelphia community. The company has eight dancers now and four apprentices, who are college-aged students.
“Initially I was more interested in finding a way to continue my work as a performing artist, but as the company grows and more and more people come to see our work, support our programming, audition for us, etc., I’m realizing the full magnitude of what we’ve built,” Richer said. “It’s definitely stressful — but a lot of fun, too.”
An educational commitment
Richter first learned tap around the age of six. She says she’s not sure what first piqued her interest, but she has always admired the stars in films like “Singin’ in the Rain.” As she grew up, she learned more about the art form’s history through films like “Tap,” starring Gregory Hines and a very young Savion Glover. Since then, her most influential instructor has been Deborah Mitchell, founder and artistic director of the New Jersey Tap Ensemble.
“I’ve studied many, many dance forms, and one of my majors in college was dance, but tap has always been my forte,” Richter said. “I also incurred a back injury when I was studying abroad at Oxford University as a junior in college, so tap became the only form I could still dance well, because it doesn’t require the same level of flexibility or range of motion as ballet or modern dance.”
Part of the Lady Hoofers’ mission is to teach tap to the wider community. When the Hoofers hold their company class on Sundays, anyone can stop by to learn from the dancers for $12 a session. The company uses that hour, preceding their regular rehearsal, to focus on technique.
“It’s difficult for our dancers to find the sort of training that they need without going to New York, because Philly has a lot of great tap dancers, but there aren’t any ongoing advanced classes,” Richter said. “So in order for them to keep up their training we decided to have our own class. Initially it was just for our dancers and then other people would ask, ‘Can we come? Can we get involved?’ They’re not good enough to join the company, but they’re definitely welcomed to come and train with us.”
Richter half-joked that, when people come to audition to be in the company, she can usually tell how well they will do by simply looking at their shoes. The wear and tear on a shoe can be a good indicator of a dancer’s commitment, but she’s more interested in the quality — does it have a built-up sole, and what kind of taps does it have?
If a dancer has a high-quality shoe, Richter can tell she has invested in herself as an artist. (It can be a big investment, too. Richter’s pair cost about $500.)
‘I can do it better than that.’
The Lady Hoofers perform around 10 pieces a year throughout the city, including a holiday concert. The Hoofers have performed at the Wilma Theater, The Kimmel Center and the 2013 DanceUP Presenter’s Showcase.
The ladies also do co-choreographing, which adds a few new pieces to their repertoire. “One dancer choreographs the beginning; one choreographs the end,” Richter explained.
One piece, called “Reinvention,” has the Lady Hoofers starting out barefoot and without music.
“It was a huge risk to do. To dance for 10 minutes without music,” Richter said. “The entire company starts off barefoot and adds different elements as we get farther into the routine. It includes a lot of body percussion.”
There’s even a piece, part of the Hoofers’ 1930s jazz “Honeysuckle Rose” suite, where the ladies dance in high heels, uncommon among tap dance companies. The shift in weight and balance forces the dancers to use their muscles in very different ways.
I asked Richter what drives her with so few women starting dance companies in the city. “Stubbornness,” she said.
“I watch a lot of other dancers or other company directors, and I think, ‘I can do that. In fact, I can do it better than that,'” she said. “We’ve worked to create a space that supports female dancers and female choreographers, and I am very proud of being able to provide our dancers and choreographers with paying opportunities to present their work.”
Richter continues to perform in all of the Lady Hoofers shows, as do the majority of their choreographers.
“It’s a lot to wear multiple hats, and I sometimes feel that I’m too overwhelmed by administrative tasks to perform at my best, but I love to perform. That’s why I started the company,” Richter said. “When I moved to Philly several years ago, I took a look around and realized that there weren’t any tap dancers or tap companies doing the sort of work I wanted to do. If I wanted to perform, I needed to create the space in which to do so.”