Jumaane Taylor steps into leadership role for Rhythm World

The dancer, choreographer and teacher has been named artistic director of the 30th-anniversary edition of Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s annual festival of all things tap.

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Tap dancer/choreographer Jumaane Taylor is the newly named artistic director of this year’s Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Rhythm World” festival.

Tap dancer/choreographer/teacher Jumaane Taylor is the newly named artistic director of this year’s Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Rhythm World” festival.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Jumaane Taylor is staking his claim as Chicago’s new top tapper.

The 35-year-old dancer, choreographer and teacher has been named artistic director of the 30th-anniversary edition of Rhythm World, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s (CHRP) annual festival of all things tap, which this year will feature a dozen teacher-performers and draw 200 or more students and hundreds of tap fans.

Besides being one of the oldest such summer tap festivals in the country, New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert, author of “What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing” and a lecturer at the event, calls it the most “robust.”

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Rhythm World

When: July 26-Aug. 15

Where: 7 p.m. July 28, Navy Pier’s Polk Bros Park, 600 E. Grand; 7 p.m. Aug. 7, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place; 7 p.m. Aug. 14, Edlis Neeson Theater, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

Tickets: July 28, free; Aug. 7, $30; Aug. 14, $30 and $85

Info: chicagotap.org

Rhythm World, which took place virtually last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will run three weeks — July 26-Aug. 15 — for the first time with weekly mainstage performances and informal jam sessions and a host of workshops and classes.

In selecting festival artists like Ivery Wheeler of Los Angeles and Kaleena Miller of Minneapolis, Taylor said: “I’m thinking about: Who is really putting it down on the floor? Who is really respecting the dance?”

The lifelong Chicagoan is taking over the festival in the tumultuous aftermath of an open letter posted on Facebook in June 2020 to CHRP and its co-founder, Lane Alexander, and signed by Bril Barrett, founder and director of the Chicago-based M.A.D.D. Rhythms tap collective and some 900 other members of the dance community. In that letter, Barrett responded to an email he had received from Alexander and disputed points that he said Alexander made about Black Lives Matter protests.

Taylor sees the whole dustup as an old disagreement over the beginnings of tap turning ugly and personal, and he has received calls from dancers across the country trying to understand what is going on. “It’s like we’re watching a boxing match on pay-per-view,” he said. “It’s tricky but I’m trying to be open-hearted and understanding to it all.”

The origins of tap, a percussive kind of dance commonly performed with metal taps affixed to the heel and toe of the shoe, are debated, but its roots can be traced to such sources as African-American Juba dancing, Irish step dancing and English clog dancing.

In August 2020, Emmanuel Neal was named CHRP’s interim managing director, a change the organization said emerged from a 2019 five-year strategic plan that incorporates a leadership transition. Although Alexander now has the seemingly lesser title of director of institutional advancement, a CHRP spokeswoman confirmed he is still running the company.Taylor said he reports to Alexander.

Jumaane Taylor instructs young students in a tap dance class at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Jumaane Taylor instructs young students in a tap dance class at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Taylor, who spent most of his childhood in Hyde Park, began taking tap lessons at the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre, when he was 6 or 7. It has trained some of the best tap dancers from Chicago, like Ted Levy, who has worked closely with Savion Glover and will be honored at the festival.

Why was he drawn to tap vs. another art form? “I wish I knew,” Taylor said. “It’s so magical. My mother wanted to sign me up the year before I actually signed up, and it wasn’t until I saw young dancers doing tap that I became attracted to it. It looked so natural to me.”

He took part in every Chicago tap activity he could find as a youth, including summers at the Rhythm Festival’s festivals, where choreographer/tap dancer Derick K. Grant was able to watch what he called Taylor’s “constant progression.”

One summer around 2005, Grant recalled seeing Taylor perform a solo to Nina Simone’s version of “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” and said he will never forget it.“The amount of freedom he had as a young person — he was laughing the whole time and reaching for things that I hadn’t even considered,” Grant said. “I just thought this kid is different. He was just so in the music.”

Tap dancer/choreographer Juumane Taylor grew up in Hyde Park and began taking tap lessons at the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre when he was 6 or 7.

Tap dancer/choreographer Juumane Taylor grew up in Hyde Park and began taking tap lessons at the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre when he was 6 or 7.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Grant was set to serve as director and choreographer of “Imagine Tap!” and approached Taylor about taking part. The 2006 show at the Harris Theater featured singers as well as 18 tap and breakdancers, all of whom rehearsed in New York.

Taylor said he has had opportunities to move to New York, but has preferred to stay in Chicago, where he has built a career, putting an emphasis, among other things, on a renewed connection between tap and jazz bands.

“That’s a scene,” Seibert said, “that has high standards for musicianship and you can’t fake it. The kind of jazz musicians he is playing with know the real from the fakers, and he’s the real thing.”

In addition to performing, Taylor teaches at Roosevelt University and the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, mentoring young dancers just as he was mentored. The Red Clay Dance Co., an African American ensemble based at 808 E. 63rd., has approached him about leading a weekly tap class in its academy this fall, but up to now he has struggled to build diversity among his students and to generate interest in tap in and around the neighborhood where he grew up.

“That’s definitely is the goal,” he said, “but that’s been more difficult. But hopefully through Red Clay and other entities we can get more of the South Side youth and a more multicultural attendance in tap class.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.


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