at the Navy Pier Skyline Stage, July 22-24

In the early days of jazz, audiences followed musicians the way sports fans follow ball players today. When Ben Webster, in Duke Ellington’s band, picked up his tenor sax and started to play, people knew it was Ben Webster–no one else sounded like him.

Seeing the tap dancers of the Chicago on Tap festival made me feel like one of those early jazz fans. These dancers are world-class artists, confident in their technique, jovial and relaxed onstage. I found myself watching the people, with their chemistry and quirks, letting the dancing and music carry me along. The friendly competitiveness of tap dancers, each showing his or her best steps and trying to top the others, makes for perfect people watching.

The show’s curator, Sarah Petronio, chose to include both old-time tappers and young dancers. One of the young dancers, Chicago native Ted Levy, started the show by walking onstage, tapping out a syncopated jazz rhythm, repeating it, then tapping out variations on it. When the rhythm became baroquely complex, he stopped and joked with the audience: “I just want to see if it works.” He gestured to the four-piece jazz band, they started to play, and Levy became the band’s soloist. I could almost hear a melody singing behind his rhythms. His body does not have the looseness and elasticity of Astaire’s or the clean lines of a classical dancer; he uses it mainly as an instrument.

Karen Callaway followed Levy, and her delicate but insubstantial tapping showed how melodic his was. Callaway was part of a trio of young women, each of whom was quite different from the others. Leela Petronio, dressed in a sequined top, reveals a solid, workmanlike quality in her tapping. Acia Gray uses more syncopated rhythms; she suddenly stops, balances for a moment on the tips of her shoes, and after falling picks up a complex bop jazz rhythm perfectly.

The three stars of the younger generation, all men, are clever, have technique to spare, and introduce other elements of dance into their tapping. Mark Mendonca started by simply walking in a circle around the stage, his taps making a simple rhythm. Slowly a pattern started to emerge until he had a great rhythm going as he walked. His dancing, less musical than the others, is filled with such clever riffs. He slid across the floor to create syncopations, at the end of the dance riding a slow crescendo that ended in machine-gun taps, followed by a little turning jump ending in a crouch.

Van “The Man” Porter, who uses a little rap in his dance, soon had the audience chanting “Oh, hey, what you say” in a call-and-response pattern. He has big swinging arms, and his body makes big arcs and shapes while he taps. His dancing is flashy and full of bravado; he ended with a series of break-dance moves: handstands followed by a whirling jump into the splits.

But the wunderkind was Savion Glover, a man of 20 who still has the gawky, rebellious upper body of a teenager. His costume was whimsical rappers’ wear: baggy pants and an oversize shirt with a cartoon cat on the back. He leans over while dancing, his upper body floppy–but he dances faster than anyone else. His dance kept me rapt. He uses weight to emphasize a point, slamming his feet on the floor at the end of the dance, with a little of the energy of punk music.

The older generations don’t mix tap with other musical and dance forms, but together they cover almost the whole history of tap dancing. Lon Chaney, a portly elderly man, is a former prizefighter who invented a step called the “paddle and roll.” He had the misfortune to follow Porter’s flashy break dancing, and came to the microphone to say he was “going to hit one first.” He waved at the band to keep them from playing, then tapped out a steady stream of rhythms just moving his feet. Though he was wearing a tuxedo, he seemed to have stepped out of some old documentary film of a bunch of guys tapping, each guy trying to one-up the next. Chuck Green once danced with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and Louis Armstrong. He just stands in one place and taps out a rhythm as if he had all the time in the world. His perfect sense of cool was completely winning.

It seems that Chaney and Green might have tap danced as kids on street corners or anywhere they could. Brenda Bufalino’s tap dancing seems more show-biz, though her New York accent pegs the location as the Catskills rather than Vegas. A delicate number, seemingly filled with bouquets and flourishes, was followed by a brassier one. But this more ambitious dance, fragmented and pointillist, with lots of tiny riffs, doesn’t quite have the timing to work.

When Sarah Petronio tries an ambitious dance with free-flying rhythms, she gives off an electricity, a bracing intelligence. Alive and responsive to everything, she immediately engaged the drummer in a rhythmic dialogue when she walked onstage. Petronio followed that with extreme syncopations that were challenging but rewarding to hear. Her dancing isn’t as likable or entertaining as Chaney’s or Green’s, but it’s both a breath of fresh air and the link between two generations.

Petronio’s cohost, Jimmy Slyde, lived up to his introduction as the greatest living jazz-tap dancer. He has Astaire’s lightness and elastic step and a creamy, smooth style. Like Petronio and Gray, he takes risks with rhythms, but he still has Chaney’s and Green’s reassuring streams of rhythm. His moves have a dancerly visual appeal, and he used the width of the stage better than the other performers. A consummate entertainer, his personality seems to have blended completely with his stage persona.

At first his patter seemed just show-biz cliches; but in the final dance, with all the dancers onstage at once trying to top each other, Slyde’s scat-singing patter was perfect. As Sarah Petronio danced he sang softly, “I’m so proud of her”; his sincerity was as right as rain.

This style of tap, which is more music than dance, seems as new as jazz was in the 1920s. Faced with this lineup of styles and personalities, I was starting to settle into a fan’s daydream, picking a dream team of dancers. But Sarah Petronio may have already found them.