Bril Barrett and his older brother Donnell Russell don baggy clothes and baseball caps and glide, flip, and spin to hip-hop. But they do it while tap dancing.
“A lot of young people weren’t into tap because they thought it’s only old people in tuxedos. So we brought hip-hop into it to bring tap into the 90s and give it a different image,” says Barrett. Steppin’ Out, as the brothers are called, have opened concerts by Hammer, R. Kelly, and the Boys, bringing tap to an audience that may have never seen the duo’s influences–performers from the 1920s through the ’40s such as the Nicholas Brothers and the Four Step Brothers.
Barrett and Russell started taking tap, jazz, and modern dance classes at the Sammy Dyer School of Theater and the Better Boys Foundation when they were five and six years old. They came under the guidance of Ayrie Easley, known as “Mr. Tap,” and danced in the subways with him, learning the art of improvisation. “He would make us watch Bojangles, Nicholas Brothers, Peg Leg Bates, and Sammy Davis Jr. videos and rewind to certain steps. But it was cool, and we were the only seventh and eighth graders with bank accounts,” says Russell.
After dallying with vocal and rap groups, the brothers, now in their early 20s, are considered masters by the national tap community and are noted for melding Broadway polish with funky acrobatic steps. They teach classes at the Sammy Dyer school, Lou Conte Dance Studio, and Columbia College and are completing a four-week residency at Hefferan Elementary School on the west side.
Steppin’ Out hope to expand a movement they say is changing the art of tap dancing. “There are about 20 young, professional tap dancers nationally,” says Barrett. “We’re starting to change the tap standard to be funkier and more groove-oriented. But we always give the old masters respect. They like to see us messin’ with it. They changed it when they started, and we’re doing the same thing. It’s not a dying art form, it’s just changing.”
Steppin’ Out will perform during the Chicago Human Rhythm Project 1995, a festival of concerts and workshops held through Sunday. The duo will perform with 15 other acts at 8 PM Friday and Saturday at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State. Tickets are $25. For info call 408-1149.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.