Ja'bowen Dixon offers instruction in one of the classes available at M.A.D.D. Rhythms Tap Summit 2019 Credit: Courtesy M.A.D.D. Rhythms

As of this year, October 1 becomes M.A.D.D. Rhythms Day in the City of Chicago, according to a proclamation by Mayor Lightfoot. Founded 20 years ago by Bril Barrett and Martin “Tre” Dumas III, Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms is a company, a school, and a community with the mission of sharing the culture of tap dance, honoring its past, and shepherding the art to its future. 

This first M.A.D.D. Rhythms Day kicks off a three-day Chicago Tap Summit at the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Bronzeville (and online). In addition to classes, a panel discussion, a tap jam, and more, M.A.D.D. Rhythms will premiere Hoofin’ It: The Untold Story of the Founders of Tap, a “trans-media experience” that combines archival footage, interviews, and live performance in honor of the history of Chicago tap. In this interview, Barrett, who cowrote the libretto for Hoofin’ It with Ailea Stites, shares how the intertwining of tap history with the city of Chicago led to the founding of M.A.D.D. Rhythms and the development of this new work, which is the culmination of Barrett’s Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Year. 

As told to Irene Hsiao

Over the past ten years, I’ve fallen in love with the history of tap. People who created this art form or were early pioneers in this art form in this city get no credit elsewhere: Sammy Dyer, Jimmy Payne, Tommy Sutton, the Bruce Sisters, Cook and Brown. These are all people who came from Chicago, but they didn’t get famous in Chicago. Or if they stayed in Chicago, they didn’t get famous outside of Chicago. Hoofin’ It is my contribution to making sure people know these people existed. They’re the reason why I can do what I do. They’re the reason we do what we do going forward. Hoofin’ It is my ode to them.

Chicago Tap Summit
10/1-10/3: Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.; visit maddrhythms.com for complete schedule.

Chicago’s tap community is not that big. If you talk to people enough, you start to realize we all share a common tap “dancestor.” I come from the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre, which was named after Sammy Dyer. And Tre comes from Mayfair [Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts], which was connected to Tommy Sutton. M.A.D.D. Rhythms shares that legacy. One of my teachers, Mr. Taps [Ayrie Easley], studied with Jimmy Payne, so there’s another gentleman in that legacy. Interviewing started with my teachers and conversations with other dancers in the city. The director of the Sammy Dyer school, Muriel Foster, started out with Sadie Bruce of the Bruce Sisters [Sadie and Mary Bruce]. After some time, Sadie Bruce took her to Sammy Dyer and said, “I need you to work with her.” I’m sitting here with a legend right now, Reggio the Hoofer [Reginald McLaughlin, who has just been awarded a 2021 National Heritage Fellowship—the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts—from the National Endowment for the Arts]. There are connections through us, the dancers, to all of them. 

We came up in the streets of Chicago. We started in the subway. My teacher, Mr. Taps, performed in the subway—that’s where I met him. At times, he and Reggio the Hoofer would dance together. Then me and Reggio worked together, so Reggio was one of my mentors as well. I was still in high school when I started with the “Taps and Tuxedos” shows. I would do a half day, and then Reggio would come pick me up and we would do shows in schools!

I started dancing at the Sammy Dyer school. I say this now, and my mom will back me up: I knew I wanted to be a tap dancer from the first moment I put on tap shoes, even though I didn’t know what that meant. The first song I ever tapped to was Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” To this day I can almost do the routine! I was four or five. But we did not have a lot of money, so I only went there for one year. Then most of the time I spent at the community center, the Better Boys Foundation, which was walking distance to my house. It was free to the community. 

I fell in love with it through those venues, but one day coming home from school, I was in the subway and saw a guy tap dancing. That was Mr. Taps, and I asked him if I could dance with him. He was making money! I was like, “I don’t have lots of money, and I love tap dance, too.” I guess show business was always in my future because I wasn’t shy about talking with people I didn’t know! 

So every day after school, I would tap dance with him in the subway. I didn’t know anything about improvisation at that time. I was doing little combinations I remembered from the school. Every now and then I’d forget and would have to do something to make it work until I could remember what the choreography was. And then, the longer I was out there with Mr. Taps, “to do something until” became the improvisation. That was how I got really turned onto improvisation in tap. 

The subway in Chicago was literally my training ground. We used to fight for the good spots, either Washington or Jackson and State. Monroe—you could make it work if you had to. That’s where I learned about improvisation and performing, because in rush hour, you’ve got three to five minutes before the next train comes. You gotta entertain them people so they go into their pockets and give you some money before they get on that train and go, and then you gotta do it all over again. That’s where I learned to interact with people across all racial and ethnic lines because everybody rides the train. Every age, every ethnicity, every gender, blue collar, white collar was on the trains. I was coming after school, so I was between 11, 12, 13. I stayed going back and forth with Mr. Taps until I was 14 or 15. 

At some point, we started doing performances [in other venues]. We started working with an agent, Melba Caldwell. One day, she brought us into the office and said, “How am I going to get people to pay this kind of money for you if they can pay that kind of money for you in the subway?” So that was the point when we said, “We gotta stop street performing!” and we turned into professionals. We were dancing at hair shows, school shows, conventions, restaurants: you name it, we were there. Probably 80 percent of our shows were not in dance-related venues. People would book tap in places they would never book any other kind of dance, because tap is an everyman’s dance. To this day, if you go on the news to do an interview, the newscaster wants to do a tap step. You’d never see a newscaster ask to do a piece of Swan Lake, but they’ll always ask to do a tap step!

I didn’t know I wanted to start a company until I was starting a company. My goal was always to be a tap dancer. Tap teaching was never in my purview growing up. But teaching tap was a way to pay bills and work consistently in between gigs, and at some point I started falling in love with teaching. Every time I would get in a show or book a gig, if it was some kind of tour, I would come back home and it was like starting over again. I was like, “I don’t want to keep starting over. I want to have a home, a place I can come back to, that’s always here for me.” The seedlings of M.A.D.D. Rhythms was having a home to come back to. 

I had started working with young boys at the Sammy Dyer school. I wanted to be an example for them—I wanted to mentor them and hopefully make them fall in love with tap! So that was a little volunteer program. The school allowed me the space to do it—they supported me. It was all young boys until Star Dixon, my sister, was like, “Why does it gotta be only boys?” I didn’t have a good answer for her, so she was the first girl who was part of the company. 

When I was performing, I would take the kids with me, and I made them my opening act. But there was no name, there was nothing official. Then people started asking, would I bring the kids with me? That kind of turned into, this could be something—I think I want to start a company! It wasn’t until I met Efè McWhorter, who was part of the Chicago Park District. Around the time I was taking the kids to shows, she was like, “I have programming, and I need teachers. Would you be willing to exchange teaching classes for the community for rehearsal space for your new company?” So M.A.D.D. Rhythms was born January 2001 at the South Shore Cultural Center. It was comprised of these young people I had been working with for quite some time, at least a few years. All of them were my students. 

I’ve always talked about the history of Chicago tap with them—they were the first ones I started sharing the knowledge with. They share the importance. They understand the need to highlight our city and those we came from and how they’re connected to tap dance around the rest of the world. I have been amazed by how many tap students all across the country and the world have no idea about the people who made it all possible. In my mind, everybody should know these people, and everybody should have always known who these people are. It became a sore spot for me—and then a point of motivation. I want to make sure everybody knows everybody. I want to be the example, I want to teach about the examples. I want you to see pictures and videos of the examples. If you tap dance, I want these people to be in your life! 

Tap has always had this stepcousin-stepbrother-not-quite-in-the-family relationship in the dance world. I just want to keep making the case and trying to garner the respect for the art form I love—not because it’s better but because it’s just as good, just as important, just as relevant. [The motto] “Respect the Dance” was not my phrase originally. A tap dancer from Saint Louis named Professor Robert L. Reed II used to put on the Saint Louis Tap Festival. He always used to do a ritual at the end of his classes about respecting the masters and respecting the dance. I loved that, and I adopted it, and, when he passed away, I kept it in his honor and have used it ever since. Whenever I do that, it’s first an ode to Professor Robert L. Reed and then an ode to all the tap dancers who came before us. So we say it, because the more you say it, the more you believe it, and the more you act accordingly.