Around the dawn of the new millennium, Chicago tap dancer Bril Barrett began to share his love of tap dance with his little brother and other local Black kids at the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre as a way to keep them out of trouble. As word spread, attendance at his weekly sessions began to grow.
Eventually, Barrett invited the young dancers to join him onstage. “I would take those kids that I was working with onstage and make them part of the performance,” he recalls. “Soon people started asking, ‘Can you bring the kids with you?’”
In 2001, Barrett officially launched the performing arts company M.A.D.D. Rhythms, and in 2003, he added a tap academy.
M.A.D.D. Rhythms is an abbreviation for “Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms,” which speaks to the company’s mission of nurturing youth and underserved communities through tap, while preserving the art form’s history and advocating for its future. “We have to always be connected and be about exposing tap to our community,” Barrett says.
M.A.D.D. Rhythms’s professional company currently includes 15 dancers. Roughly 40 students are enrolled in its tap academy, which serves adults and youth, and includes a Tap for Tots class for children ages three through five. They also have a teen work-study program, where students can receive a stipend upon completion of their training.
That speaks to the organization’s goal of nurturing aspiring professional tap dancers. In fact, five members of the professional company started their training in M.A.D.D.’s youth program.
“Ever since I ever learned about the school-to-prison pipeline [harsh education and public safety policies that have pushed a disproportionate number of youth from marginalized backgrounds toward the criminal justice system], I’ve wanted to create the artistic opposite,” Barrett says. “We can take a kid who comes in and starts classes as a beginner and develop them into a professional career.”
To date, M.A.D.D. Rhythms’ dance company has produced nine full-length productions and has had brief performance stints in different parts of the country. Eventually Barrett would like to take them on an official tour. “We’ve been a staple of Chicago’s dance scene, and the next logical step is to get out and preach the gospel of tap,” he says. “We want to get out and share this thing with the world because I think we have a unique approach to tap.”
In 2023, M.A.D.D. Rhythms joined the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project (CBDLP), a multiyear initiative to reduce inequities in the city’s dance community by empowering local Black dance organizations with funding, resources, and performance opportunities. Barrett says that joining the cohort has allowed M.A.D.D. to collaborate with other Black dance organizations as they navigate shared obstacles, such as applying for grants and connecting potential funders.
“We realized that we’re not alone in some of the challenges that we’re facing,” Barrett says. “I think what the Chicago Black Legacy Dance Project is enabling us to do is to speak as a unit—even though we’re separate companies—in terms of facing down some of those inequities.”
Barrett says that the history of tap has been largely whitewashed, leaving much of the general public unaware of its roots in Black culture. That makes M.A.D.D. Rhythms’ presence as a Black-led tap organization all the more vital. “Our presence is very important for the representation of tap worldwide because so many people don’t know that it’s a Black art form,” Barrett says. “The history was changed and narratives were created to give other people credit.”
To correct those narratives and promote further discourse, the organization hosts two podcasts: The Either / And Podcast with Bril Barrett, which explores tap as a microcosm of what’s happening in greater society, and Gasps From a Dying Art Form, which focuses on the cultural significance and history behind the art form.
Barrett also strives to uplift tap as an art in a climate that doesn’t always take it seriously.
“[Tap] was not a dance genre that was considered a legitimate technique because it had nothing to do with ballet,” Barrett says. “So when you tell people I’m a dancer, they ask what kind of dance? When I say I’m a tap dancer, it’s often ‘Oh, I thought you were a dancer-dancer.’”
Barrett says it would be nice to focus exclusively on dance, but as long as miseducation around tap exists, M.A.D.D. Rhythms advocacy work will continue. “I would love when we get to the time when we can just present tap as artists,” he says. “That time is not quite now because we’re still fighting for the legitimacy and the recognition of tap as a legitimate art form. Kudos to all the ancestors who came before us that made it possible.”
This fall, M.A.D.D. Rhythms will host the Chicago Tap Summit. The event, which runs from September 29 through October 1, will feature three days of dance performance, discussion, and classes. As the icing on the cake, M.A.D.D. Rhythms’s dance company will premiere their latest piece.
The Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is a program of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Their current cohort of local dance companies includes Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center & Hiplet Ballerinas, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, the Era Footwork Collective, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, M.A.D.D. Rhythms, Move Me Soul, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, NAJWA Dance Corps, and Praize Productions Inc. For more about CBDLP, visit chicagoblackdancelegacy.org, and chicagoreader.com/special/logan-center-for-the-arts-at-the-university-of-chicago.