PUT on your top hat, tie and tails... on second thoughts, don't

PUT on your top hat, tie and tails ... on second thoughts, don't. Just leave on your torn jeans, T shirt and working boots, because that's the required uniform for Tap Dogs, a high octane, explosive new dance show which opens at the Gaiety, tomorrow night. Forget the glitz and glamour of Broadway, the sweeping staircases and the Manhattan skyline Tap Dogs is all, about rough and tumble, and the whole show takes place in a construction site, far from the polish and shine of the Cotton Club.

Tap Dogs has been described as "testosterone tap", and it comes to us from that rugged land Down Under, where blokes are blokes and tap dancing is anything you want it to be. Choreographer Dein Perry has conceived a show which stretches the old fashioned concept of tap, knocks it down and then builds it up from using whatever surfaces are at, hand. Steel girders, wooden beams, scaffolding and ladders all become part of the picture, as the Dogs beat out their macho boots. The show has already been a big hit at the Edinburgh Festival, and it looks set to get Dublin audiences reeling with enthusiasm.

Tap Dogs is as different as you can get from Perry's previous production, Hot Shoe Shuffle, which won him an Olivier Award for best choreographer. Hot Shoe Shuffle was the first all Australian musical to hit London's West End, and it was very much your traditional, Tinsel town production. Tap fans were royally entertained when the show came to Dublin last year, but cynics who believed that tap dancing was hide bound in a historical limbo somewhere between Broadway and Hollywood were not moved one inch. Tap Dogs may just knock the scoffers off their high horse.

Like Reservoir Dogs, Tap Dogs is a small, tight knit bunch of guys on their way to work, only the suits have been replaced by jeans and flannelette shirts in some cases, nothing but a pair of shorts and there's no gunplay just some killer footwork.


I met head honcho Dein Perry at the Westbury hotel in Dublin for a quick chat. How did he make the move from dancing in his dinner jackets to bouncing in his boxer shorts?

"Basically, before Hot Shoe Shuffle, I really wanted to do this but the guy I was collaborating with at the time wanted to put it back into that era. So what I really wanted to do was to make tap different. Because I've been doing it since I was young, and I've always had to wear the 1930s style clothes and dance to 1930s style music, and it's just really nice to do something that's today rather than yesterday."

To bring tap slap bang up to date, Perry had to abandon the traditional tap soundtrack of jazz, swing and shuffle. Instead, he's made the tapping an integral part of the music, and audiences at tomorrow night's show will be blasted with the sound of six pairs of thumping feet in full digital stereo.

"I think it's a matter of making tap more part of the music rather than just an accompaniment," says Perry. "It's always been easy to just get the music, like Duke Ellington music, and make a tap show around it. What I'm trying to do with this is to make a whole piece of music out of the tap and then add the music to it and vice versa. So it's playing around with that. For the first 20 minutes, the show doesn't have any music to it whatsoever, it's just the music of the feet. So we're trying to make numbers out of that. Then the music will kick in for the rest of the show, and we've got a huge sound system which will work in stereo, so if someone's tapping on that side of the stage we can pan, and if a group of them move across the stage, the whole sound will move with them. We're trying to amplify it pretty loudly as well.

"It's a mad rush of sound. It's trying to bring tap dancing up to the level of a rock n roll band, guess. Sort of get it up to that volume and try to make it pleasing to the ear, which is kind of hard be, cause tap is kind of a sharp sound to listen to, so it's hard to make it louder as well."

If you think that Tap Dogs will be nothing more than 80 minutes of amplified clicking, then think again. The boys will be tapping on a variety of different surfaces, the kind of stuff you'd find lying around on any construction site and the dancing will provide a percussion foundation for the industrial strength music to build on. At one stage in the show, the blokes dance on giant synthesised drum pads, each taking up the sound of a kick drum, snare, a hi-hat and a cymbal, creating a sort of human drum kit which expands the rock `n' roll possibilities no end.

"This has been a frustration, about doing lots of tap dancing," says Perry. "Knowing that you're's tap dancing your heart out and people are only hearing half of it, because you're fighting against a 30 piece orchestra. And when you're on stage it's really hard to pick up the sound of the taps, cos you've got feedback problems and all that stuff."

SO rest assured it's gonna sound good. But there's a lot of girls and, quite a few boys who won't be too concerned with acoustics, being too busy straining their eyes to ogle at six sweaty, well built, Aussie blokes as they flex their pecs on stage. Is there a concept behind Tap Dogs, or is it just an excuse to tittilate the girlies and tap into their hormones?

"It's just Australian knock about," shrugs Perry. "It's about being yourself. All the guys are just being themselves they're all tap dancers since they were kids in the style that they were taught, which is quite different to any other style, because we weren't taught out of a syllabus or anything like that. We had a teacher who just made it up himself as he went along, and we learned from watching loads of videos and stuff like that. Basically it's about being ourselves on stage and trying to entertain the audience. Get the audience going, that's the main thing. And if there's a lot of females in there that are enjoying it, well, that's the audience. I think it's always good to try and get the guys going, you know, the big fell as that wouldn't even want to go and watch a dancer or a tap dance show, if that makes them happy then it makes me happy.

"We try to make it as strong and as masculine as we possibly can. The guys are just naturally like that anyway, they have that within them, so that's a nice bonus, it gives a nice edge to it. The guys are very, in a sense, common looking, and knock about, streetwise guys.

You've got to be pretty strong and masculine to be a Tap Dog, because not only do the guys have to dance their boots off, climb around and defy gravity, they also have to do some serious brickie work.

"We've got a set that the guys actually construct themselves during the show, so the set actually opens out, opens up and starts to build, and different surfaces move. And everything's done manually by the guys they pull the ropes, they pull ladders up and everything unfolds, they pull the scaffold down and turn it into a staircase in the end and dance on that, like a stairway to paradise."

By this stage of the show, the ladies should be in seventh heaven, because all that humping and hoofing will have worked up a nice, glistening sweat. In fact, Dein and his Dogs could probably do a polka, and still get things up to fever pitch with sheer physical energy. So what motivates you to do tap over other forms of dancing?

"Well, cos it's you get to make noise, you have an instrument, basically, on your feet, so you become part of the music. It's not just a matter of dancing and making a movement, it's not just visual it's sound, it's about grabbing rhythms and grabbing new steps.

And, agrees Perry, when you tap dance with other people, it, becomes a dialogue between different sets of feet.

"It's like one upmanship. It's like you throw a rhythm at me, and I'll try and throw one better back to you, and we might have a laugh about it, so it's very much like that. It's a fun thing to do."

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney is an Irish Times journalist