Over the years, grass-roots warrior Bril Barrett has spread the gospel of tap every chance he gets, making his own way but also paving the way for others. The organization he founded in 2001, M.A.D.D. (“Making a Difference Dancing”) Rhythms, has played a huge role in that: This nationally known performance troupe also hosts a youth dance ensemble, an After School Matters apprenticeship program and a tap academy for youngsters at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, where it’s an arts partner. It offers free or donation-only tap jams all around the city, and in his spare time, Barrett teaches “Grown & Sexy” adult tap at the American Rhythm Center downtown.
“So when people say it takes a village — truly in my case I have so much appreciation and love for the village,” Barrett says.
One of his earliest mentors was Mr. Taps (aka Ayrie Easley King III), a subway performer he started joining underground at age 11. “I didn’t really get into jazz till Mr. Taps,” Barrett says. “He introduced me to Count Basie — if it was swing, he was dancing to it.” Mr. Taps showed video of classic acts like the Nicholas Brothers and the Four Step Brothers during “footage nights,” every Friday at his house. “We’d make popcorn,” Barrett says. “Me and my cousin used to try to copy all the routines.”
Through Chicago on Tap in summer 1994, Barrett met Savion Glover, who became a friend. It also brought him to Lane Alexander of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, who gave Barrett’s first group, Steppin’ Out, its first performance opportunity. In 1998, Barrett joined the North American tour of “Riverdance,” and in 2000 its international tour.
“I never set out to be a teacher,” Barrett says. “I wanted to perform.” But family circumstances proved the seed of education-oriented M.A.D.D. Rhythms. While he was touring with “Riverdance,” his mother let him know that his younger brother “was starting to hang with a tough crowd,” Barrett says. Aiming to share his love of tap — and keep his little brother close — Barrett started tap jams for talented boys at the Sammy Dyer school in the late ’90s. Then his little sister, Star Dixon, asked, “How come it’s just boys?” He had no good answer, and she joined.
In 2001, Barrett turned his impromptu jammers into M.A.D.D. Rhythms, headquartered at the South Shore Cultural Center. In 2010, the company and the teaching academy made the Harold Washington Cultural Center their home.
The M.A.D.D. Rhythms style, often described as funky, has become better-known through Barrett’s former students, now gaining fame. Star Dixon had great success with her untitled work for 10 at the Audible Odyssey show in May and performed with Dorrance Dance at the Kennedy Center in October. Nico Rubio has taught and performed nationally and internationally. And Jumaane Taylor, often cited as an influence by dancers his own age, created the superb evening-length “Supreme Love” in fall 2015 and gave it a triumphant reprise last summer at the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “JUBA!” performances.
The M.A.D.D. style grew out of Barrett’s many music influences. “I grew up loving everything my mom loved,” he says. “And she was into soul music, old-school R&B and a little jazz — she loved Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder. Then I fell in love with hip-hop when I was around 11. I used to walk around with my Walkman that I bought from street performing with Mr. Taps, listening to nothing but hip-hop.” Later, Barrett learned about world music — the rhythms of the Irish bodhran and the Indian tabla — through “Riverdance.”
In fact, tap might be considered an avenue to world peace — or at least racial integration, which is sometimes just a matter of getting people together in the same room. “Tap is why I know as many people outside my community as I know inside it,” Barrett says. On the other side of the coin, he’s now one of the first black people that white students interact with, he says.
Nevertheless, “Tap remains divided in some ways because people are not real about the history. The people who created my art form weren’t even considered human beings at one point,” Barrett notes. “And given the treatment of African-Americans when tap dance was gaining its roots, people started to impose their own history on it, to ‘legitimize’ it.”
But when you get past that divide, to the root of the art form being expression, “it can be wonderful,” Barrett says. “Horrible things are happening in this country, unarmed black men being killed. But if I go to a class, all this other stuff goes away. Tap is my sanity, it’s kept me from boiling over many times. I wish everybody had an option to get that out of their systems, to hold conversations with people who don’t look like them. Tap is a perfect way — not the only way — to bring racial healing.”
Laura Molzahn is a freelance critic.
Get down to the American Rhythm Center(ARC) January 2 – 8 for an entire week of FREE Dance and fitness classes! Participants can try favorites like Tap, Jazz, Zumba, Hip Hop, House Dance, and Breaking or brand new classes like Ballet, Contemp-Hop Fusion, Chicago Footwork, Latin, Afro-Dancehall, Adult Steel Band Classes and more!
Bring a Friend for a chance to win 10 Free Classes courtesy of the American Rhythm Center!
During the week of the Free-4-All New ARC clients will also have the opportunity to purchase a 10 Class Card at 30% off when they sign up before January 9th! That’s a $135 value for $97.50!
KWANZAA CELEBRATION HARAMBEE na NGUZO SABA 2016 Chicago Metro Area
Chicago State University :
In Association with: Y2Kwanzaa.Org l The Black Mall | TEMBO
KWANZAA CELEBRATION HARAMBEE na NGUZO SABA 2016
Friday DEC.30, 2016 @ 4PM TIL 9PM
Chicago State University – 9501 South King Drive , Chicago, IL.
Go to theblackmall.com/ujamaa-market for vending
On December 26th, SuperGroup, Party Noire, Harold Washington Cultural Center, M.A.D.D. Rhythms and Church on the 9 will be collaborating to bring y’all ZAWADI, the annual and official #Kwanzaa2016 Open Mic.
Now. Because this is the 50th Anniversary, and because 2016 has been a year pulled straight from the depths of a white american horror story, we decided to do something special for you folks.
Featuring spoken word legends Adam Ness and Ayinde Cartman, as well as the ear-gasmic, party rockin’, beat knockin sounds of DJ Rae Chardonnay, and hosted by Chicago’s very own Lawrence Binkey Tolefree (deported from Thailand for one night only!), this is a night going down in Chi’celand History.
Take a second to appreciate the sheer audacity of that BOMB A**, BLACK A** LINE-UP. Honestly, I don’t know where else you’ll be on a random Monday evening besides here. From 6 to 9 at the Harold Washington Cultural Center. Come get this work.
The Big Apple Tap Festival – produced by Avi Miller & Ofer Ben
A gathering of tap dances from all over the world for Three days of intense tap dancing in New York City with star studded master faculty. Classes for Adults, teens, and young tappers at various levels.
Bob Audy (assisted by Isabel Glasser and Alan Spaulding);
Bril Barrett; Ofer Ben; Justin Boccitto; Brenda Bufalino;
Karen Callaway-Williams; Debbi Dee; Barbara Duffy;
Mercedes Ellington; DeWitt Fleming; Ray Hesselink;
Lisa Hopkins; Avi Miller; Gregg Russell; Germaine Salsberg; Jimmy Tate; Dianne ‘Lady Di’ Walker (assisted by Lia Spirka) & Steve Zee
The Participants Showcase will be held at the Schomburg Center in uptown Manhattan on Saturday night November 12th. Group and solo performance applications can be submitted starting in June.
Festival includes Tap History Talks and a Video Presentation, alongside other events during the weekend.
Teachers and Studio Owners, contact us for group rates and performance opportunities.
Sales of The Miller & Ben Tap Shoes, The Big Apple Tap Festival merchandise, Tap DVDs, Books, and more.