Bril Barrett Is One Of The Chicago Tribune’s Chicagoans of the Year 2016
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.