Receiving an award as a leader in dance education from one of the nation’s top tap companies would have been recognition enough for the Department of Dance at Hope College. It’s next-level to have had students invited to perform during that company’s 20th-anniversary celebration as well.
“This is a huge and wonderful honor for our institution to receive, especially from such an internationally known dance company,” said Matt Farmer, who is the Dorothy Wiley DeLong Associate Professor of Dance and department chair at Hope.
Chicago Tap Theatre (CTT) will present the college with the company’s 2023 Inspiration Award during a dinnertime gala on Sunday, Feb. 19, for the department’s “legacy of continued support and advancement for the art of tap dance in America.” The gala will culminate a two-day event titled “Chicago Tap Theatre at 20: Tempo, Rhythm, and Time” that will include concerts by CTT at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. The Hope students will be performing — and premiering — a piece choreographed just for them by CTT’s founder and artistic director, Mark Yonally.
Join Hope in a celebration on Saturday, Feb. 18, from 5 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. at Standard Bar & Grill, Chicago, Illinois. Admission is free, please RSVP here.
“As I sat down to think about this 20th anniversary season, I thought, ‘This has to be big. Whoever we’re going to honor this year needs to be somebody or some entity that has really had a profound impact on our organization as well as on tap dance as a whole,’” Yonally said. “And it was an easy choice. You know, as soon as I thought of Hope College, I was kind of surprised, to be honest, that we hadn’t done it already, but it was also very fitting that we didn’t do it until the 20th anniversary.”
“Hope College truly is one of the finest dance programs in the country right now,” he said. “Anybody who’s looking for a university or college with a stellar dance department should consider Hope College. It is a premier institution. And the combination of the level of excellence, along with the kind of nurturing environment that’s offered there, is very rare.”
Reflecting on Chicago Tap Theatre’s specialization within dance, Yonally noted that Hope is particularly distinctive not only in emphasizing tap, but in doing so at a high level.
“Hope believes in the art form,” he said. “They believe in tap dance.”
“That is a rare thing,” he said. “Ninety percent of dance departments don’t even offer tap dance as an elective. And if they do, often it’s a little like one class a semester — you know, ‘level one.’”
Yonally noted that Hope’s commitment to teaching tap dance is all the more important because the art form developed in America, originating in the early 1700s as West African people were forcibly brought to this country and enslaved. As tap evolved, he explained, it came to include elements of other traditions, and it is foundational in most American dance forms including jazz, musical theatre and Hip Hop.
Yonally’s relationship with Hope predates the founding of Chicago Tap Theatre by a year or two. He was teaching tap dance with another Chicago-area company when Rosanne DeVries, who was a member of the Hope faculty at the time, invited him to come to Hope as a guest instructor during the college’s May Term.
“And I remember being struck by a few things,” he said. “One was that Hope was a college that cared enough about tap dance that not only did they have somebody within that dance department that regularly offered tap dance, but they brought in outside specialists in tap dance to come and teach. And, they had a performing dance company that specifically focused on American dance, on tap dance and jazz dance.”
“And then, the last thing that I distinctly remember, and that I would say has remained very true, is the level of kindness and sophistication of the student body,” Yonally said. “It really seemed like whatever I taught, they were hungry for it and were thankful for it. And they took it, and they internalized it and they worked on it, and they came in the next day and clearly had worked on what I’d taught the day before, were ready to move on and wanted more. And that doesn’t happen everywhere.”
The relationship has continued across the 20-plus years since. Chicago Tap Theatre has performed at the college three times. Yonally has led a number of master classes at Hope, and graduates of the dance program have gone on to work with CTT.
Along the way, he’s valued that Hope’s emphasis on tap has even grown. He’s appreciated the continued advocacy as exemplified by current department chair Farmer. Among recent developments, Yonally singles out the creation of a new tap studio in the DeVos Fieldhouse, and the 2020 appointment of faculty member Heather Cornell, formerly of New York City, who he describes as a legend in the tap community and “one of the most important pioneers of the last 50 years” as well as a top educator.
Yonally developed the piece that the Hope students will be performing while he was on campus this past fall. It is named for its featured music, “How Insensitive,” the bossa nova and jazz standard by Antônio Carlos Jobim.
“Any time I soloed in a show, it was one of my top five favorite songs because it just always really moved me,” Yonally said. “But I never choreographed to it for anybody, frankly, because I was very protective of it.”
“And when I realized the group of dancers I was going to get to work with, that the piece is going to have more importance, I thought it was time to do this: to take this song that’s meant a lot to me for 35 years and finally put choreography to it,” he said.
Following its premiere during Chicago Tap Theatre’s anniversary concerts on Feb. 18 and 19, “How Insensitive” will be featured at Hope during the department’s annual major spring concert — Dance 49 this year, scheduled for Friday and Saturday, March 3-4, and Thursday-Saturday, March 9-11, in Hope’s DeWitt Center main theatre.
“How Insensitive” is set on seven dancers, who will be accompanied by a live jazz band and Hope student vocalist. CTT is providing the band during its two concerts, but a Hope combo will be performing during Dance 49.
The student dancers are Paige Augustyn, Isabella Ensworth, Alexis Erickson, Josie Farrell, Sarra Lacour, Jackie Rivera and Chloe Yonkus, with Taylor Lee as understudy. Gretchen Woell will be the vocalist. When they perform at Hope, they’ll be joined by Carlos Flores (drums) and Jacob Nowakowski (bass).
Farmer noted that tap has been a focus for the college’s dance program since it began. The department was established in 1974, has offered a major since 1984, and has been accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance since 1985.
“The dance department has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the advancement of tap,” Farmer said. “Tap has been a required part of the curriculum since the department’s founding, along with jazz, modern and ballet. It’s been a part of our bloodline forever.”
More than 250 students are enrolled in the department’s courses in any given semester, including approximately 75 who have declared majors or minors. Many pursue double-majors, combining dance with programs ranging from chemistry, to economics and business, to engineering, to French, to psychology.
The department includes six full-time faculty as well as a variety of part-time, adjunct and guest faculty, with its coursework a combination of technique and theory. In addition to ballet, jazz, modern and tap, technique emphases include Hip-Hop, an elective for the past decade that will become a required part of the major beginning with the fall 2023 incoming class. Hope also offers a dance-pedagogy minor. The range of other courses includes composition; global and percussive dance; specialized topics such as sacred dance, dance therapy, and skills and preparation for dance careers; and more. The coursework is complemented by numerous performance opportunities, including of student-choreographed work, and participation in collaborative research with faculty. More information about the Department of Dance is available at hope.edu/dance
To meet the continued strong student interest, and to continue to meet NASD standards as they evolve, Hope is currently raising funds for a $6 million addition to the DeWitt Center — home of the college’s main theatre — that will feature a new dance studio for classes, rehearsals and performance, with a major renovation of the department’s primary instructional space in the Dow Center to be next. Construction will commence when funding is secured. More information about the project is featured in the Summer 2022 issue of “News from Hope College.”
Tickets for Chicago Tap Theatre’s 20th anniversary concerts and for the gala are available through the company’s website, chicagotaptheatre.com/events
The college will hold a celebration of its own before CTT’s festivities begin. Hope is hosting a reception on Saturday, Feb. 18, from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Standard Bar & Grill, located just across the street from The Den Theatre. Admission is free to Hope’s reception and no tickets are required, although those planning to attend are asked to rsvp by Monday, Feb. 13, at hope.edu/tap, where more information is also available.