He looks like just another greying, sport-loving oke. He certainly doesn’t look like someone who pines for the elegance of Fred Astaire’s cane- swinging artistry or worships the memory and genius of Gregory Hines’ percussive feet.
The secret to Dein Perry’s enduring success is that he doesn’t have the swagger of a revolutionary dancer and choreographer who created a global tap dance form or enabled kneecap-less penguins to do snowy soft shoe shuffles in George Miller’s animated tapathon Happy Feet 2.
Nor did this iconic Australian artist sound like the uber director, choreographer and filmmaker during the Tap Dogs media call last week at the Montecasino Teatro, where his care for his altitude- struck air-deprived dancers was equalled by his concern that photographers and camera crews got the angles they wanted.
As Tap Dogs slides towards its 20th anniversary its mastermind has mixed feelings. “I’m proud of Tap Dogs. I’ve done shows in between (like Steel City) but it is difficult to have a hit show and hard to create another. At the moment I’m re-choreographing Hot Shoe Shuffle. Fred Astaire of the 1940s. I miss that.”
Astaire and Hines have been major inspirations. Especially Hines’ ability to tap into modern music and “grow the art form… he drummed with his feet”, explains the tap pro and sports show producer. “We drum with our feet and take it to another level. Tap Dogs is a six-part band.” Perry rattles off comparisons to a kick drum and other musical references which are transposed into his choreography with a maze of rhythms.
As macho and free-spirited as the six Tap Dogs are, as they dice with steel scaffolding they all have some form of technique – “it’s got be in their body”. That’s no accident, because Perry trained in Newcastle, New South Wales, between the ages of four and 16. He did ballet class for two years “in various different ballet schools” but tap, with a male Sammy Davis-influenced teacher, ruled.
Any stigma attached to being a dancer?
“Not really. The school I went to was quite tough. My father wanted me to perform there when I was 14. I didn’t want to, but it was the best thing I could have done. The boys respected me for the fast footwork and I had girlfriends all of a sudden.”
Perry’s CV is pure dance history nirvana. The apprentice fitter and turner who kept tapping at night, then performed in musicals for a decade, went on to dazzle the West End as a choreographer, becoming the youngest person to win back-to-back Olivier Awards for his Hot Shoe Shuffle in 1995 (in which he starred) and Tap Dogs in 1996. In 2000, the year 1 000 Tap Dog dancers took part in the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, he produced, directed and choreographed the award-winning Bootmen, based on the origins of Tap Dogs.
A defining moment of his life was when he was dancing a role in 42nd Street.
“I had been in many musicals like My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls. I was worried. I was 30 and I couldn’t make a living out of it. I got an Australia Council Development Grant to do a little workshop.”
In 1994 he hired dancers and a cameraman. That 20-minute film clip by the Tap Brothers was the genesis of Tap Dogs, which became an international phenomenon dubbed “industrial tap” in the US.
The show, directed by designer Nigel Triffitt (who then created Boots! with Soweto’s Rishile gumboot dancers) premiered at the 1995 Sydney Theatre Festival. This is its fourth South African tour. The biggest challenge for the veteran cast is that their dancing and character- isation doesn’t get stale. A recent addition is female drummers to “change the dynamics on stage”.
Dein Perry has bags of inter- national awards to his name but it is his dancing school in Sydney which delights him most at the moment.
“We have 250 Tap Pups aged from four years old to 16 – 180 of them are boys. That’s extraordinary. It’s like them going to footie training. Tap Pups are being taught by Tap Dogs.” And the Alpha Tap Dog smiles.
• Tap Dogs is at the Montecasino Teatro until March 10 and Artscape in Cape Town from March 13 to 24.