Museum of Contemporary Art Hosts “JUBA!” Review – Imagination’s Syncopation On Display


Juba, the name for the rhythmic plantation dance that West African slaves defiantly danced during times when slave owners banned drums for fear they were being used to transmit secret messages, has been re-invented anew by many generations from minstrel shows of old to the sophisticated jazz syncopated rhythms of today.   If you want to know what is happening on the cutting edge of this art form, Chicago’s Human Rhythm Project is a good place to begin your explorations. 



This year’s 23rd Annual Rhythm World festival had three public performances called “JUBA!” at the Museum of Contemporary Art that crowned their weeks of workshops, master classes and more for the apparently thriving global community of tap dancers moving the tap dance art form in new directions.



Supporting the Chicago Human Rhythm Project for many years is one of the feathers in the MCA’s cap.   That the MCA reserves three days of programming for the festival speaks to its strong commitment to this art form.


We were able to catch up with two of the three concerts and see the creativity and physical prowess that is driving a spirited conversation between jazz and dance that is Juba! Circa 2013.


Day 2 of this showcase began with Michelle Dorrance’s “Push Past Break”, reported by Human Rhythm Project Founder and Director Lane Alexander  to be the first tap choreography ever awarded a Princess Grace Foundation Award.  Starinah Dixon began this piece with a solo accompaniment to a “St Louis Bues” croon, and was joined by Heather Brown, Tristan Bruns, Kritis Burris, and Zada Cheeks to dance to “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Anywhere I Can”.   Dorrance notes that she is trying to show how joyful expression grows from some of the most oppressed terrain.


Dorrance’s later performance of “Maladjusted” may have been the most emotionally moving piece of the evening, and certainly the most searing political commentary on the events of our day.   Set to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech decrying adjustment to discrimination and like evils, we first only hear the tap dance and then as lights come on see the back of a dancing figure in a hoodie, evoking the recent court happenings surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin.


Two NYC-based performers gave arresting showcases of syncopated conversations with the Greg Spero Jazz Trio. 



Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, the private tap instructor of the late Michael Jackson gave a performance that suggested why she is reported to be central to all thing tap-dancing since the 1980’s. 



Nicholas Young delighted by using his mouth clicks and clapping his body to complement the rhythms from his feet. 


The video “Rhythm of Life” showcasing tap that had won Rhythm World’s 20,000+ online voters’ competition was shown (videographer Dean Hargrove), followed by a more Broadway style tap performance “Cut Tide” performed by the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble.   The first act was wrapped up with a return to sophisticated COOL style syncopation by Derick Grant, a veteran of Savion Glover’s “Bring in Da Noise” and leader of that show’s first national tour.



Perhaps you, like me, will be surprised to learn that Brazil has adapted America’s dance and has a thriving tap scene.  Representing that world were three performers and choreographers from Cia Trupe TOE—Marina Coura, Charles Renato, and Leondardo Sandoval, accompanied by fellow Brazilian musicians , Alexandre Damaria, Rodrigo Paiva, and Rafael Calegari.   



This was crisp performance all the way—



whether it being to the strands of the Girl from Ipanema ,



music of Carnival or a memorable muscular duel between Charles Renato’s tap with the native Brazilian berimbau, a one-stringed percussive type instrument used to accompany in the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira.


The third and final performance of Juba! was titled “Bad Boys, Back Beats, and Best Bets”.  This night began with a musical performance by Greg Spero Trio (Greg Spero, Makaya McKraven, and Junius Paul) , a welcomed showcase of the musical partner to so many of the soloists.  As a thank you to Lane Alexander and the Chicago Human Rhythm Project for helping to propel his career to new heights, Greg Spero gave all audience members a free CD at intermission, with any and all donated proceeds given to the Chicago Human Rhythm Project


This evenings performances showcased the talents of several Chicago natives who have become leading tap performers—Nico Rubio, Jumaane Taylor, and Starinah Dixon. 


The winner of Rhythm World’s global choreography competition (Blues for Hannah by Shauna Mindt) was performed by Hannah Rickman


The youth performers of Northwest Tap Connection (Director Melba Ayco) gave a fun performance that had the ensemble weaving across the stage in a high energy demonstration of well-rehearsed ensemble movements. 


Jason Janas (a nationally recognized tap dancer who originally hails from New Jersey) and Jumaane Taylor put a new spin, on Stravinksy’s Sacrifice dance that many think of as being part of the Rite of Spring Ballet.



Janas also performed an extremely physical workout to “The Shadow of Your Smile”, perhaps making the strongest showcase of just how much athleticism underlies this performance genre.


The global nature of today’s tap world was driven home by the performance of Swiss Daniel Leveille, a many time winner of world tap dance competitions and the performance by Tre Dumas, co-founder of M.A.D.D. Rhythms, a group whose sole purpose is reportedly to spread the love of tap dance worldwide.



Sam Weber from San Francisco concluded the program with an outstandingly smooth performance that seemed entirely effortless, as if to tease—“What’s all the fuss about, we can do this in our sleep!.”  To see Weber wrap it up was to realize the range we had just witnessed in all these performances. 


In the dictionary syncopation is defined as “the shifting of the normal accent, usually by stressing the normally unaccented.”  If you want to stretch your brain to hear hidden rhythms brought to life by imagination-fired feet, mark your calendars to find next year’s Rhythm Festival at the MCA. 


For complete Rhythm World information on upcoming performances visit the Chicago Human Rhythm Project Website (  or call 312- 542 2477.




Charles Renato by AdilsonMachado

Leondardo Sandoval by Fernando Galeane

Marina Coura by Cristiano Prim

Derick Grant, Dormesha Sumbry-Edwards and Jason Janas by Nathan Keay

Dormesha Sumbry-Edwards (dressed in yellow) by Eduardo Patino

Michelle Dorrance by Matthew Murphy and Kenn Tam

Sam Weber by Rusty Frank


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