Fall arts preview: Danny Nielsen taps new audiences
Twenty-five-year-old tap wunder-kind Danny Nielsen is doing his best to take his art form to the masses—one rhythmic click at a time.
The Calgary-born and -raised dancer has used his winnings from last year’s Santa Aloi Award to choreograph a tap-based show that goes beyond showcasing fancy footwork to tell a story. No small challenge, it’s his way of reaching out to the masses. And for him, it’s just the beginning.
“The problem is people get bored of seeing awesome footwork. And within this underground scene, tap-dancers are the only ones watching these productions,” Nielsen says, sitting in an empty studio at the Vancouver Tap Dance Society on East Hastings Street, the sound of metal clicking on hardwood echoing from the room next door. He’s been artist in residence at the facility for two years, directing its YouthCo company. “We get obsessed with what our feet are doing, the technical stuff. I want people to grab it and enjoy themselves at the show.”
It’s significant that LOVE.BE.BEST.FREE will premiere on Saturday (September 14) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre as part of its annual open house; the venue brings new credibility, and a new audience, to tap. Nielsen has structured the show as a love story, where a guy gets torn away from his buddies—in this case, his real-life tap, beer, and golf pals Ryan Foley, Johnathan Morin, and Shay Kuebler (who hails from the 605 Collective).
As you may have noticed, the show will feature a lot of guys dancing—and that masculine side of the art form is what lured Nielsen to it in the first place. Growing up in Calgary as a kid, he’d often get dragged to his sister’s dance class, so he took up tap so he’d have something to do.
“I guess I liked the female attention; I think I stayed in for the social aspects,” he admits with a smile. “Then when I was 13 or 14 I got a male teacher and that kind of changed my life. After that I saw videos like White Nights and Tap, and I saw all these men doing rhythm tap.” He adds he eventually became fascinated by the history of tap, and heroes like Fred Astaire, John W. Bubbles, and Gregory Hines.
Basically, Nielsen hasn’t stopped hammering the floor since. “By Grade 12 I had this huge passion for this one thing and not much else—I wasn’t really into partying, and just stopped going to school that much.” From there, he proved to his parents he was serious about tap as a career, teaching and performing with companies like M.A.D.D. Rhythms and M.A.D.D. Rhythms Canada, Heather Cornell’s CanTap, Lisa La Touche’s Tap Phonics, and Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, bonding with some of the brightest talents in the field. He’s taught everywhere from the DC Tap Fest to Brasil Tap Jazz, and yes, he was there hoofing it in those 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremonies.
The really big news is that Nielsen has been recruited to the only full-time tap troupe on the continent—Austin’s Tapestry Dance Company, which visited here in 2012. He heads there right after his new work debuts, and he can’t wait to hit rehearsals and indulge his passion for dancing. “I’m excited to be in a studio from 9 to 2 every day. For this show, I’m in heaven right now going into the studio,” he says, joking that he’s not so sure about the ballet and hip-hop classes that Tapestry requires of its well-rounded troupe.
Nielsen says he’s just subletting his apartment here, so expect him to be back, continuing to make his mark on the art form, someday soon. “We need another star—somebody that can take it there for us, and we can push it from there,” he says of tap. “We need another Gregory Hines—I mean, I know it’s not gonna be me.” Never say never, though.