Dancers tap their way to funding a performing arts scholarship

Kids aspiring to study art ain’t never had friends like these.

Dancers gather under the Nickless Family Community Pavilion for the Downtown Shuffle Around on Sept. 12. The tap dance boards were spaced out in order to keep everyone appropriately distanced.A group of Bay City natives, who each have thriving careers on stages around the country, came together recently to form the Spark Artistic Mentorship Program. On Sept. 12, fundraising for the scholarship kicked off Downtown Shuffle Around, an all-day tap dancing event in Wenonah Park.

More than 150 people of all ages danced during the day-long event, raising more than $2,000 for the endowment fund.From noon to 6 p.m., Ryan VanDenBoom offered insight into the history of tap dancing while teaching his audience a few classic steps. He started each class by asking his students to feel the rhythm of their own hearts.

Ryan VanDenBoom demonstrated the roots of modern tap dancing, showing students how the moves evolved from Irish and African American traditions. “People say I don’t have rhythm, I can’t dance. That’s just not true,” VanDenBoom told the students.

Dancers ranged from kids in sneakers to grandparents wearing tap shoes borrowed from their grandchildren.VanDenBoom, who grew up in Munger, started dancing at 4 years old. Today, he’s a New York University graduate who teaches at the Broadway Dance Center and has appeared on Broadway and in movies.

While he demonstrated the moves, VanDenBoom encouraged the students to enjoy the music and opportunity to dance.The goal of Downtown Shuffle Around was to raise money for a performing arts scholarship. Details of the scholarship are being finalized, but the basic premise is to award money for lessons to a high school student in an underserved population. Additionally, VanDenBoom hopes to connect scholarship recipients with working professionals who will serve as educators and mentors.

VanDenBoom taught part of one classic tap dance move, known as the Tap Shim Sham. The routine is known as the national anthem of tap dancing.Korie Lee Blossey ­– who also grew up in the area and most recently appeared as Genie in the Tony Award-winning traveling musical Aladdin – was excited to join Spark and the fundraiser. Blossey encouraged dancers to follow their dreams before singing “Friend Like Me,” several times during the Downtown Shuffle Around. (Read more about Blossey in a November Route Bay City article.)

During the classes, VanDenBoom showed the students how to advance basic steps by turning in circles or springing into the air.“This is an incredible opportunity to let the younger generation knows what’s out there,” Blossey says. “You don’t need a genie to inspire children. I am grateful to come back and do whatever I can.”

VanDenBoom gave a brief overview of the history of tap dancing, encouraging people to appreciate the roots of the art form.While only VanDenBoom and Blossey performed during the Wenonah Park event, both Katie Travis and her brother, Matt Travis, were part of the event. The siblings grew up in the area. Katie has performed as Christine, the Phantom’s love interest in a touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Matt is the director of Choral and Orchestral Programs at the Midland Center for the Arts. Thad Van Tifflin, who serves as a Spark board member, also was at the park.

The Bay Area Community Foundation is still accepting donations to endowment that supports the Spark Artistic Mentorship Program.During the Sept. 12 event, more than 150 people danced, raising more than $2,000, Matt Travis says.

During the day-long event, VanDenBoom and other artists interacted with the crowd, offering tap dancing tips and posing for photos.Fundraising was only one part of the project. VanDenBoom, who has been an advocate for arts education for years, said he’s been visiting family while Broadway is closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While here, he called Matt Travis to talk about an idea for a one-time event. He envisioned inviting students from local dance studios to participate in an outdoor dance class. He was hoping to raise $1,000 for a one-time donation.

Organizers hope the scholarship offers opportunities to area teens who love the arts.“I had very small ambitions for this event,” VanDenBoom says.

The Spark program includes assigning working artists to mentor scholarship recipients.Matt loved the idea, but suggested moving it to a bigger outdoor venue and inviting the entire community to participate. He suggested creating an endowment to fund ongoing arts scholarships for under-served communities.

Tap dancers filled the park with sound and movement, attracting spectators to the pavilion.“That’s not something I had thought about, however that’s awesome and a great way to use these efforts to do something that’s going to live on beyond me and hopefully serve the community for a long time,” VanDenBoom says.

VanDenBoom demonstrated classic steps and explained how they evolved.Shortly before beginning to plan the event, VanDenBoom read Brian Siebert’s “What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing.” Through the book, he learned that today’s tap dancing has its roots in dances performed by Irish manual laborers and moves featured in African American traditions. He wanted to share that knowledge.

While the main purpose of the Downtown Shuffle Around was to raise money for the scholarship, VanDenBoom also wanted to create a joyful moment for people in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.“A large part of this event is going to be an interactive history lesson about tap dance and how it relates to music composition and also music theory,” VanDenBoom says. “It’s also just a medium for sharing joy and creating community. “

The energetic performance kept the crowd engaged during each of the lessons.The world especially needs community and joy now, he says.

‘The truth is you can tap your foot in your kitchen while you’re making dinner and you’re tap dancing,’ VanDenBoom says.“The truth is you can tap your foot in your kitchen while you’re making dinner and you’re tap dancing,” VanDenBoom says. “I want people to understand that something as simple as tapping your feet on a piece of wood and making a pleasant sound is available to you in time where you maybe feel like you don’t have those outlets. I felt like that was a really beautiful sentiment for this time. We can still come together and share music.”

The Spark program is still accepting donations through the Bay Area Community Foundation.
Each tap dance board was painted with letters spelling out Spark, the name of the performing arts mentorship and scholarship program.

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