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Playing drums with their feet

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, December 11, 2008

The hall where students normally sit and eat was transformed into a song and dance concert stage Wednesday night, as the 72 members of Professor James McKenna’s tap dance class soft shoed and Shirley Templed to several choreographed numbers.

Dressed in white tops, black pants and tap shoes, the tap dancers showed off the moves they learned during the semester, from the “Bob Hope time step,” to an Irish jig and the “reach for the moon” move.

For 40 minutes, they tapped in front of a large crowd that gathered in the east wing of South Dining Hall. They opened and closed with Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” and performed other numbers in between.

Prior to the first tap dancing class in August, McKenna told the audience, 90 percent of the students had never even seen a pair of tap shoes before, let alone performed a dance.

“It’s so funny, every semester at the beginning of the course, I show the students the dances they will learn,” he said, sitting in his office a few hours before the recital. “And they all laugh and say, ‘Oh right, we’re going to learn that.'”

But he reassures them that three months from the start of class, they will know the songs.

“And it’s true,” he said. “They all learn it.”

McKenna, conversely, cannot remember a time when he did not know how to tap dance. He said it seemed innate to him.

“My mother swears this is true, and I guess I’ve heard it long enough that I’ve come to believe her, that every time she looked over at me, whether I was in the crib or when I was first learning to walk or just standing, more than walking, if there was music on, I was tap dancing,” McKenna said “Just tap dancing, keeping beat with my feet in whatever capacity I could.”

McKenna received his first pair of tap shoes when he was four years old. He said he would watch tap dancing movies, like ones with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Ray Bolger. He’d watch the steps they would do and try to imitate them.

“It just came out of me,” he said. “I think of it as a way of playing the drums with your feet.”

When he was 10 or 11, his parents decided to get him formal tap dancing lessons. He took the lessons for about five years, he said, and learned a lot of great steps, but did not like tapping in the formalistic way the instructors taught because, for him, tap dancing was an expression of how he was feeling.

He kept dancing after his lessons were over, but said he never had any desire to become a professional tap dancer.

“It was already part of my life,” he said. “It was just integrated in. And here I am. I just turned 60 years old and I’m still tap dancing.”

McKenna came to Notre Dame in 1997 from Pomona College, where he had spent five years teaching in the dance department, as well as performing in formal productions and special events.

Upon arriving at Notre Dame, he saw there was no tap dancing class offered. He decided to start one, and added the class to his regular teaching duties in the anthropology department. Since the fall of 1998, McKenna has taught a class in tap each semester he’s been on campus.

The first semester the class was offered, 80 students signed up. It’s been popular ever since, McKenna said, and hundreds of Notre Dame students have taken it.

His friends and family in California are always telling him that they meet Notre Dame graduates who have taken his tap dancing class, he said.

Senior Kelly Donley has taken the class, and this year, for the second time, she is a TA for tap. As the teaching assistant, she demonstrates the steps, works with students individually if they need help and helps choreograph the dances. This year, she and three other students did a special performance of the ABBA song “Mamma Mia” during the recital. She said she thought everyone did a good job.

“I’m thrilled with the performance,” she said.

Seniors Katie Palmitier and Erin Fitzpatrick wore white shirts with nicknames printed on the back for the recital. They said 30 or so of their friends had come to South Dining Hall to watch them perform.

“I think we rocked it,” Fitzpatrick said.

But the tap recital would not be the end of their tapping days, Fitzpatrick joked.

“We’re going to be doing impromptu shows,” she said.

McKenna did his own impromptu show Wednesday night – a solo that he said he decided to do at the last minute.

“The neat thing about tap dancing is, no matter how stressed you are, the minute you put your tap shoes on, you just can’t be uptight anymore,” he told The Observer a few hours before the recital. “There’s something very relaxing and emotionally liberating about listening to the music and dancing.”

He laughed when asked if he’d ever been compared to Fred Astaire.

“I can hold my own,” he said.