by Constance Garcia-Barrio
The snap and click of tap dancing raise rhythms from Philly’s past, when curbside dancing duels drew crowds. A chance to study with masters of that street staccato brought Corinne Anne Karon, 39, to Philadelphia.
A short white girl from Providence, Rhode Island, rather than the black men of tap’s heyday, Corinne seemed the unlikeliest of future Philly hoofers, or street-style dancers. “I didn’t even know about hoofing until I moved here to attend the University of the Arts in 1992,” said Corinne, who teaches at the Wissahickon Dance Academy, 38 E. Schoolhouse Lane in Germantown.
However, Corinne’s family background primed her to excel. “My grandparents on my dad’s side were dancers,” said Corinne, whose older sister, Alissa, and two younger brothers, Peter and Billy, still live in Rhode Island. “My grandmother and I would always tap in the kitchen together.”
At the University of the Arts, one of the nation’s few schools offering rigorous tap classes, Corinne discovered the difference between hoofing and Broadway tap dance, the style that often claims the spotlight in musicals. “Broadway tap involves lots of arm movements,” she said. “Hoofing is much more intricate and low to the ground.”
Hoofing has its deepest roots in dances of enslaved blacks on plantations. In some ways antebellum Philadelphia was a southern city in a Quaker bonnet. Rich planters summered here with their families and “servants,” who brought black plantation culture, including dance, with them. Forbidden to drum in the South because the rhythms might contain coded messages about rebellion, “Enslaved blacks were forced to create other ways to communicate,” Corinne said. “One of them was tap dancing, a fusion of dances of enslaved blacks with traditional dances of indentured Irish servants. Tap dancing was a means of communication before it became the entertaining art form we know today.”
Blacks in the Caribbean and in places along South America’s Pacific coast also turned to tap dance. Today, for example, performances of internationally-famed Peru Negro feature tap dances developed in Spanish colonial times.
When Corinne studied with the late tap master LaVaughn Robinson, she saw how hoofing grew from the streets of black communities. “In the 1920s and ‘30s, you would start dancing at 25th and South Streets or 2nd and South and work your way toward Broad Street as you got better,” Corinne said. “LaVaughn, who began on street corners, showed me that tap dancing could be not only rhythmic but musical.”
After her 1996 graduation, Corinne, who had worked part-time in UArts’ Continuing Education Department, accepted full-time work there. She also did choreographing and danced with Tap Team Two, a Philly-based company. Deepening her craft and landing choice assignments soon took her abroad. In 1997, she spent two months in Europe studying Irish step dancing. A friend’s 1999 wedding took her to Wollongong, Australia, where she gave impromptu performances in bars. In 2000, she landed a one-month residency at the Beijing Dance Academy, Beijing, China, where she taught tap to students of musical theater.
By 2002, Corinne had hit six continents. Antarctica would make it all seven. “At first, everyone thought I was crazy to consider it, but when I researched the trip, I saw the array of options for getting there.” That sold her on the idea, but even economy travel would cost $7,000 for two weeks. “That’s not counting thermal clothing with lots of zippers and top-quality boots that help prevent frostbite,” she said. Corinne stripped down her living expenses, and her family and friends pitched in with gifts that represented a few years’ worth of Christmas and birthday presents. “I actually have no idea how I pulled it off,” she said.
Corinne’s excitement mounted as the February 3, 2003, departure date loomed. She would travel from Philadelphia to Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city, where she would board an icebreaker to Antarctica. She had a scare just before she left. “My whole body broke out in hives,” Corinne said. “I went to the doctor, but nothing helped until I got going. Then I was fine.”
When Corinne and fellow passengers had a chance to camp out on Antarctica’s Detaille Island, one of the guides helped her find a large board from an abandoned hut so that she could perform for the other campers. “Passengers who hadn’t camped out asked me to perform the next day, which I did.”
Returning home was hard. “I’d had such an amazing trip and was still full of excitement,” Corinne said, “but there I was, back in my apartment, exhausted and a bit sad. I wanted to go back and relive those two weeks.”
Challenges of a different kind have arisen since then. With the drought of funding for arts in schools, the once-flourishing Young Audiences performances, one of Corinne’s mainstays, have been scaled back. It means more than a loss of entertaining programs. “Fewer presentations shrink students’ cultural exposure, limit the possibilities they see for themselves and rob them of potential mentors,” Corinne said.
While the loss of future artists worries her, so does losing Philly’s rich dance history. “It intrigues me that Philadelphia was one of the hottest places for tap dancers back in the 1920s and that so little of that information is being passed on,” Corinne said. Her projects include a lecture/demonstration about it this summer.
Meanwhile, Corinne will continue to perform and to teach 20 classes a week. “Tap dance can be lifelong,” she said. “You can start at age 50 and still have 50 years of dance ahead of you.”