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Martin Tre Dumas is ready to soar with new CHRP programming
22 May 2008

Time Out Chicago / Issue 169 : May 22–28, 2008
Stomping grounds
The Chicago Human Rhythm Project is ready for its own home.

By Asimina Chremos

WINGING IT Tre Dumas is ready to soar with new CHRP programming.
Photograph: Joanne Chan

In the mid-1980s, tap dancer Lane Alexander was looking for ways to improve his technique and commune with others who shared his passion. Little did he know he was stepping out on a path that would lead him to envision the nation’s first dedicated percussive dance center in downtown Chicago. The center is on track to open within the next five years.

While Chicago has a venerable tap-dance history and storied practitioners, 25 years ago Alexander found he had to travel to the West and East Coasts to find a critical mass of dancers gathered around knowledgeable vaudevillians and Broadway legends who were passing on their beautifully weathered expertise in classes and workshops.

Back then, Alexander applied for— and received—a $1,200 study grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to attend the Portland International Tap Dance Festival. “It was two weeks of tap-geek heaven,” says Alexander, who names Honey Coles, Steve Condos and Buster Brown among his mentors. “I thought, Wow, let’s bring this to Chicago.” And he did. In 1990 he cofounded the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, a nonprofit with one foot in presenting tap-dance performances and another in educating new generations of tap dancers. He also wanted to bring all of the disparately located tap-dance tribes together. At the time, “there wasn’t any common ground for tap-dance fanatics in Chicago,” he says.

Alexander’s move to start CHRP was generous, as it took away from the time he could spend on his own dancing and performing. But it was also a prescient one: “All the [tap] fests that started up in the mid-’80s stopped producing after several years,” Alexander says. For those who missed their concentrated summertime tap-dance infusion, Chicago became a favored destination.

Now that CHRP is a certifiable adult, 18 years old and enjoying strong relationships with venues such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Harris Theater, it’s time for a new phase. With a motivated board of directors (led by Susan Oppenheimer) who share Alexander’s passion for the form, the organization started planning for a leadership transition a couple of years ago.

“I thought maybe we would get a high-powered executive director so I could focus on the artistic side of things,” Alexander says. “But the exact opposite happened. I’m going to continue to focus on institutional issues and development.” So who is going to oversee the selection of teaching artists and performers, thus nurturing the all-important aesthetic values of the organization? “We tried a few different people. This February we struck gold,” Alexander says.

The golden boy turned out to be Martin “Tre” Dumas, a fellow tapper and tap visionary. Alexander and Dumas already have a decade-long relationship as colleagues, which means “the shift [in leadership] can be gradual and organic,” Alexander says. Dumas brings top-notch cred to CHRP: He’s a former hoofer in the nationally known productions Riverdance and Tap Dance Kid, as well as former coartistic director of M.A.D.D. Rhythms, one of Chicago’s premiere tap-dance programs for young people.

While Dumas curates the upcoming programs, Alexander will focus on fund-raising and planning a percussive arts center. “We want to establish a facility that has a 300- to 500-seat theater and four to six studios for percussive dance, with wood floors and proper acoustics for tap, flamenco, kathak and other forms,” he says, noting that it will be the first tap and percussive center in the U.S. “It’s amazing what you can do in 20 years.”

CHRP celebrates National Tap Dance Day with concerts at the Vittum Theater this weekend.

Asimina Chremos