Mark Yonally wants to give tap dancing its due

December 7, 2011

Who teaches deaf children to tap-dance? A true believer, that’s who. Choreographer Mark Yonally, who heads up Chicago Tap Theatre, wants to bring tap to the masses.

A self-professed “child of the ‘death of tap’ period,” Yonally says that tap-dance pretty much disappeared from Broadway and the movies between the mid-50s and early 80s. Tap historians, he adds, generally point the finger at Agnes de Mille’s modern-dance dream ballet in Oklahoma!, which made tap-dancing seem “old-fashioned and out of touch.”

Springing to the defense of a form he’s used in lots of pop culture-based narrative dances, Yonally says firmly: “Tap can reveal psychological insights, tap can further a narrative, tap can explore more complex emotions.” Among the wordless story shows CTT has produced in its nine years: an epic contest between comic book superheroes and a science-fiction tale with a David Bowie score.

Raised in a Kansas City suburb, Yonally was a child stage and screen actor who decided at 18 that he was better at dancing than acting.

But theater—and crossing boundaries generally—is still fundamental to his work. CTT’s “Tidings of Tap” was Chicago’s first holiday production to include both Christmas and Hanukkah, always with a light touch. Beatcracker in a Nutshell, for example, is a beat-boxed and tapped rendition of five Tchaikovsky tunes.  

This weekend “Tidings of Tap” crosses another boundary: it will be set entirely to live music. New company members Andrew Edwards, CTT’s longtime composer and arranger, and violinist Samantha O’Connell will perform, plus husband-and-wife klezmer whizzes Kurt and Annette Bjorling and bassist Ken Fuller. New pieces include Yonally’s Kiever Dreydiekh (“Dreidels of Kiev”) and You’re a Swingin’ One, Mr. G. (aka “the Grinch”) as well as company member Rich Ashworth’s Candlelight.

Asked whether “Tidings of Tap” is a CTT cash cow, Yonally says no. “Most of our shows come very close to breaking even—or actually break a profit. We try to do shows that we think the audience will want to see.”

In March, that’ll be a new danced narrative based on Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face), a 1960 French horror flick with a gruesome premise: a surgeon is kidnapping beautiful women, cutting off their faces, and attempting to graft them onto the mangled face of his daughter.

“We try to keep our shows family-friendly,” Yonally says. “But this one may skew older, like PG-13. I’m not interested in going the Grand Guignol route—there are so many artists exploring angst and darkness, no one needs me to do that. There will be some dark humor.”

Always up for a challenge, Yonally knew that teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing kids to tap-dance wouldn’t be easy. He didn’t realize it was totally uncharted territory. By the night before he was slated to teach fourth- through eighth-graders at Bell School in Roscoe Village, he’d discovered nothing at all online about how to do it. And when he went to the website of Gallaudet University, which specializes in education for the aurally challenged, he discovered an article debunking his only theory: that deaf children would learn to dance by feeling vibrations in the floor.

“I told the kids when I started,” he says, “we are pioneers.”

What Yonally eventually found was that his students learned visually. And unfortunately the auditorium stage where he holds classes, unlike most dance studios, has no mirrors. When his students try to dance without him leading them, they can’t get visual cues from one another to stay in unison. So now a CTT board member is buying portable mirrors.

“When I started, I couldn’t sign,” Yonally says. “And now I’ve got maybe a 20- or 30-word vocabulary. Today I learned ‘from the beginning.’ I tell them I’m teaching them to tap, and they’re teaching me to sign.”

“The hard part for me, occasionally, is just keeping my stuff together. When they do it all together, I just want to cry. (Please don't let me sound too squishy and self-serving!) The teachers all dance with the kids, learning along with them. And the kids who need a little extra help, the teachers will hold their hands the whole time. A lot of people are working to make this happen.”