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Chicago Hosts a Rhythmic Battle

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A 300-year-old art form is making an appearance in Chicago. Hundreds of people are here from around the world to take tap classes as part of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s summer festival called Rhythm World. It's billed as the oldest and largest tap dance festival in North America. Some of the participants spent a recent evening trying to out-do each other in front of a live audience.

Danny Akin is a summer intern with the Rhythm Project. But he's also a contestant in a tap improv show that's just about to start. So he's practicing his steps while going over last-minute details on a clipboard.

KALSNES: Describe what footwear you're tapping in?
AKIN: I'm tapping in a pair of flip-flops.

Of course, he'll change into tap shoes for the Cutting Contest.

It starts with 17 people. They face off, two at a time. The first contestant taps out a measure of music, and the other dancer responds. They go back and forth, showing off their footwork and stealing each other's moves. It's the tap equivalent or "Take that," or "Top this."

Yes, that was the "William Tell Overture."

SAMUELS SMITH: If your phrasing is completely musical, you can sing a melody with your tap. You can say a sentence with your tap. If you listen, you can hear it all. It's in there.

Noted performer and choreographer Jason Samuels Smith says tap is a great form to have a battle in. Tonight, he's a judge.
SAMUELS SMITH: It's about people stretching themselves, seeing how far they can take the art form and seeing how good they can be in that moment. And you know, you live to dance another day if you lose.

Samuels Smith is looking for creativity and a crisp sound. Contests like this have been going on nearly as long as tap itself.
ALEXANDER: The history of tap is almost as old as the United States.

That's Lane Alexander, who founded the Chicago Human Rhythm Project. He says tap dates back to the days of slavery. So many people died in the holds of ships, sea captains started bringing slaves up for fresh air and exercise. They'd do African dances on deck. Irish sailors – who'd been pressed into service -- would respond with their own dances.

ALEXANDER: And it may have been at a moment like that when African and Irish culture first saw each other. And that was the beginning of the process that's gone on for the last 300 years, really, of creating a new American art form of tap dance.

That old art form is appealing to a new generation. All the contestants at the Cutting Contest are men and women in their teens and 20s. Like Matthew Shields from Texas.

SHIELDS: There's like a challenge there to one-up the other dancers. You have to be quick on your toes, and it's a learning experience. You grow after you do something like this.

He started tapping as a kid when he got dragged to his sister's dance classes. The leaders put all the boys in a room with some tap shoes and promised them pizza. Shields was hooked.

SHIELDS: I've really liked the communication through your mind into the floor. There's a whole body connection that has to go from all the way from the top to all the way to the bottom and then out.

He dances his way back to the auditorium with minutes to go. He doesn't know it yet, but Tristan Bruns from the South Loop will be his first opponent.

BRUNS: Right now my head feels like it's full of helium. My heart is thumping in my chest. My stomach's a little queasy, and I'm really afraid. But it's so much fun. This is what people write books about, this feeling, the feeling people write songs about, to get up in front of people and kind of  come up with whatever's in your head. You can really express yourself.
Minutes later, Bruns comes up against Shields. Jason Samuels Smith gives them a waltz tempo. They both struggle. Samuels Smith starts them over again. Shields is the first dancer who crosses the stage and gets into his opponent's space. He wins this round, but eventually, gets beaten by a young Brazilian.

In the end, it's the young woman from Tokyo with excellent timing and rhythm, who's not quite so flashy, who wins. Reona Otsuka gets $100 and bragging rights.

The annual Rhythm World festival concludes this weekend with a series of performances.

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