As a first time contributor to DanceLife, I thought it necessary to introduce myself by way of an excerpt from the story of my career, so you know who I am and what is my history. I have enjoyed a successful career as a commercial dancer, choreographer, actor, singer and teacher. This is how it unfolded –
I found my self in an enviable position. At the age of 17, I had a potentially career defining decision to make. Do I accept the understudy roles of Skimbleshanks and Mungojerry in the upcoming production of Cats? Or, with the knowledge that 42nd St is auditioning in a few months, hold out and assume I’ll get a role in that show? The year is 1988; I am performing in the ‘Aquacade’ at World Expo ’88 in Brisbane, possibly the biggest entertainment precinct to exist in the history of Australian show business, to date. A high dive, synchronise swimming and dancing show that played 5 shows a day, 7 days a week to capacity crowds of 3000 people each performance. What a show? Tommy Tycho provided the music, Robyn Moase directing and John (Cha-Cha) O’Connell choreographing, the show featured Olympic synchronised swimmer medal winners from USA & Canada and international diving champions, plus a talented bunch of Aussie dancers. Literally breathtakingly, each Aquacade show concluded with a 100-foot high dive, 100 feet! That’s 30.5 meters. And performed from a handstand precariously achieved, from handstand position, on a platform no bigger than a doormat! What a great gig? 6-month contract and I was fresh out of high school.
I ended up turning down Cats, with the promise of an audition for 42nd St several months later. I figured, Cats opened in Australia 2 years earlier; I’d rather be in a show where I’m original cast. I could also tap dance and I liked the score, so once I finished in Brisbane, off I went to Sydney. To my good fortune, the gamble paid off and I was offered an ensemble plot in the Broadway smash 42nd St, to play at Her Majesty’s theatre, Hay St, Haymarket (the theatre is no longer there. It lost a lot of business when the Lyric Theatre opened at Star City Casino, a block of apartments stands there now). My dreams were coming true. I returned to Qld and packed by bags and moved to Sydney. I landed comfortably, Jacqui Howard asked me to join her commercial dance group, ‘Gimme Five’ which was taking up residency at ‘Julianas’, the nightclub at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. We performed 2 x 4 minute shows per night (11.30pm and 1.00am), 5 nights a week, for 6 weeks. The routines were choreographed by Robyn Moase (Smooth Criminal) and Kelley Abbey (The Way You Make Me Feel) and included dancers Kelly Aykers, Renee Isaacs, Lita Stathis and Drew Anthony. We were paid a full weeks actors equity minimum wage for our work… those were the days.
Rehearsing 42nd St during the day (at SDC) and performing at the Hilton by night. Not bad for a 17 year old. During the 18-month season of 42nd St, I continued on as a commercial dancer in Gimme Five for 3 more contracts and choreographed one routine. It was during 42nd St that I met Dein Perry and did his class. Along with others, we would take to Her Majesty’s stage in between shows on a matinee day and ‘jam’. We would all teach each other steps and sometimes put them together into a routine. Now, you must appreciate, in 1989, tap dancing was largely accepted as a dance type best performed in a suit or top hat and tails or, (heaven forbid) a flared unitard, ouch! This was an archetype that most of us couldn’t understand. Every night, we had to slick our hair and cake on the Max Factor Tan 2 make up and struggle with all manner of bow ties, shirt studs and cummerbunds. The commonsense dawned on a lot of us; why can’t we tap in jeans? The seed was planted.
On the international stage, it was the end of the Cold War. The USA had all but bankrupted the USSR by out nuclear weaponing them and in little old Sydney, a very excited musical theatre cast had just been informed that they were to be the first ‘western’ musical to perform behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. That’s right, the Australian cast of 42nd St are travelling to East Berlin to complete a 3-month season. This was huge news in Australia. It was hardly heard of that anyone in the international community was allowed to even pass through the Berlin Wall, let alone sing and tap dance on the other side of it. What is life like on the other side? Is it as repressed as reports suggest? Why us? It was the producer savvy of Helen Montague that made it possible. Before long, orchestra and cast members alike packed their bags, sold their cars and gave notice on their leases in preparation for the exciting venture. Then, without warning, the President of the USSR announced the disbanding of his Union and the Berlin Wall was bulldozed down that very day. It made the world news headlines and was a momentous time in history. But guess what? No Berlin Wall = no East Germany = no more East Berlin in which to perform. Tour cancelled, 10 days before we were due to leave.
Out of work during the market crash of the late 80’s realised a crisis – got to find, or create work. Dein Perry, Sheldon Perry, Ben Reid and I (Drew Anthony, Paul Davis, Adam Garcia and Andrew Hallsworth were also involved) got busy rehearsing a new style of Tap Dance. Under the motivation and direction of Dein, we found ourselves the subject of an Arts Council grant to establish a Tap ‘Company’. A 3-week ‘workshop in progress’ caucus ensued and we used David Atkins’ ‘Dynamite Studios’ (one of the 1st establishments to offer a full-time dance course in Sydney) as our venue. The performance was filmed with Max Lambert musically directing and Dave Stratton on bass. For the first time we outfitted us in jeans/t-shirts and tapped like no one had ever seen before.
David Atkins saw the footage and immediately booked us to form the cast of his next project, ‘Hot Shoe Shuffle’, an all singing, all tapping musical comedy. Hot Shoe Shuffle would go on to become the first Australian musical to perform on the West End stage. It would also force us all back into top hat & tails and delay the dream of jeans clad tap dancing that would later become Tap Dogs. And what a delay?
So there I was, about to embark on an unforgettable, life changing and culturally defining journey as David Atkins begins the preparations for rehearsing Hot Shoe Shuffle – originally starring David, Rhonda Burchmore, Jack Webster, Dein Perry, Kris Schumacher, Kevin Coyne, Sheldon Perry, Chris Horsey and Adam Garcia. Understudies Lisa Callingham and Rohan Senor. During the course of the first weeks of rehearsals and unfortunately, Kris Schumacher fell quite ill and it was deemed necessary for him to leave the show. Enter Dale Pengelly. We opened the show at the Hill Centre (Castle Hill) and played for 8 weeks to sell out audiences. The show was a hit and lots of people made the long journey to see it.
Before the show moved on to Melbourne, I travelled to Atlanta Georgia (USA) to do a Fabulous Rhythm Boys corporate act with my brother Drew Anthony and Leonie Page, after which I had 2 weeks off, travelled to New York and stayed with a friend in New Jersey. It was winter and very cold. There was snow on the back porch and as I stood outside in the snow practising a few tap steps in my black lace up Blundstone boots, all of a sudden it hit me, and I had an idea. I thought why don’t we put taps on the bottom of Blundstone boots? It would look great with jeans and really add to the flavour of the urban style tapping that we were working on with Dein. Upon returning to Australia I told the boys and rest is history.
We toured Hot Shoe Shuffle to every capital city in Australia and it was one year later during our final stop, Perth, that we were all summonsed into a meeting. Well, it was almost like we already knew what was about to be announced. The producer of 42nd St, Helen Montague told us that she was taking us and the show to the West End the following year to perform at the Queens Theatre, Shaftsbury Ave, London. Straight to business, Helen organised for us to meet Paula Yates, Bob Geldof’s wife at the time, who was accompanying him during his tour to Perth in preparation for some publicity appearances that would take place on Paula’s popular TV show ‘Big Breakfast’ once we got to London the following year. We were invited to Janet Holmes A’Court’s property for a BBQ while we were in Perth because Janet owned the theatre in which we were to perform. And it wasn’t long after we finished in Perth that we were tapping down the steps of Parliament in Canberra as Helen Montague called a press conference to announce news of the tour to the media.
Touchdown in London. With a new logo, understudies Nadia Strahan and Aaron Farley and a rake on the stage, we got busy preparing for opening night. A rake on the stage means that the stage slopes forward on an angle so if you put down a marble, it would roll forward and off the stage. This was the last thing we needed. After a year of performing the show we were all very comfortable and confident in our performances and tricks, now we have to alter all of our choreography for the rake. This means pirouettes were affected, certain carefully balanced and dangerous stunts need attention and my double spin, into a 1 & a half tour, into a half split, into a single spin recovery, was in jeopardy. We managed with no incident except when the ‘tap truck’ (the apparatus on which the 7 of us tapped precariously between 1 foot wide/2 foot drop) was wheeled into position and once we jumped up on it, it rolled forward and almost off the stage into the audience during tech week. A successful opening night and great reviews rewarded us for our efforts and a 6-month season ensued. Lot’s of publicity, including performing at a Mark Knoffler charity gig, lots of TV appearances including the Big Brother week as mentioned earlier, even doing a time step with not only Donald O’Connor but also Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers and not to forget our appearance at the Olivier Awards.
Settling into the final weeks of the season in London and Dein Perry called me aside to ask me if I was interested in being a part of his new show, which would get back to what we were doing in the first place, before Hot Shoe Shuffle; an urban style tap show in jeans etc
I chose to stick with the HSS tour back in Australia, NZ and Japan after which was finished, I got to take off my tap shoes and work with Paul McDermott at the Adelaide and Melbourne comedy festivals and play Big Deal in VSO’s production of West Side Story. No sooner had I opened with West Side in Melbourne that I received a call from Dein Perry asking me if I would like to come over to do Tap Dogs in New York? Would I.?
By Chris Horsey