Shania Thomas and Micaela Hickey huddled Saturday afternoon in the shade on the corner of Girard and West College Avenues, and with a phone outstretched in their hands, pointed their toes and paused.
Seconds later, a choreographed routine lit up the small screen before them, and the women, both 21, simultaneously swung a leg behind them, their black shoes clicking and clacking in rhythm. In step with the choreography on their phones, they waved their arms and jumped, sliding across the sidewalk, trying to nail down every detail before they — and their red-laced tap shoes — took the Brewerytown stage.
Like about four dozen others who had gathered at the intersection on the warm, sunny afternoon, Hickey and Thomas, a current and former member, respectively, of Temple University’s Temple Tappers, had come to celebrate — and to dance. Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of National Tap Dance Day, and the Philadelphia Community Tap Project had organized a party. The Philadelphia-based service organization since 2016 has been throwing an annual free street festival on various corners across the city, where anyone — from beginners to experts — are encouraged to take the stage. Saturday’s was based in fast-changing Brewerytown, after past years in Passyunk Square and City Hall.
Organized by Pamela Hetherington, the tap project’s executive director and founder, the goal of the event was to spotlight tap dancing, something that Hetherington, 39, and others consider a forgotten art. Long gone are the days when tap-dancing performers graced movie screens, street corners, and even some dance studios, Hetherington laments. Instead, ballet, hip-hop, and modern dance, among other styles, have gained and maintained popularity.
Which is why Hetherington, who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, started the Philadelphia Community Tap Project 10 years ago. She saw a void that needed to be filled and figured if she built a structure for tap dance, people would eventually come. She calls it her own personal version of Field of Dreams.
And come Philadelphians have. On Saturday afternoon on the Brewerytown stage, there was 44-year-old Tweety Klevence and her 14-year-old son, Maximus, who have been dancing together since Maximus was 5. Tweety tap-danced with Maximus in her stomach until she gave birth, and swears he came out tap-dancing, she said Saturday, laughing.
“It’s my favorite place, to be on stage with him,” Tweety said. “And now that he’s grown, and I’m on stage and I look at him and how he’s progressed, I forget that I’m on stage and just look at him in awe.”
Then, there was 6-year-old Anna Feiro and her 7-year-old friend Charlotte Weeks, who met at the Bache-Martin public school in Fairmount and joined Hetherington’s dedicated tap dance studio, Sound Space Performing Arts, in Brewerytown together. They arrived Saturday in coordinated sequin skirts before taking the stage to perform alongside Hetherington. Later in the day, Charlotte’s 2-year-old sister, Charis, slipped her feet into a pair of oversized tap shoes and shuffled across the stage, set in the middle of the street.
As groups rotated in and out, and teachers yelled out commands, passersby and drivers paused for a while to watch. “What kind of dance is this?” one man asked as a band played. A car pulled over beside the intersection to take a picture. Another man rested on the curb to watch for several minutes. Before he left, he threw a couple of dollars on the stage, and then carried on.
Many of Saturday’s performances and lessons were led by Hetherington or Jaye Allison, Hetherington’s tap-dance teacher when Hetherington was just 10.
“She was this little, skinny girl trying to keep up with these bigger teenagers, and I wouldn’t let her not be in that class," Allison said. “We’ve never not been in touch.”
It’s that kind of community that has always been important to Hetherington.
“You all have to work together to make the sound,” she said as she stood and watched a group of dancers learn on stage. “I think when people put on the shoes, they realize the joy of making music with your body."
Meanwhile, for Allison, who teaches at Hetherington’s studio and runs her own dance company, JADA, reviving tap dance is equally as important because of its history.
“It’s something that burgeoned in this area,” Allison said. “If this is where it started, why would we forget it? It’s more American than coffee is.”
She continued: “Philadelphia forgets how important it is to the world.”