Go Deeper

Rapping about Contemporary Tap with Jenn Rose

Posted July 28th, 2009

I wish you could see Jenn Rose as she demonstrates what people envision when they think of tap dance. With jazz hands and a cartoony grin, she half-sings, “I’m tappin’! I’m tappin’!”

Rose, who presents her choreography this September in The A.W.A.R.D. Show! 2009: Philadelphia at the Live Arts Festival, still has a place in her heart for tap’s razzle-dazzle side. But she’s also interested in taking the style in a new direction with her dance company Loose Screws.

“We do a fusion of tap and modern,” she says. “To me it’s just a new approach to tap. I want to take it to a more theatrical level, where I can really tell a story.”

Though she tap danced as a kid, Rose was more known in her small town of Slatington, PA, just north of Allentown, for captaining her high school softball and basketball teams. Then at West Chester University she came within a few credits of becoming a full fledged phys ed teacher before “peacing out” of that major. But tap was always a passion, and at college Rose discovered “this whole new world of modern dance.”

“I never knew dance could be like that,” she says. “Like, you can stand on the stage being a tree for five minutes, and that’s okay.”

Not to say that’s Jenn’s way of doing things: “A lot of modern dance is more aesthetic, or looks at different shapes the body can make. But I like to know what I’m saying before I come up with the movement . . . like writing a script first.”

More on Jenn when you hit more.

After graduating and realizing that her destiny lay not with seventh-grade kickball nor windbreaker pantsuits, Rose taught tap lessons for a few years before founding Loose Screws. “My first concert was in West Chester,” she says, “and I asked fifteen dancers to do it. I thought maybe I’d get seven, but every single one of them wanted to do it. And we had two sold out performances . . . and all these people were believing in it. It was awesome, absolutely awesome.”

The name Loose Screws not only evokes a certain image of amusing lunacy, but refers to the screws that tap dancers adjust to keep their shoes sounding just right. And, says Rose, “it’s ‘loose’ as in not marrying yourself to one thing. An unbound approach.”

The piece she will present this fall, Way Up High, channels the “universal themes of the Wizard of Oz, and the experience of looking at a rainbow.” When I first read that Rose’s work was about rainbows, I admit to hoping unicorns weren’t involved. But Rose’s tour of the rainbow is about personal struggle and the accompanying spectrum of emotions.

When Rose says that “a rainbow is a complete circle, only the earth gets in the way,” she’s not just spouting about the miracle of bending light. What she hopes to point out is that struggle is a cyclical process, and each color has its good and its bad.

In Way Up High, four dancers deal with their demons via metaphorical tap shoes and embodied color. “It’s loosely based on the real lives of the dancers,” says Rose. “And throughout, there’s a lot of weight put on the shoes.”

The piece was originally a full 45 minutes long with twice as many dancers, but when she found out about The A.W.A.R.D. Show, which required a shorter piece, Rose and her collaborators “busted out a new version in thirty days.”

Rose says that dropping off her application and demo disc at the Joyce was a memorable moment. “I was so scared!” she says, recalling the panic spurred by her awareness that this was, in her words, the real deal. “I was like, come on Jenn, get a hold of yourself!”

“My goal was to be one of the twelve,” she says, “and now I am. Oh god.”

Though a bit daunted, Jenn looks forward to The A.W.A.R.D. Show because she knows her choreography keeps the audience in mind. “I feel like it’s accessible to the average Joe Schmoe,” she says, and here she gets on a bit of a roll. “People always think in extremes, and draw a line between art and entertainment, and say something is one or the other. But that’s not how it is. Entertainment doesn’t mean Eagles cheerleaders . . . and art doesn’t mean . . .” She pauses. “Like, once in college, I went to a performance where a girl chewed up a tomato, spat it out, and rolled around in it. That’s art, but that’s an extreme.”

Ok, so Way Up High will not include pom poms. Nor homemade ketchup. “I’m not going to spell it out for people but my test is, would my dad get this? Can people take something away from this?” explains Rose.

Rose calls herself a “one-at-a-timer,” but does have some threads in mind for her next project with Loose Screws. “I want to call it The Apartment,” she says, “and make it like an open cross section of a building, and dive into what people do when they’re alone. You call someone, you masturbate, you freak out, you smoke a little somethin’, whatever.”

The tap shoes, screws and all, will still be central. “Maybe they’ll put them on when they go out for the day,” she says. “There’s gotta be a reason for the shoes to be there.”

–Mara Miller

Photos courtesy the artist.