A Rare Kind of Body Language

by Betty Gabrielli


Point to the image to see me tap!

We are in a darkened gym, gazing raptly at two women dancers who sit cross-legged in a pool of light. The dancers begin to clap. They are playing a game, a children's game. With no sound except the slap of hand against hand, they set up a rhythm, then play with it in increasingly intricate patterns.

They are joined by two more dancers who set up counterpoint rhythms with clicking sticks. Then they stand, slap hands and knees, bend their torsos way back, beat a tattoo on their torsos and begin the sequence again. Each time they sway and pummel their abdomens, we hear the thump-thump-thump of hands against T-shirted fronts, and we chuckle. All four are trying to be serious, but they can't. There's enough exuberance to fill 10 gyms.

The dancers are performing the first piece in Alyce Caitlin Medlock's senior dance concert, the rhythm room, showcasing a dance form seen at Oberlin only in recent years: tap. Caitlin -- "Alyce is a family name -- southern families are big on passing on family names" -- brought it to Oberlin during her freshman year.

If you think tap began with Shirley Temple, think again. Tap began with the onset of slavery, says Medlock, a dance and African-American studies major from Atlanta. Forbidden to enact their rituals, the slaves replaced the drumming that was vital to their religion with rhythmic dancing on floorboards.

Over the years African shuffles and sand dances blended with Irish jigs to form an entirely new art form. In fact, tapping was multi-cultural long before it was cool. The polyrhythmic form in the manner of Stomp, which Medlock favors over "the slick, show-biz kind of tap," is even more so.

Medlock began tapping at the age of five "just because I loved it," she recalls. "I learned all the standard moves: brushes; steps, which get a weight change, and plain taps, which don't; and combinations -- paddle and roll, time-step, chug-shuffle, and riff-drop."

"Tap will keep on, because it's making music in a profoundly pure form. It's being on the same wave. Working together so closely you can say things that can't be said any other way."

--Caitlin Medlock

Medlock began tapping at the age of five "just because I loved it," she recalls. "I learned all the standard moves: brushes; steps, which get a weight change, and plain taps, which don't; and combinations -- paddle and roll, time-step, chug-shuffle, and riff-drop."

Tapping quickly became a passion. "For years it was the one place where everything seemed real," she says. After enrolling at Oberlin with plans for a single major in the social sciences, "I found that all I wanted to do was dance."

An EXCO (Experimental College) course in jazz dancing introduced her to the "closet tappers" among her peers. Recruiting and organizing them into a group i-spired her to discard conventional tap and "approach the form from the inside out" by teaching tap phonetically. Rather than demonstrating traditional steps, she voices polyrhythms, multiple patterns, and claps out the sequences. Oberlin students, being the aural sensitives they are, pick it up pretty quickly, she says.

The tappers, who collaborate on choreography and rehearsal techniques, meet three times a week, "religiously," says Medlock. "When we work together, it's very powerful. We are a very tight group. There is serious energy in that room."

Her work organizing the "closet tappers" helped create the VIBE dance troupe and a cohesive tap community. Medlock, who graduated in May and plans to teach, or dance, or both, is confident that tap at Oberlin will continue.

"Tap will keep on, because it's making music in a profoundly pure form," she says. "It's being on the same wave. Working together so closely you can say things that can't be said any other way."

It's a rare kind of body language, as her recital makes evident. As one piece succeeds another, Medlock dances not as a choreographer and director but as a peer among peers. Gauging the air's response to their movements, she and the other dancers develop a sublime way with space; they seem to push through it, lean against it, and invite us into the dance.

Performing to silence, hips swiveling, shiny hair whipping under the spots, they move as one, then break and form different combinations. But through all the changes, the conversation among their bodies expresses sheer joy in the doing.

And we, the audience, respond. Hoots and hollers, cries of encouragement, and gusts of amazed laughter burst across the footlights. Medlock and her friends, whose artistry and strength are tangible not only in the demanding movements but also in the exultant way they are connecting, are delighted.

To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, they have found God in themselves. And they love her fiercely!


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