Gene Medler, founder and artistic co-director of the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble, put on his first pair of tap shoes at age 28.
In the 40 years since, he has built the Chapel Hill company into one of this country’s most show-stopping youth tap companies, invited to perform at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and in such countries as Finland, Germany, Mexico and Brazil.
NCYTE (pronounced “insight”), as its known, was founded in 1983 and has become famous for rhythm tap – where your feet make percussive music as well as dance moves. It’s a style that owes much to jazz, but also reaches back to Irish clog dances and African-American slave rhythms. “Your ear has to be as smart as your feet,” Medler likes to say.
Recently, he sat for an interview at his studio in The Ballet School of Chapel Hill to talk about his dancers, some of whom have walked straight from their local stage to Broadway, and the company’s annual performance, “In Time,” April 22-23, at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
About the show: Nearly 40 dancers, ages 8 to 18, will showcase the history of tap as the company’s repertoire extends from South Africa’s gumboot dances to the explosive footwork of American tap wonder Savion Glover. There will be renditions of the soft shoe, a nod to bluegrass, a piece centering on body percussion, and much more. Music will include classical, hip-hop and a live jazz trio.
Plus, “I think there’s going to be an electronic surprise,” Medler says. He holds the U.S. patent for an electronic tap shoe which he says turns the tap itself into a microphone.
There also will be appearances by former students, including Elizabeth Burke, who danced with NCYTE for 11 years, and Michelle Dorrance, the MacArthur Genius award winner who now has her own NY-based company, Dorrance Dance. Burke also dances with Dorrance Dance now and is its rehearsal director.
As for how NCYTE members view their upcoming Carolina Theater show, Medler says, “That’s the cat’s meow. They love it. It makes rehearsals intense. I empower them to handle all aspects of the show. If they do something that I think is a mistake, I keep my mouth shut.”
About his students: In addition to Dorrance and Burke, Medler has taught hundreds of other dancers, including Jared Grimes, who is now performing in the Broadway musical “After Midnight,” based on the Harlem Cotton Club. Grimes, known for his hip-hop/street jazz dancing as well as tap, often performs with Wynton Marsalis, and has toured with Mariah Carey, taken the stage with Cirque Du Soleil, and does TV and film work. He is the 2014 Astaire Award Winner for Outstanding Male Performer in a Broadway Show.
Dorrance credits Medler as her mentor, saying she grew up with NCYTE, while Medler tells of being in Moscow with Dorrance, saying: “Michelle and I did the shim-sham in Red Square. We were pretty far away from the guards. We didn’t push our luck.”
Medler said he’s proud of how each former dancer has a unique tap voice. “The uniqueness of them is part of the beauty. You can’t tell who the dancer is they studied with. They all look different. You want to nourish their individuality.”
About his formula for success: “I do three things for them (his students),” he says. “I teach them everything I know. I open doors for them. And then I get out of the way.”
The company’s Saturday afternoon rehearsals consist of four parts. First, an NCYTE member teaches a short class for others. Next, two company members discuss NCYTE’s history. Then, one member shares a special moment. That moment, Medler says, can lead to something NCYTE might incorporate into routines. Last, the company goes through all the dances, targeting certain ones for more practice.
In recent years, Medler said, his dancers have been trained to do everything from set up the sound system to install the floor for school performances. “We have an expression. ‘Who’s company is it?’ The correct answer is ‘my company.’ ”
About his late start in tap: “Not wanting to blossom too soon,” he says. Medler credits a friend who offered him a bit part in an art video, “The Adventures of Ronald Radio” (the characters took tap classes) with starting his tap obsession. At the time, he had graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in psychology and was tending bar. After he became interested in tap, his father bought him a pair of tap shoes. Dad, he says, was a baseball player who liked do ballroom dancing and a little soft shoe in their garage.
Medler eventually got his master’s in physical education at his alma mater and worked as a UNC fencing coach. He also founded a house-painting business: Fresh Coat Painters, tag-line: “We take the pain out of painting.” Today, Medler supports himself by teaching 25 tap classes each week at The Ballet School of Chapel Hill and Elon University. He oversees NCYTE’s Saturday afternoon rehearsals and performance schedule, but has never received a salary for this work. “Well, that’s the big test. Can we actually support a director?”
About his future and the company’s: “I’ll have to cut back soon,” he says. “I have demonstrators for the classes here. The kids are getting an even better demonstrator than I would be able to do it. At first, it tweaked my ego.”
He decided, though, the choice was either dance one more year without the help or five to 10 years with it.
“I’ve learned to teach more with my voice than my body,” he says
Medler has an artistic co-director now, Caroline Vance, a former NCYTE member who studied with him for 13 years. “She’s miraculous,” he says. “I’m running out of gas and she has a full tank.”
About his life’s work: “I think I’ve provided accessibility to a specific art form – tap dancing – that prior to me being on the scene hadn’t happened,” he says. “I’ve been ambitious, but not too pushy.”
‘In Time’ Details
Performances: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 22, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 23. Michelle Dorrance is scheduled to perform at the Sunday matinee.
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham.
Tickets: $16.13; $10.75 for students and seniors.
More info: carolinatheatre.org.
NCYTE also sponsors the North Carolina Rhythm Tap Fest, which will be held June 9-June 11. Elizabeth Burke, Michelle Dorrance, Derick Grant, Sarah Reich and Nicholas Young will teach workshops and classes. The guest faculty also will perform at Carrboro’s Arts Center, along with a live jazz band. For more information, go to ncyte.org.