A joyful noise

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Breanna Leopold, right, and Bailey Bisk practice a routine with fellow dancers at the Little Feat tap studio in Whitefish recently. Leopold will be graduating this year. Garret Cheen/Daily Inter Lake (See printed edition for full photo spread)

Members of a local company Feat by Feet are serious about tapping -and having fun

During Tuesday evening's rehearsal for Feat by Feet's annual tap-dancing production, director Ashley Wold gave her dancers some instructions on stage presence.

"You're a performing company and you have to do whatever you need to do to make it look like you're enjoying yourself," she told the room full of dancers following a particularly strenuous number. "You can't make it look like it's painful."

But even when they're fully concentrating, there is no question that the dancers in Feat by Feet are doing what they love.

"It is so much fun - you can't tap and be unhappy," senior member Pattie Brown said. "It's not so much a performance as much as a relationship between us," she added, gesturing around the room, "and between us and the audience. It's not so much about the production, but about the fun of tap."

As the sole performing company of tap dancers in Montana, Feat by

Feet is one of only a dozen youth pre-professional tap ensembles in the country. Admission to the Feat by Feet company is by audition each spring.

Feat by Feet is currently in the middle of its two annual performance weekends. Opening night for this year's production, set in a typical school day and titled "Tap-Ed," was Saturday at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts.

Five shows are scheduled for the O'Shaughnessy Center in Whitefish this weekend, with the Sandy Sanderson Trio providing live accompaniment.

Wold usually limits the number of Feat by Feet company members to 14, but for the annual shows, participation extends to alumni, and senior, junior and apprentice company members.

Feat by Feet Tap School students also get a shot on stage for some simpler numbers.

Wold's mother, Merry Jo Smith, started teaching tap classes in the valley about 15 years ago. Smith, now at age 62 a senior member of Feat by Feet, gave lessons until Wold opened the Ashdance School in 1997.

Wold began with an ambitious agenda, teaching tap, ballet and jazz in Kalispell, Polson, Whitefish and St. Ignatius until 2001 - "far too many places," she said.

For two years after closing her school she focused solely on Feat by Feet, then began teaching public classes again. She now teaches exclusively tap to ages 4 through adult, with lessons at the O'Shaughnessy Center in the dance studio she and her husband donated to the facility.

Though it is not used in the studio itself, an $18,000 professional floating tap floor was purchased by the company last year. Usually stored in an airtight container on the Wolds' Whitefish property, the 5,000-pound floor is transported each year to Bigfork and the O'Shaughnessy Center by a moving company.

The floor is going to gain another 5,000 pounds with a new maplewood coating, using the proceeds from this year's show.

Wold, 36, began her own dancing career as a child, learning ballet with Carol Jakes at the Dance Art Center in Kalispell. She earned a minor in dance at the University of Montana, but didn't take tap dance seriously until she had some lessons while living in England with her husband, Chad Wold.

She was happy to give up the more restrictive forms of dance.

"Ballet is very stressful and regimented, and you're out there in a tutu and a leotard," she said. "Tap is super laid-back, and anything goes. The more individual the better."

But despite its sometimes free-form appearance, tap is still a serious discipline, combining endurance, coordination, musical inclination and intelligence.

"It's all about rhythm for me," said Brown, who is 59 and took up tap at age 30. "It's being a percussionist with your feet. An interpretation of the head to the feet. You have to be smart to do it."

Company captain Breanna Leopold said she tap-danced right before her final shot at the SATs. She's sure the brain boost and stress relief from the dancing made a difference in her earning the score she needed to get in-state tuition next year at Washington State.

As far as athleticism goes, one of the company's top dancers, Bailey Pisk, is on the varsity soccer team at Glacier High School. The sophomore, who has been dancing since she was 3, said that tap "brightens my day," but it also has been great for her soccer skills.

"My tap moves help a lot when I'm on the ball in soccer," she said. "And I get fit in soccer, which helps with dance."

And though individuals are allowed to shine in tap solos, teamwork is crucial to a successful performance.

"In an ensemble, you want to sound like one set of tap shoes," Wold said. "With some dances, you can screw up and people don't know it. With tap, you hear it. Even the most naive audiences can say, 'That doesn't look good.'"

Even as the mother of four young children, Wold has continued a quest for excellence as both a teacher and dancer. Since she returned to the Flathead Valley in 1997, she has brought master teachers to the area every year and traveled to classes and workshops where tap is more prevalent - Chicago, New York and New Orleans.

For the past nine summers, Wold has taken dancers from Feat by Feet to Chicago for the Human Rhythm Project, where youth tap ensembles gather to study dance and choreography with some of the top tap professionals in the country.

Dylan Rodwick, a 17-year-old junior at Glacier High School, is currently the only boy in Feat by Feet. He said the summer workshops, where there are numerous male teachers and peers, have given him inspiration.

The loss of male companionship after the recent graduations of company members Taylor and Cameron Clayton has been alleviated by Rodwick's close friendship with Leopold.

Leopold, who is 17 and a senior at Bigfork High School, moved with her family to the Flathead Valley from Arizona in her sixth-grade year. Her parents had been to a Feat by Feet show during a visit here and were so taken by what they saw, they brought Leopold a Feat by Feet T-shirt.

"I used to wear that shirt everywhere," Leopold said. "I didn't even know what it meant. I just knew it was a tap company."

Leopold has a dance studio in her home with mirrors and a wood floor, which has helped her develop her impressive skills and her endurance. She has a five-minute a cappella solo toward the beginning of "Tap-Ed," which she then repeats immediately with a group. And she's in almost every piece in the show.

The youngest member of this year's edition of Feat by Feet is Maddie Paulson, a fifth-grader at Edgerton Elementary. She taps in part, she said, "because nobody in my family does. I like to be different."

A dancer focusing on tap is rare in a place as removed from the big-city capitals of tap as Whitefish.

But Wold has been able to keep her Feat by Feet dancers on par with their peers around the country.

Jenna Roe, a graduate of the 2003 company, developed enough skill in Feat by Feet to join the professional tap dance troupe Especially Tap Chicago right out of high school. She is dancing as one of the three alumni dancers and choreographers for "Tap-Ed."

"I've been able to move on and perform all over the country," Roe said.

Though many of the dozen Feat by Feet alumni teach tap as their college job, there are few outlets for tap dancing once someone leaves a youth company.

Opportunities include professional tap troupes, Broadway productions focused on tap, such as Savion Glover's popular "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," and then movie and commercial work.

But improving on tap skills is always a worthy lifetime pursuit, Wold said.

"With the rhythm of tap, you get better at it as you age," she said. "In ballet, once you hit 18, maybe up to 25, you're done. Tap is truly for people of all ages."

"Little kids get to make noise and rhythm, and then you can get so complex and complicated. It's like math, you can build on it forever."

Reporter Heidi Gaiser may be reached at 758-4431 or by e-mail at hgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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