DUNEDIN – As local tap dancers Ruth Ann Martin and Kayla Cowart grew older and honed their skills, they found that many opportunities took them out of state.
Cowart, a Largo High School graduate known as the Tap Girl of Florida, currently lives in New York City, where she performs off-Broadway in "Stomp." She has an ongoing part in the show, playing two different characters. She’s also performed in festivals around the country.
Likewise, Martin, a Seminole High School graduate, has traveled for performances and auditions. She also spent some time in New York, where she joined Chloe Arnold’s Apartment 33 tap company and Anthony Lo Cascio’s #Taplife Company.
But the pair realized traveling for opportunities like these isn’t feasible for many Tampa Bay area dancers.
“It seems like everybody in Florida needs to branch out to get more tap opportunities,” Martin said. “They’re constantly going somewhere, which is great, but why can’t we have more here? Why can’t we have more opportunities that are local? A lot of people can’t afford to be going to other places and constantly flying out.”
So, the self-described “Florida tap dance ambassadors” created the Florida Tap Dance Project, which presents its first Dunedin Tap Dance Festival on Saturday, Sept. 15.
This free event offers workshops for all ages and skill levels at Patricia Ann Dance Studio, 941 Douglas Ave., 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. This will be followed by the unveiling of Rhythm, a dolphin statue sponsored by Cowart in memory of Patricia Ann Dance Studio founder Elaine Forestier as part of the Clearwater Dolphins Trail.
The day ends at Pioneer Park, 420 Main St., with performances by Cowart and tap dancers from Martin’s Truth Tap Company, Tapped In, Inc., and the Rhythm and Sole Tap Ensemble.
“We wanted to create more opportunities for people here locally,” Cowart said. “We wanted to give back to the community.”
The pair has been planning the organization and the event since they first conceived the idea in 2015.
“There’s a lot that goes into planning a community event like this,” Martin said, “and good things take time.”
They hope to bring more visibility to a dance style that is often overshadowed by the popularity of hip hop and contemporary, Martin added.
“I feel like tap is popular, but it’s not as popular because it’s hard and a lot of people don’t want to take time with it when they’re young, because it’s frustrating,” she said. “The same as ballet, there’s a lot to it.”
She points to the reality TV show “So You Think You Can Dance?” While other dance styles are frequently featured on the program, tap often takes a back seat because of how complicated technique and choreography can be at that level of dance. So, it loses out on visibility.
“A lot (of dancers) can’t learn a tap dance in a week, so you don’t see a lot of tap on there,” Martin said. “The more attention we can bring to it, the more people might think, ‘You know what? This is kind of cool. Why don’t I try it?’”
She added, “It’s really cool and basically like you’re drumming with your feet. And who doesn’t want to drum with their feet?”
Martin wants the workshops offered during the festival to be accessible to everyone.
“You can come in with tennis shoes, if you don’t have tap shoes, and to learn the beginner class, you can be 2 years old and you can be 80 years old,” she said. “It’s for everybody. Nobody is excluded. Everybody should come to this. There’s nothing wrong with learning something new, no matter how old you are.”
The organization’s mission is “the advancement of the Florida tap community,” Cowart said. So she expects the festival to grow from here. Down the road, she anticipates that it will be a free two-day annual event perhaps with performances at larger local venues, such as the Capitol Theatre.
“We’re hoping this gets bigger every year,” she said. “We’re excited about bringing this to the community.”
For more information, visit floridatap.com.