If you think tap dancing is a dying art, Jenefer Miller of Ahwatukee begs to disagree.
Indeed, Miller, a former Akimel A-al Middle School theater teacher, for 10 years, is now in her sixth year teaching English at Desert Vista High School, will soon show how much she disagrees when she takes her art to a new level this weekend.
A master tap dancer, Miller will appear as a “soloist” on Morton Gould’s “Tap Dance Concerto” with the MusicaNova Orchestra at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, at the Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix. Tickets are available at mim.org.
Gould’s piece is part of a full concert titled “Beethoven to Tap Shoes: Inspired by Dances Around the World.” It will also include MusicaNova’s presentation of Beethoven’s “Symphony 7,” a new work by the orchestra’s composition fellow Alyana Braun and what promoters call an “exotic synthesis of dances from the Pacific Rim.”
To understand how challenging Miller’s role in the Gould’s concerto is, you only have to understand one thing: her tap dancing will provide the only percussion sounds for 18 minutes in Beethoven.
Miller said she’s been studying for the piece for months since, after all, the intricacy of her fancy footwork has to blend note for note with the Ahwatukee-based orchestra.
And studying to be in effect a human instrument is not easy on the body.
“I’ve been hitting the gym pretty hard,” she told AFN. “I’m 44, so I don’t have 20-year-old legs anymore.”
Yet, besides her rigorous practicing, the Michigan native and 10-year resident of Ahwatukee also can rely on decades of experience.
She began tap dancing when she was 5 at her mother’s instigation.
“I was begging her for ballet, but she wouldn’t let me,” Miller said. “She said, I’d like that better. She said I wouldn’t be able to focus enough on it, that I wouldn’t like it as much. And so, she put me on tap.
Was mom right?
“Maybe,” Miller replied.
There’s no maybe in the way Miller embraced tap dancing once she got started
She travels around the state and out of state nearly constantly, teaching and performing at festivals and workshops. She also teaches at studios in Tempe and Scottsdale on a regular basis, juggling all that dancing with a full course load at Desert Vista.
While Miller has been with dance companies in the past, she mainly solos, doing a lot of work with jazz musicians in particular.
With her upcoming appearance at MIM, there will be no drummers – just the clicking of her shoes.
“It’s pretty challenging,” she said.
“I’ve never had to take written music and turn it into tap sounds. Usually I just by ear place my tap into music playing in the background. That said, it’s still music. It could be scored if somebody wanted to write down what I did, but I’ve never had to do it in reverse where it’s written and now I have to create it.”
“So, if you were to watch any tap dancer do this piece, we would sound the same, but we wouldn’t look anything alike because we’re creating it for our own bodies. It’s really unique. It’s really interesting.”
There’s another challenge in all of this, too. Miller hasn’t rehearsed with the orchestra yet. Indeed, the conductor wasn’t even getting into town until yesterday, Oct. 15.
“I was able to obtain a couple of clips of the music from the internet, but I don’t have a recording to work with, so it’s going to be really interesting when I finally get to sit in with them,” she said matter-of-factly.
Add to that the fact she has to memorize the music.
“I was playing violin in the orchestra, the music would be in front of me, right?” she explained.
But music, like dance, has been part of Miller’s upbringing.
“I studied instruments specifically through high school, but then in college, I was a dance major, so we had to continue studying genres of music and music theory as well so that we could do choreography and whatnot,” said the graduate of Oakland University in Michigan.
And as for all that talk about a dead art, Miller wants skeptics to know tap dancing is alive and well.
“I hear it all the time,” she said. “People will be like, ‘wow, you know, it’s a dying art form.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m working all the time. So, I get sensitive about it.”
And to prove her point, you only need to know her next big gig.
Miller is the producer of the Phoenix Tap Festival Jan. 3 and 4 in Scottsdale.
To find out what other concerts MusicaNova Orchestra is presenting this season, go to musicanovaaz.com.