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By Emily Macel
Balletic and delicate from the waist up, crisp and quick through her legs and feet, Maya Guice seems like a tap throwback to the era when hoofing and Hollywood were still in sync.
When Jazz Tap Ensemble performed at New York’s Joyce Theater last September, the program paid homage to big-screen greats from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Ann Miller to Gregory Hines and Gene Kelly. With her high heels and flirty femininity, Guice, 18, seemed sweetly at ease onstage, glowing among a starry ensemble of tap talent, even in a recreation of the tricky jukebox number from Eleanor Powell’s Broadway Melody of 1940.
“Maya exemplifies grace,” says tap dancer Chloe Arnold, who appeared with her in the JTE run. “She has the footwork and clarity of the great tap dancers, but she brings her technical training to her dancing as well.”
Guice’s strong grounding in several genres has given her an edge as a performer, as well as an interest in blending styles of dance that began early on. Born in Pasadena, California, she started dancing at 6 when her mother enrolled her at the Peninsula School for the Performing Arts in movement classes that included ballet and tap. When Guice was 11, Lynn Dally, JTE’s artistic director, invited her to participate in the Caravan Project, the company’s professional training program.
Her studio tapping had done little to prepare her for JTE’s jazzy approach. “It was so different from just doing shuffles,” Guice says. “I became more interested in tap as a way to express myself and as a career.” While studying and performing in the Caravan Project, she attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and continued studying ballet, as well as modern and contemporary, to hone her technique.
Then last fall Dally invited Guice to join the full company and perform during their week-long season at the Joyce. “Maya’s fearless and smart,” says Dally. “She has lots of skill, but more than that she has a sensibility, an alertness to movement.”
For Guice, performing with JTE gives her an opportunity to dance with, and learn from, tap masters like Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold. Guice and Arnold performed a duet during the Joyce run called Lucky Number, a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers. The two wore hats, baggy pants, and suspenders while exuberantly nailing some of the Nicholas Brothers’ moves.
“In many ways I feel like she’s a little sister,” says Arnold, who admires Guice’s work ethic. “She’s down for the cause. She comes ready to do the work.”
Dally notes that Guice can hold her own with very experienced performers. “She’s totally capable right in there with Jason and Chloe,” she says. “Maya can also dance with Sam Weber, who has one of the most refined techniques in tap. She has that flexibility, plus a big battement, which doesn’t hurt.”
Guice uses her modern and ballet training to create a style of her own. She likes to “find new ways to move and initiate movement.” Her ballet training, for instance, helps her smooth her transitions, while her modern training has helped her with her core. “Ballet and modern have made me lighter on my feet,” she says. “It has had a huge impact on my movement quality.”
She’s also found that tap helps her in other genres. “When I do a petit allegro combination in class,” she says, “I always think about tapping, instead of ‘This is so hard.’ ”
Guice loves to watch classic film tappers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “I’m working on bringing back that old style kind of dancing, integrating the more danceresque element of tap,” she says. “I’ve been watching a lot of old footage; Cyd Charisse is one of my favorites. And I’ve been listening to stories of dancers who have paved the way, like Jeni LeGon, who was the first African American woman to sign a long-term contract with MGM.”
Guice plans to perform with JTE when they have gigs, but she remains involved in contemporary dance as well. She attended an intensive at Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet last summer, and hopes to dance for the company someday. “I love his work,” she says. “Last summer was life-altering. I like how Alonzo focuses on coming from a real place, on finding the authenticity, and not just doing something to be doing it,” she says. “He taught me to see my body as an instrument.”
Guice is currently a freshman at Scripps College in Claremont, California, which has a dance program and allows her to continue auditioning. “I really want to get my business degree, and I hope to create my own arts management major,” she says. Her goal is one day to run a dance company and help promote dance as an art form.
Meantime, she relishes her time onstage, showing her groove. “Dance has become a part of expressing myself as a person,” she says. “It is me.”
Emily Macel is an associate editor of Dance Magazine.
Photo: Rose Eichenbaum