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By Zachary Whittenburg
“You have to be a hard worker to get anywhere as a dancer,” says Laura Wade, who regularly teaches company class for Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, where Martín Ortiz Tapia just started his third season. “But Martín is especially hardworking.”
She isn’t kidding. Ortiz Tapia, 26, is the Swiss Army knife of Chicago dancers: an indefatigable, cheerful young man, formerly a competitive swimmer and a professional drum corps member. He teaches nine classes per week, even when GJDC rehearsals are in full swing, and by “teaches,” we don’t mean sits-on-a-stool-doing-grands-battements-with-his-arms.
“I teach two cardiovascular classes: Turbo Kick and one that I developed, Dance Fusion,” he says, sitting in the light-filled lobby of the Lakeview Athletic Club, a converted church where he has worked since it opened three years ago. “Oh, and there’s a weight-lifting class, called Body Pump,” he adds.
The Querétaro, Mexico native, whose family moved to Wisconsin when he was 14, rarely suffers injuries, despite only beginning dance training when he was in college. As it turns out, for Ortiz Tapia, variety isn’t just the spice of life—it’s a secret weapon. He has others, too.
Fill it up
In company director Nan Giordano’s jazz class, Ortiz Tapia never stops moving. Between combinations, he troubleshoots mistakes, and, during them, he gives himself additional challenges, such as doing a sequence in double-time or releasing the barre. When Giordano asks her dancers to pump a penchée stretch, Ortiz Tapia does—and adds inward and outward rotations. Every joint of his body is always being exercised; nothing looks locked.
“He solves even very technical problems through musicality and phrasing, not just by working harder or trying to control something more,” says Wade. “Martín will find suspensions, the momentum of a phrase, and let those carry him into the next step.”
On the topic of whether he likes to relax, Ortiz Tapia laughs. “I try to. I love to take Bikram yoga in the early, early morning. That’s how I start my day, with a 6:00 a.m. class. It just feels good to sweat and to feel a little bit alive, you know?”
Raise your hand
Autumn Eckman, director of GJDC’s second company, and Wade both say that Ortiz Tapia is a question-asker. “He usually wants to know about the mechanics of executing a step,” says Eckman, who’s made roles for him in her choreography. “Even something simple, like a glissade. After he gets his answer, he goes right to work on it. He knows where he has room to improve, and he does.” Laughing, she adds, “He might be just a little bit of a workaholic.”
Tapping the wisdom of his instructors is a no-brainer, says Ortiz Tapia. “The teachers are so wonderful here in Chicago. They’ve been through it all. They’re masters. Why not ask them how they did it?”
Without hesitation and with his ever-present wide smile, Ortiz Tapia agrees that ballet is the area in which he has the most work to do. But he says that often discoveries that improve his ballet technique come during classes that force him out of his comfort zone. “Being comfortable or being settled is never a good thing,” he declares.
Ortiz Tapia wishes that he had more time to study tap with Chicago Tap Theatre director Mark Yonally, a colleague of his at Talent Forum, where he teaches on Saturdays. But tap is on hold due to his recent discovery of yet another method of training. He points through the gym’s window, across North Broadway Street, to L.A. Boxing. “I took private lessons there. It changed my life—the intensity of it, the work to get the perfect punch.” For the first time during our early-morning chat, he pauses. “Everything is a mental game. If you’re intimidated by all of these guys with great big arms and legs, you’re not going to get anything out of it. You have to walk in, knowing who you are and say, ‘I’m new and I’m just going to learn as much as I can.’ ”
When asked if there’s any technique he hasn’t studied yet but would like to, he responds immediately: “Break dancing.” Does anything seem daunting to this tireless young man?
“I would love to perform more,” he replies. “I’m waiting for my time to explode.”
Zachary Whittenburg is the dance editor at Time Out Chicago.
To warm up his hips, Ortiz Tapia likes this yoga-inspired stretch:
• From a downward-facing dog position, push through your palms to lengthen your spine while keeping your ribcage closed.
• Lift your heels into a rélevé, while focusing on the connection between your tailbone and the crown of your head.
• Release one leg, bend it at the knee, fold it underneath you, and drop your pelvis to the ground, keeping it square. Your other leg is straight and extended behind you on the floor.
• Bend this second leg at the knee and take its foot in the same side’s hand. Find your balance and “just let gravity work with your stretch,” says Ortiz Tapia.
• Once you’re steady, move into a full split while keeping your hips square.
• Repeat from the beginning on the other side.
Martín Ortiz Tapia at Chicago’s North Avenue Beach. Photo by KJ Heath, Courtesy Ortiz Tapia.