Josette and Joseph Wiggan: All in the Family

July 22, 2007

Psychologists looking for signs of sibling rivalry in tap dancers Joseph and Josette Wiggan will be decidedly disappointed. The brother and sister phenoms, now 19 and 22, began tapping 10 years ago and have been, for most of their performing lives, metaphorically joined at the hip.

The two spent seven years dancing with Los Angeles-based Kennedy Tap Company, where they traveled throughout the U.S., as well as to Finland and Cuba, and are currently garnering attention in Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble (JTE). Last year
The New York Times’
Jennifer Dunning wrote of their appearance at The Joyce Theater, “Josette and Joseph Wiggan bring a somewhat brassier tone to the mix in their solos and group numbers, dancing with a canny expertise and an explosive joy that suggest that tap lives on in all its purity in younger generations.”

More recently, though, college has split up the siblings. Josette is enrolled in UCLA’s department of World Arts and Culture, double majoring in dance and communication, while Joseph completed his first year studying business at Marymount Manhattan College in New York.

Reunited for the summer, the pair performed with JTE at the Hollywood Bowl last month as part of the Playboy Jazz Festival, and will participate in next month’s third annual L.A. Tap Festival at Debbie Allen Dance Academy. By all accounts, it’s been a productive and joyous decade for the siblings.

Josette recalls late nights spent honing their craft. “Our parents would send us to bed and we’d wait until they fell asleep, then practice barefoot in the kitchen for hours so we wouldn’t make too much noise. We’re each other’s best partners,” she adds, “because we started dancing together and we practiced together. We made mistakes together, too, and because of that we have this unique understanding of how to incorporate the movement into our bodies together.”

Joseph remembers people asking if they were twins. “Because we had this bond, we were constantly encouraging and pushing each other, and that’s what made our progression so strong.”

Their zealousness for the art form took hold immediately. In 1995, a friend of the seven-member Wiggan family (mother Valerie is a nurse, father Raymond was a construction worker who now owns apartment buildings) suggested 12-year-old Josette begin lessons at Paul and Arlene Kennedy’s Universal Dance Designs. Another brother-sister tap team, the Kennedys had trained countless dancers, with young Joseph following, literally, in his sister’s footsteps three months later.

Paul Kennedy, who died in 2002, had choreographed for the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He won over Joseph, who was then involved in basketball and baseball, by telling him he could both play sports and tap dance.

“Mr. Kennedy gave me a step to practice and I didn’t like the fact I couldn’t do it,” recalls Joseph. “I went home and practiced and practiced, and the next day I showed him.  Then he gave me another step. Before I knew it, I was hooked.”

As tappers, both siblings possess an air of easy elegance, with dazzling pyrotechnic footwork always at the ready. Arlene Kennedy says she recognized their gifts from the start. “There’s something I see in kids’ eyes that dictates their love for the dance. I saw it in Savion [Glover] when he was 11, and I saw it in Joseph and Josette. I knew they were going to do wonderful things.”

While continuing to dance with Kennedy Tap, the duo also began performing in 1999 with JTE’s youth group, the Caravan Project. Two years later they became JTE apprentices, and last year were designated full company members. Separately, Josette became the first tapper to win the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award in 2001, beating out 800  applicants, including her brother (he took second place two years later), and earning a $5,000 scholarship.

On a roll, Josette was recruited in 2002 for the first national touring production of
42nd Street
, performing in the show for 14 months. In 2003, she was cast in a touring version of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, but an injury sidelined her from sharing the stage with the famed Rockettes.

Joseph’s resume is also peppered with superlatives. The youngest teacher at last year’s swing dance festival in Sweden, the tapmeister will again be instructing there this month. In August, his teaching duties include the L.A. Tap festival, directed by Emmy award-winning Jason Samuels Smith, in whose troupe, A.C.G.I. Tap Company, Joseph also hoofs.

“It’s an honor to be in the presence of those who created the things we do now—like Skip Cunningham and Chester Whitmore,” Joseph says of the festival’s roster. “It’s a mecca where you learn from legends who are still around.”

Joseph gives credit for his style to many greats. “I’ve learned to steal certain things that I like,” he quips, “and apply them to myself.  I love slides, I love turns, I love being as smooth as possible, watching classic acts like Coles and Atkins, who made the dance look effortless. They were a great inspiration.”

Adds Josette: “Tap incorporates a lot of different styles. The best tappers are the most well-rounded—they can hoof, do Broadway, anything. Diane Walker, Arthur Duncan, and Jimmy Slyde—watching them helps you grow as an individual.” Lynn Dally calls the Wiggans a potent pair. “They share family and fun when they dance. They’re also strong because they each bring their own nuance and vitality.”

While there’s no doubt these siblings can enjoy lasting careers in tap, they also envision broader horizons. After Josette graduates in 2007, she wants to help out in the Sudan or Sri Lanka. “I know I’ll continue to dance until I stop walking, but I’m also working with an abolitionist movement to end modern day slavery in countries across the globe. I’m thinking about using my communication studies to bring awareness to our country. On the larger scale, if I devote my life towards helping someone’s life change, I’ll die a happy person.”

And though Joseph says a business degree will prepare him to manage a company or even other dancers, he admits he doesn’t know what the future holds. “I have no clue. The tap dance career is an iffy one—there aren’t many shows and there isn’t that much work. But I’m sure that wherever I am, I will be dancing, no matter what.”

Victoria Looseleaf is a freelance arts journalist and regular contributor to the
Los Angeles Times and Reuters.