How M.A.D.D. Rhythms Changed the Tap Scene in Chicago—And Beyond

October 3, 2021

Ask almost anyone in the know and they’ll tell you, as far as tap dance goes, that Chicago’s the place to be. The scene is teeming with extraordinary hoofers who are steeped in experimentation and individual artistry. Dancers seamlessly intermingle with Chicago’s top-shelf musicians at storied jazz clubs across the city.

“Chicago is ‘The Second City,’ but we’re the first city of rhythm,” says Mark Yonally, artistic director of Chicago Tap Theatre. “M.A.D.D. Rhythms is a big reason why that’s true.”

A pair of Black legs in the foreground with red tap shoes, one leg slightly raised off the ground. In the background, dancers stand along the mirror
Kristie Kahns

Short for “Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms,” the tap dance company marks its 20th official season this year. This month, M.A.D.D. produces the Chicago Tap Summit, bringing together heavy hitters for online and in-person workshops and discussions. And artistic director Bril Barrett concludes his year as a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist with the premiere of Hoofin’ It: The Untold Story of the Founders of Tap on October 2only the fifth tap dancer out of more than 80 artists to receive the prestigious grant since 2003.

Born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, Barrett started dancing at age 4. His mother enrolled him in a tap class at the Better Boys Foundation (now BBF Family Services), where hoofer Carlton Smith was teaching for a few months for free. Barrett insisted on continuing, which meant a lengthy weekly commute to Smith’s North Side studio. His mother made the trip with him, sometimes saving change to pay the discounted rate of $5 per class. It’s a sacrifice he’s never taken for granted.

Continued training with the Sammy Dyer School of the Theatre solidified Barrett’s onstage charisma. But a revelation came when subway performer Ayrie “Mr. Taps” King III introduced him to improvisation. “It was like somebody swung the doors wide open,” Barrett says. “For the first time, creatively and artistically, I connected to tap in a different way. I loved what it allowed me to express.”

Among Barrett’s earliest pupils were his brother and sister, Ja’bowen Dixon and Starinah “Star” Dixon. Star Dixon recalls trading solos with Barrett in the grocery store. “If we were standing still, he would make me improvise,” she says.

Today, M.A.D.D. Rhythms remains deeply committed to improvisation, circling up to jam every time the dancers step onto the wood—an unwavering priority that contributes to a deep bench of powerhouse soloists, each with their own unique aesthetic.

“Tap dance physically trains you,” says Ja’bowen Dixon, “but it’s more about self-expression. Once you can do that, you’re ready to share your story. For young Black kids, that’s something they need.”

After a yearlong stint with the North American tour of Riverdance in 1998, Barrett began hosting youth tap classes at Sammy Dyer’s on the weekends. Those evolved into an outreach program of free classes at public schools and in community centers—including BBF Family Services, where he had taken those first lessons.

Jackson lifts one leg to the side, dancers behind her mimicking her movement
Donnetta “LilBit” Jackson

Kristie Kahns

Looking to start a professional company, Barrett asked another local dancer, Martin “Tre” Dumas III, to help. Dumas and Barrett had originally met working on a revival of The Tap Dance Kid in the mid- ’90s and they’d both been out with the Riverdance tour. “You’d have a steady paycheck for a few months, and then come home and have nothing,” says Dumas. “M.A.D.D. Rhythms was born out of the desire to have something that would keep running whether we were here or not, so we wouldn’t have to start over when we came home.”

Led by Barrett and Dumas, what started as a family affair—Star and Ja’bowen were original company members, and Star is still involved today—has evolved into a robust education program and professional company. The original ensemble was culled from Barrett’s outreach classes with a few handpicked youngsters, including Donnetta “LilBit” Jackson—who’s noted for her ferociously fast feet in both tap and Chicago-style footworking—and Jumaane Taylor, current director of Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s signature festival, Rhythm World. Once established, they began bringing in talented dancers from the suburbs, like Ian Berg, who connected with Barrett at a tap festival, and Nico Rubio, whom they recruited from a tap jam.

“Dancing with M.A.D.D. Rhythms was a game changer for me because of the emphasis on improvisation and individuality,” says Berg, who now leads Boston’s Subject:Matter. “They are exemplary role models as people, too.”

M.A.D.D. Rhythms’ Tap Academy, the company’s primary in-house training program, recruits students from its outreach classes, teeing up new apprentices and company members. Barrett calls the progression a “studio-to-stage pipeline,” disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by providing a novice-to-professional track without leaving the city.

“I know what it means to avoid being a statistic,” says Barrett. “I’ve never forgotten that as a young Black man on the West Side of Chicago, tap dance was my way out.”

As it grew, the company gained traction on the festival circuit, promoting the M.A.D.D. Rhythms mission everywhere it went. After meeting Barrett at a workshop, Lisa La Touche organized a M.A.D.D. Rhythms training program in Calgary. Then she moved to Chicago in 2006 to immerse herself in the tap scene before becoming an original cast member of the Savion Glover–choreographed Shuffle Along, performing in the national tour of Glover’s STePz and in off-Broadway and national touring productions of Stomp.

Starinah u201cStaru201d Dixon in jean shorts and white tap shoes has her arms to the side as she starts a shuffle
Starinah “Star” Dixon

Kristie Kahns

“None of it would have been possible if I didn’t spend time in Chicago,” says La Touche. “Chicago was my university, through M.A.D.D. Rhythms. It was beyond formative.”

Citing a difference of opinion, Dumas and Barrett parted ways in 2007, though Tommy Sutton’s exercises (which Dumas brought into the fold) remain in rotation. They’ve since reconciled, and still collaborate on occasion. In 2010, M.A.D.D. Rhythms moved to Harold Washington Cultural Center, the company’s current spot for rehearsals, classes and many of its performances.

Through all the changes, the mission of M.A.D.D. Rhythms remains largely unchanged: to expose youth on Chicago’s South Side and West Side to tap dance and to preserve and promote the history of the art form.

“I refer to myself as a ‘taptivist’ because I have to fight for tap in almost every setting,” Barrett says. “Tap has made a world of difference in my life. Without it, I don’t know where I’d be. What I pour back into the art form is educating the next generation and trying to keep the legacy alive.”