On the Rise: Jason Janas
When tapper Jason Janas takes center stage for an improv, his florescent green shoes tip-toe around before breaking into a storm of sound. With his long, loose ankles and intense attack, Janas, 25, blends cool classicism with hard-hitting, hip hop aggression, no surprise from someone who names tappers as diverse as Dianne Walker and Savion Glover as influences.
Now a member of Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, Texas, Janus caught the critics’ eye this past summer in Derick Grant’s Imagine Tap, a celebration of the art form’s cutting edge that drew enraptured audiences during its brief Chicago run last summer. The show’s 16-member cast put talented newcomers like Janas and Joseph Wiggan (see “All in the Family,” July, 2005) alongside some of tap’s biggest names, like Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Jason Samuels Smith.
The show’s choreographer and an original member of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk, Grant created Imagine Tap in part to challenge young dancers like Janas. “A lot of people are concerned with being the best dancer they can as an individual,” says Grant. “Today a huge part of being a tap dancer has to do with improvisation and being a soloist, so the idea of being part of an ensemble is a little strange. For a lot of the cast, learning to be about the group was new.”
Janas describes the experience as “being on an Olympic tap team.” Growing up in tap, Janas did not always feel part of a group. As a kid living a New Jersey suburb—his father is an engineer, his mother, who was his first teacher, a former Rockette—he eventually performed with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble. But just before he started high school, his family relocated to Charlotte, North Carolina, where there were neither tap teachers nor a company.
After months of three-hour drives every Saturday to Chapel Hill for classes and rehearsals, Janas tired of commuting and spent his high school years teaching himself. Memories of feeling cut off from the tap community led him, with his mother’s help, to create “Hoofin’ Ground,”an annual tap festival in Charlotte. It was his mother, too, who spotted the Tapestry Dance Company audition notice, and urged her son to fly to Texas to try out.
While Tapestry’s repertory includes modern, jazz, and tap, Janas feels most at home in the tap numbers. He remembers thinking at the end of each audition section as he worked through ballet, jazz, and modern combinations, “Now can we tap?” Acia Gray, the company’s artistic director, felt his abilities would extend beyond one genre. She charts the beginning of his maturation from a solo tapper to an ensemble performer within a short time after his arrival. “He started to relax,” she says. “He could go on with speed and intensity all the time, but then he started leaving space and time for the audience to breathe.”
Still, Janas sees himself first and foremost as a tapper. While his wide knowledge of tap dancers throughout history infects his dancing, during his improvisational solos, Janas focuses on simple details. “A lot of times I just try to tell a story—imagine a blank canvas,” he says. “You start dancing and maybe you make the grass. You dance a little heavier and make a tree or mountains. Or if you wanna make a picture of a big city, you dance all crazy fast.”
With discussions underway to resurrect Imagine Tap either in New York or on a national tour, Janas stands poised to rejoin a cast of tap stars on stages far beyond his Texan home. Meantime, he’s enjoying Tapestry’s current season, which foregoes their usual mixed-genre format to focus entirely on tap, promising lots of opportunities for Janas to develop his style. That’s fine with him. Janas cannot emphasize enough how much he loves tapping. “I try to fit eating around my dancing,” he says. “The shuffle always comes first. God, then family, then the shuffle.”
Clare Croft is a freelance dance writer based in Austin, TX.