This Dancer With a Neuroscience Degree "Taps" Into Both Sides of His Brain

February 22, 2021

Chicago Tap Theatre’s Sterling Harris is a study in dualities. An effervescent performer and budding choreographer, he’s an amalgam of his training in rhythm tap on Chicago’s South Side and in Billy Siegenfeld’s exuberant, theatrical Jump Rhythm technique via Northwestern University. “Sterling walks in the room and the energy shifts,” says CTT artistic director Mark Yonally. “He brings a buoyancy with him, a joy and a positivity that I want to be part of who we are as a company.” And while Harris nurtures an impressive dance career, he’s simultaneously a full-time research assistant at his alma mater’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Harris is mid-jump while performing on stage. He wears black tap shoes, blue jeans, a yellow T-shirt and a white mask with blue stripes and red stars in the style of the City of Chicago flag. His arms are flung up and backward and his gaze is pointed toward the floor.

Sterling Harris in Chicago Tap Theatre’s 30 Feet Together, 6 Feet Apart

Courtesy Chicago Tap Theatre


Chicago Tap Theatre


Studio One Dance Theatre, Northwestern University

Finding tap:
Harris attended a small, private grade school with numerous extracurriculars. “I started trombone, I did aikido, I did ballet for a hot second and I also started tap,” he says. “I immediately fell in love with it.” Harris’ tap teacher also taught at Studio One, so he hopped into its advanced tap class. “It was like zero to 200.”

On his left brain:
At Northwestern, Harris earned a neuroscience degree. “I always loved science,” he says. “Science fair was my prime time—I still have all the trophies in my childhood bedroom.”

Leaning into Jump Rhythm:
As an undergrad, Harris joined Northwestern’s tap dance company and met Siegenfeld. “Billy is such a force,” says Harris. “Anyone who interacts with him is going to get a little changed. I learned my entire body could be this percussive instrument.”

Shifting gears:
Though Harris didn’t imagine pursuing a dance career at first, medical school is on hold, for now. He met Yonally at a showcase shortly after graduation and was invited to audition for Chicago Tap Theatre the next day. Harris has leapt through the ranks at CTT and was recently named rehearsal director.

On spontaneous wedding processionals:
Harris regularly brings a tap board to Chicago’s lakefront parks to jam. In August, he invited Yonally. “We spent two sweaty hours tap dancing,” says Yonally, “and then a gentleman in a suit said, ‘Pardon me, I’m getting married in five minutes. Would you consider being our band? Would you tap ‘Here Comes the Bride’?’ ” Harris and Yonally tapped them down the aisle and sat for the ceremony. “They only had eight witnesses—you know, coronavirus wedding,” says Yonally.

Changing the South Side’s reputation:
“I’m from Auburn Gresham, and it’s beautiful. Beautiful people are everywhere,” says Harris. “When a lot of people hear I’m from the South Side, they say, ‘That must have been crazy.’ It wasn’t crazy. It was actually pretty cool.”