Arts & Culture

The annual Ten Tiny Dances pushes choreographers out of the box

It sounds like the start to a great joke: How do you fit five tap dancers on a 4-foot-square stage? But the answer isn’t a punchline. It’s the one of 10 creative solutions to a Tacoma dance event that sells out every year at Jazzbones: Ten Tiny Dances, happening Sunday (March 15).

Presented by MLKBallet, which last year converted from tuition-free school to event presenter, Ten Tiny Dances raises funds for scholarships at Tacoma City Ballet. Begun in Portland in 2002 by Mike Barber, who still produces the event, it has become an eclectic mix of dance styles and levels in a fast-paced, don’t-know-what-you’ll-see-next club setting. But it’s not just entertainment. It’s also a challenge for choreographers and dancers to fit expressive movement into short works on a 4-by-4-foot stage set squarely in the middle of an audience.

And that’s where the tap dancers come in.

At Harbor Dance in Gig Harbor, Shadou Mintrone’s senior tap class is running through their piece for the last time before Sunday’s tech rehearsal. Mintrone is a veteran dancer (with Spectrum, 5th Avenue Theater, Bumbershoot and more) and three-year Ten Tiny choreographer. Her works have included a funny trio of diva sopranos inside a single hoop skirt, and a solo involving a 10-foot ladder. This year she’s created a tap routine for her five teenage students that not only uses the unique box stage but brings tap into a whole new sassy world.

In silence, the five girls march in carrying preschool-size chairs and circle the “stage,” marked out with tape on the studio floor. Jamming down the chairs, four sit facing each side of the room; the fifth climbs the stage with a furled umbrella. As a distorted electronic wave underscores an eerily childish voice reciting a combination of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Raindrops on Roses,” the tap begins, jamming with the hip hop beat and throbbing bass like whip cracks. The girls round out the beat with hand slaps, rise and circle like a game of musical chairs with attitude, and finally pivot in military formation on the stage beneath the umbrella before folding up their chairs and filing off.

Mintrone flips off the music, and begins working out trouble spots. As the class deals with the challenge of being on such a small stage (“Katie, can you not knock me? I’m trying to balance this thing and myself,” says the umbrella-wielder), Mintrone addresses one of the other challenges of Ten Tiny Dances: dancing in the round.

“There’s no front, no back, no left or right,” she explains. “It’s a weird thing for a dancer.”

But Mintrone loves the choreographic challenge of Ten Tiny.

“Putting two people on a box is hard,” she says. “Putting five people on a box — and then you add props. I always do that. I’m interested in getting tall, in seeing how much you can expand the confines of the stage. … I’m excited for (the students) to have to do it too.”

This year, Ten Tiny has a stellar line-up of other choreographers and dancers dealing with that challenge. Heading the program is award-winning Spectrum director Donald Byrd, whose piece will feature two or three of the Spectrum dancers who are also creating their own works for the event: Alex Crozier and Jade Solomon Curtis, plus former Spectrum dancer Vincent Lopez. Former Spectrum dancer and current assistant director at Tacoma City Ballet Joel Myers will also dance. TCB’s Maddie Larson is the student choreographer on the program, creating a duo for two fellow TCB members. Other choreographers include Crispin Spaeth, the original presenter of the Seattle Ten Tiny and still one of its performers; SOTA alum Alashia Jefferson; and Lauren Sanford, lyric teacher at Image Dance Studio in Fircrest.

The whole thing is presented in the relaxed atmosphere of Jazzbones, with waiters serving dinner and drinks, the sushi bar open and a family-friendly age policy.

For Mintrone, though, this year’s Ten Tiny offered another opportunity — to take tap into the contemporary dance world.

“When I was a kid, I hated tap,” she said. “It was always so corny, I just wasn’t interested. So when I was working on this piece, the challenge was how to not make tap a dorky thing.”

Part of a larger recital piece for Harbor Dance, the work had to fall under the theme “Forces of Nature.” Mintrone knew everyone would automatically think of water, and the famous (but slightly corny) tap scene from “Singin’ in the Rain” — exactly what she didn’t want. Searching music stream site Spotify for “raindrop,” she came upon the acid-y cover by San Francisco artist Antennae — and knew she’d found the solution.

With the head and hand gestures, plus the stage itself, Mintrone says her students are definitely out of their comfort zone.

But then, that’s kind of the point of Ten Tiny Dances.

“It forces you to think outside the box,” Mintrone says.