For Mindy Millard Copeland, tap isn’t just a dance. It’s a way of life.
Mindy Millard Copeland tap dances in her dreams. Also when she’s in line at the grocery store.
Granted, when she “dances” at Save Mart, she doesn’t break into a full-blown flash step-routine, thus garnering applause from the check-out clerks. It’s more subtle. If you look closely, there’s a certain bounce to her demeanor – a lilt to her walk, a certain tap to her stride, if you will – that captures just how enamored she is with this art form.
The most important place that Copeland taps, of course, is the stage, as befits a professional tap dancer.
When she and fellow dancers Gabe Copeland, Mark Mendonca and Sarah Reich take the Tower Theatre stage on Saturday, Oct. 14, she will be part of a powerhouse show that focuses on the intersection between tap and jazz.
“Jazz Tap Jam!” is presented by the Lively Arts Foundation and features a lineup of tap dancers – talented locals and out-of-town professionals – along with live music by the Richard Lloyd Giddens Jr. Quartet.
The show is a sequel of sorts more than two decades after the fact. In 1997, the Tower Theatre hosted “Tap Jam” from Lively Arts.
“It was similar in structure to this show where there’s an opening act featuring local up-and-coming talent, and then the second half is the professionals,” Copeland says.
The show bore the creative imprint of the famed Gregory Hines, a stalwart supporter of Lively Arts until his death in 2003. Hines, a noted dancer and movie star, picked the professionals.
Back in ‘97, Copeland was one of the talented locals in the first act of the show. This time around, she’s traded positions. She brings her professional expertise to the second act.
The goal, she says, is to expose both the audience and live dancers to the magic of dancing with live music.
“We have amazing guest artists coming in to present the art form of tap dance. I really want to share the magic with the Valley audience like I felt when I was younger. Everyone who sees tap leaves happy. And who doesn’t need that these days?”
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Back up another year to 1996. Copeland was a senior at Bullard High School and was ecstatic because Gregory Hines was coming to town. (For Lively Arts, of course.) She saved up her money and bought a ticket. She got to the Saroyan Theatre so early for the show that she found Hines hanging out in the parking lot.
She approached him, told him he was one of her idols and basically did the fan-girl thing. He was a gem, engaging her in conversation and learning her story. He asked if she’d brought her tap shoes to the concert.
Of course she had.
At the end of the concert, he invited people from the audience onto the stage. She got to tap dance in front of Hines – and even perform a solo.
If she weren’t already enraptured by tap dance, the evening sealed her fate.
“That is a moment I will never forget,” she says.
Copeland has been tapping so long she can’t even remember when she started. Her parents bought her tap shoes when she was 3.
“It was always my favorite form of dance from the time I started,” she says.
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Stories abound about how hard ballet dancers have to work from the very beginning, putting in hours and hours of strenuous, physical practice. Is it the same with tap?
“Absolutely, yes. You have to train the fundamental basics, over and over. You have to build your clarity, and that just comes with practice. You have to really master every step you’re doing because you need to be able to do it in different ways with different weight changes and different timings. You explore different time signatures. You’re training musically much more deeply than I think any other dance form.”
A tap dancer is essentially a percussionist. Just like a drummer, the rhythms have to be precise. At the same time, improvisation is a big part of tap, more so than any other dance genre, Copeland says. That’s why the form is so closely related to jazz music and jazz musicians.
In a sense, she had to improvise her own educational and career path. We all know the route expected for an aspiring ballet dancer: Train like crazy, and then (against the odds) land a spot in one of the many professional companies throughout the land.
Tap dancing doesn’t have that same rags-to-riches path to greatness, if you will. There are a few professional tap companies, but not many. (Copeland would later dance with some of them.) Tap isn’t as “high culture.” There’s no tap version of “Nutcracker” where little girls start as bon-bons and work their way up to Sugar Plum Fairy.
By the time she was 12 she had gotten quite serious about tap, traveling to festivals across the state. When it came time for college at Fresno State, she took dance classes and performed in student showcases, and she kept busy teaching tap at Northwest Dance and Fig Garden Dance Studio. But when it came to a major, she chose math. (She went on to get a master’s degree in math at UC Irvine.)
“I really enjoy math,” she says with a laugh.
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Does tap get the respect it deserves? Copeland doesn’t seem like the type to complain about such things, but she does note that it’s surprising the style isn’t more celebrated, considering it is a true American art form.
“It’s interesting that in the dance world, we tend to embrace the European art forms more than the one that was created on our own doorstep. It was done on every corner, and every nightclub you went to had a tap dancer featured in it or multiple tap acts, back in the 1920s through the ‘40s.”
Tap did fall from favor after the 1940s as popular music tastes shifted away from big band and swing, but the emergence of Hines as a big star in the 1980s helped bring the style back.
Tap is often associated with Broadway chorus lines, but even that form is changing. Broadway tap is becoming more detail oriented, more rhythmically complex and more exciting, she says.
After a career in the L.A. area, Copeland moved back to the Valley in 2018 and currently teaches at The Dance Studio of Fresno. She and her husband – who met through tap dancing, naturally – have a daughter, Vivienne, age 9. Let’s just say that baby tap shoes were part of Vivienne’s wardrobe.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Vivienne will be taking part in the first act of Saturday’s show as part of the “up-and-coming” first-act segment in Saturday’s show. (Also on stage will be the young musicians of We Got the Beat, a youth percussion orchestra.)
At the end of the show, Copeland and her fellow dancers will help celebrate the memory of Hines with a tap-dancing tradition: the Shim Sham Shimmy, a century-old dance known the world over.
“We’ll be inviting people up on stage who know the Shim Sham and wants to join us. Any local dancer who wants to come join us for the finale is invited and welcome,” she says.
In other words, just like that Bullard High School student did more than 25 years ago on the night she met Gregory Hines, you should bring your tap shoes.