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'Riffin' and Tappin' ' will sweep you off your feet

Honesty requires that I admit going to the opening of Oregon Cabaret Theatre's "Riffin' and Tappin' " Friday night with all the enthusiasm of a man going to an accordion concert (not that there's anything wrong with that instrument, about which I'm just kidding, so if you play one please don't call). Boy, did I ever have the wrong idea.

"Riffin' and Tappin' " is two high-energy hours of infectious dance and very cool music that'll flat knock your old soft shoes off. The dancing is so good it would be entertaining even if the music weren't live, and the band is so good it would hold you without the dancing. Together, wowza.

After the three dancers kicked off the evening with the Gershwins' "Fascinatin' Rhythm," dancer/director Jim Giancarlo sang a tune called "The Language of Tap" ("It started on Beale Street, It started in Harlem ... ") to set the scene, and Christopher George Patterson showed his best Bojangles in the amazing "Doin' the New Lowdown" with Suzanne Seiber.

Before proceeding, Giancarlo, Patterson and Seiber gave the audience a quick sort of Tap 101 primer. Giancarlo is Cabaret's artistic director, Patterson has danced on Broadway and around the country and Seiber, who teaches dance at Southern Oregon University, has danced and choreographed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other venues.

It turns out all those flashy moves are made up of improvised sequences of basic steps such as the shuffle, flap, toe punch, riff, Cincinnati, Susy Q, Shuffle off to Buffalo, Shorty George and even, whoa, the grapevine scissor step.

A number called "My One and Only," with Patterson and Giancarlo, continued the lesson.

Like jazz, to which it's closely related — Giancarlo's notes call jazz and tap kissing cousins — tap is a uniquely American art form. It's what happened when European clogging and step dancing met African dance forms like those known as "juba." The new blend transferred well to the minstrel stage and added new steps that blossomed on Vaudeville with dancers such as Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John Bubbles.

Later, Hollywood popularized a smoother, ballroom-inspired style of dance with Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly brought ballet and modern dance training to the art. Tap was prematurely pronounced dead in the 1950s and '60s, but has come back more recently on Broadway and in film with dancers such as Savion Glover and Gregory Hines and hits such as "The Cotton Club," "Steppin' Out," "Tap" and "Happy Feet."

It's a tribune to the direction that the show never flagged, and the steps never felt repetitive. The styles and themes of the dances kept changing, and the occasional straight song would change the pace, as when trumpeter/guitarist/vocalist Paul Jenny delivered a smoothly smoky version of Harry Warren's and Al Dubin's "Lulu's Back in Town," or when Jenny joined bandmates Tom Freeman (drums, musical direction) and Thomas Mackay (keyboards) in a bluesy take on Duke Ellington's classic "Mood Indigo."

A guy might even learn something here. A "hoofer" isn't just any dancer. It's one who dances mainly with his legs, producing a heavy, grounded sound. I'm not sure exactly what a "rug cutter" is, maybe a dancer doing something more akin to the jitterbug?

Whatever it is, these dancers seem to be genuinely having fun. Patterson and Seiber had huge smiles on their faces for the whole show. Giancarlo is more of a stone face as he dances, and something in his approach may remind you of Roy Scheider's canny performance in "All That Jazz."

The show's second set shined with a swinging "It Don't Mean a Thing" with all three dancers, a wry "One For my Baby" with Giancarlo and Jenny, an irresistible "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" with Seiber and Jenny and a rocking "Cousin Dupree" with all three dancers. It all culminated in a punchy, ebullient rave up on Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke."

The details of a terrific dance show can be itemized and listed, but all that adds up, like the mysterious nuances that make an experience unique, to something less than the whole. "Tappin' and Riffin'" is nimble and sophisticated and quite simply sweeps the audience up in its sheer waves of joy.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.