I first came across Jennifer Bishop when writing a recent Tappy Monday about The Tappin’ Floor, her excellent product.
I was astounded at how cool she and her fellow hoofers made tap.
Now tap’s pretty cool, but more often than not does the general public consider tap to be performed with a top hat and cane, not in jeans and a long-sleeve shirt with sunglasses on. Not there’s nothing wrong about tapping with a top hat and cane, but she and her fellow artists simplified tap, so to speak, brought it to a public space, and laid down some nifty rhythms, thinking nothing of it.
They’re just tapping. That’s pretty cool. Think nothing of it.
Those who dance tap, such as Jennifer, and those who write about tap, such as myself, are well aware of the cultural stigma unfortunately associated with this wonderful form.
Old-fashioned comes to mind. Lame, too. It’s the burden that tap and tappers are going through, and likely will continue to go through.
But tap, like all forms of dance, has its heroes, both historical and modern. Jennifer Bishop is one of them.
The utterly incredible work she does for tap is almost indescribable. She has gone to great lengths to ensure a future for tap, one in which a community, led and guided by her, protects and celebrates this incredible art form and promotes it as any or all of the following: cool, elegant, fun, symbolic.
Take this performance, for example. The music that she dances to is “Puttin On The Ritz”––arguably the most famous top hat and cane tap song, made famous by the legend himself, Fred Astaire.
But what we get is not a number that would light up Broadway nor Hollywood. Her performance is casual, effortlessly charming and cool, and one that is for the people. She has taken tap off the grandeur of the stage and brought and appropriated it to the clubs. It is an art form for everyone, not just for those in top hats, nor for those with front row seats. Jennifer brings tap to the people.
Her Tappin’ Floor does just that. It makes tap possible for those who wouldn’t otherwise have it, or have it to an extent that is true to the form itself.
She is one of tap’s great innovators. How much time, thought, and effort she and her collaborators put into designing and building these tools would surely have seen them make many sacrifices.
But if I’ve learned one thing about Jennifer, it is that she always has time for others. Her interview was so informative and in-depth. She explained in great detail her history with and love of tap, as well as the processes behind starting and establishing a number of organisations she has been apart of and intrinsic to.
You can see her dedication in her lessons. You can see not only how much she loves tap, but how much she loves teaching it to others. And the enjoyment she gets from seeing tap grow in others and others grow in tap is just emblematic of the kind of selfless and caring person she is.
You can’t deny her passion just as you can’t deny her skill. The below video demonstrates her finesse.
The control she displays in her toes at the beginning of this number is so precise, pointed, and direct that they naturally compliment and lend themselves to the bit of free travelling she does towards the end of it. I’ve watched this a number of times, and, to me, it becomes just that much more masterful every time.
Much can be said and written about Jennifer and tap, but the rest, for the most part, I’ll leave to the master herself.
Interview with Jennifer Bishop
1. When, where, and why did you start tap, and what do you like about it?
I started tap in Kamloops, BC, Canada, where I grew up. I was about six years old. I liked that it was musically exact but didn’t feel quite as reserved as ballet. As I was a bit more shy than my older sister (also a dancer, studio owner, and teacher) I feel like it was my way of being heard. My mother was also my main tap teacher for most of my childhood. While trying at times, she is why I’m a great tap dancer! I also credit my passion for dance to Robb Card in Kelowna BC. I met him when I was a teen, at the point of feeling disinterested, ready to consider quitting and he lit a fire under me and away I went. I still feel like I have a turbo boost when I think about dancing with him. (this was jazz, ballet, AND tap)
2. What is/are your favourite tap steps? Why?
My favourite steps are anything done in in triplet feel: paradiddles, shuffles, shuffle step heels. I also love any kind of time steps.
3. Do you have any tap dancing heroes? People who- or things that inspire you?
It’s cliche to love him – but I love Gene Kelly as he was a complete dancer. A ballet trained dancer who could tap and was so multi-talented. And inspiration these days comes from a few unlikely sources. My eight year old daughter: She is so rhythm focussed that she doesn’t realize she is clapping, tapping stomping or rattling out some kind of crazy rhythm throughout most of her day. My students: many of them who decided that they always wanted to try tap and have dove in full force with the most amazing passion and commitment. I have a good handful who dance with me that are between 60 and 80 years old and they are getting better every year.
4. West Coast Tap, The Rhythm Room, Sole 2 Soul Productions––you’ve created and are involved with a number of dance studios, companies, events, products, and organizations. How and why did they come about, and what do you hope to achieve through them?
HARBOUR DANCE: From the time I was eighteen until I was about thirty, I was in and out of town on several different commercial dance contracts, juggling part time jobs, doing the odd film and TV work and Harbour Dance Centre was my home. It’s where I really perfected my style of teaching adult drop in classes. Pamela Quick Rosa there is the most amazingly supportive dance person. She has been a cheerleader and support for a majority of the successful dancers coming out of Vancouver.
SOLE 2 SOUL: I started to want to do more than I was doing at Harbour. Work on progressive technique over a year span and really focus in with a smaller group of students so I started running my own classes. Harbour housed them for a long time but as studio space is at a premium, I eventually found my own space and voila……
THE RHYTHM ROOM was born. I have had my own studio space for eight years and this year, added a second location in anticipation that the original location may be rezoned for development sometime in the near future. I have wonderful people teaching tap for me at The Rhythm Room and the students benefit from my long list of great tap friends that slip in and out of town. They often have the great suprise of some pretty cool guest teachers for their regular classes. Lots of drop in options for adults and options for them to commit if they want to work on choreography for a year end production. (www.s2sproductions.com)
WEST COAST TAP DANCE COLLECTIVE: Is a non profit organization that I founded along with my friend Carmelle Cachero. At the time we were feeling like Canadian tap dancers needed help being recognized instead of always putting our US counterparts up on a pedestal (much like it happens in the music and film/tv biz)We wanted to have an inclusive, celebratory feel and try and connect people in the community. So far it’s been running for over fifteen years with nothing but volunteer energy. No grant money or funding. Every year they have paid tribute to a different Canadian who has contributed to the art of tap dance. It’s a marvelous list of people. This year, they are holding West Coast Tap Fest (www.westcoasttapdance.com/events) where there are workshops with some of the best people in Vancouver teaching really affordable classes. And we will celebrate in the evening with a screening of Singin’ In the Rain to celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversay of the film.
THE URBAN TAP SQUAD: Is the tap company I founded over twenty years ago. We had between four and up to fifteen different dancers with us. We created an incredible repertoire of material and performed all over the lower mainland. Once a week we would wedge time in our schedules to create and rehearse new material, lots of it mine and some from guest artists. We had a great run and have all scattered in different directions to pursue our lives but there is talk of a reunion! There’s a long list of amazing dancers who stepped in at different times. It’s got quite an amazing history.
5. What is the story behind the creation of the Tappin’ Floors, and what goes into making one?
My dear friend and tapmate, Miyuki Ishizaki (who was in the Urban Tap Squad with me) proposed the development of a tap floor. We went through a few different prototypes and models, trying to perfect it over the years. Initially it wasn’t raised and it was connected with velcro. I didn’t like that it had no resonance. We went back to he drawing board and after a few rounds of demo models, came up with the existing Tappin’ Floor. It raised with a bit of space for a nice, amplified sound. It’s as small and light as we could make it without compromising the quality. The man who builds them and helped us with the design is actually a Japanese Furniture Artisan and he makes them by hand, himself. We have 10 made at a time and take orders for them. We have shipped as far as Europe (while I don’t encourage that––it’s so expensive to ship) Many customers across the US and of course Canada.
6. What is Canada’s tap culture and history like, and how can the form grow in exposure and popularity?
Canada’s tap culture still feels young. I feel like we are just starting to carve part of the artistic scene out for ourselves. We are part dancer part musican. The dance people don’t know what to do with us as we require different floors and are often hard on them in comparison. I feel like there’s still a bit of a snobbery towards tap dancers. I even feel like to be considered legitimate to dancers of other forms, I need to qualify that I studied ballet my whole life (maybe that’s my own issue) It IS growing in popularity as there are some great pioneers in this generation who are keeping the ball in the air and establishing new foundations for Tap Dance as an art form. Allison Toffan (Toronto) , Travis Knights (Montreal/Toronto) Jenna Werhun (Edmonton) and Tasha Lawson (Calgary) are all leaders who are endeavouring to forge new paths for tap dance artists in Canada. I think we need to focus on the talent that’s here, in Canada. There are MANY amazing US tap dancers that I love, but I believe there are tappers here who are just as great and maybe even more intelligent and creative with their artistic pursuits.
7. Your partner, Bill Costin, is a musician. What does it mean to jam and collaborate with him?
It’s fantastic to have your own musician around! I often forget that I can access that and then suddenly when he plays and I’m tapping, it’s silly but I think “wow, he’s really amazing!” Haha. Taking for granted what’s in front of you. I try and haul him into the studio whenever I can. One day he stopped by to pick something up while I was teaching and I called him in to sit at the piano and my students were over the moon. Sometimes his artistic input greatly shapes my projects. I feel we parenting and each pursuing our individual careers, we haven’t even BEGUN to explore what we can do artistically together with music and dance.
8. The West Coast Tap Dance Collective’s Facebook page posted a video of you and your daughter tapping together. It is one of the most heartwarming displays of tap I’ve seen. How special is it to not only share your love of tap with her, but perform alongside her?
It’s absolutely amazing. She’s not often interested in getting up, but that time, she was sure of it. I like that she is humble and not a little showboat of a kid, but she gets up there and does it. Because it’s just what she does. No need to be flamboyant about it! She is so musical and I just want to support her in whatever she wants from it. Whether it’s to really pursue it full on or whether it’s just a passionate pastime.
9. What satisfaction do you get from teaching?
It makes me feel like I’m making a huge difference in many peoples’ lives. I truly say, so many times in a week “I can’t believe this is my job.” It’s like being a dreamweaver 🙂 Who has NOT wanted to try tap dancing? Well, I get to indulge and help them make that dream a full on reality.
10. What was it like working with Sir Ian McKellen?
He was hilarious. A generous, magnetic man. We had some fun moments. One day he even walked to the studio in his tap shoes 🙂 (no street shoes) I only wish I had recorded his booming voice exclaming “Shim Sham Shimmy is fun to do” in his big, Shakespearean type voice. I have a wonderful signed photo of him as Gandalf that says “To Jennifer, with love from the middle earth ball and change wizard.”
11. Besides tap, what hobbies and interests do you have?
I like cooking. I love watching documentaries. I’m dedicated to learning more and becoming more environmentally conscious. I really enjoy marketing and helping promote events and ideas.
12. Who and/or what do you credit your successes to?
Wow, I find that a hard question. I would credit my success to my parents. They are the most kind, straight forward people. Even though they always worried a bit about my pursuits as a self employed artist, they never discouraged me.
13. What projects are you working on or have coming up?
May 28th – West Coast Tap Fest (www.westcoasttapdance.com/events) info attached
June 18th – “Rhythm Nation” at The Metro Theatre. My studio’s year end show
Summer: Amazing workshops at The Rhythm Room with LIVE MUSIC this year.
Urban Tap Squad reunion show
Saturday Nights Live at The Rhythm Room (live music and dance)
14. What motto, if any, do you live by?
Anything done with conviction is done well. Are you in? Or are you in the way?
15. What does tap mean to you, and how does it make people’s lives better?
Tap is good for your brain, body, and soul. It is mediational and therepeutic. It means longevity as a dancer. I can sit in a chair and teach––when I eventually have to!
I don’t think much more can be said. Her words and her actions speak for themselves. Tap has given much to her, and she is giving much to tap.
But there is a little more that can be said, and which can only be said by someone who has lived through all this with her.
‘The most attractive thing about Jennifer when we were dating wasn’t her blue eyes, Irish good looks, red locks, and everything else in the beauty department,’ Bill Costin says; ‘it was the fact she was seeking out a studio to rent for teaching dance. It said so many things: she was fearless, she wanted to follow a passion and turn it into a career, she was responsible (in spades), and independant.
‘When the first place didn’t turn out (businesses on the first floor complained that the tap class above made it sound like the roof was caving in!), she kept looking.
‘She’s always looking at real estate: mostly while she’s driving. It scares the crap out of me.
‘As luck would have it, a newspaper ad connected her to the first successful place on Cambie Street. She opened it and ran it the first year while pregnant! For most moms, the pregnant thing is enough, never mind starting a business.
‘There aren’t enough words to say how special Jennifer is, except that I love her and our daughter, Olivia. Our lifestyle pays off everyday. We do what we love with people we love.’
I’m so very appreciative of Bill for agreeing to speak about Jennifer. They make a wonderful team, and I can’t wait to see the projects they come up with in the future. With the love and kindness they share for one another, tap and music will never go cold.
I want to thank Jennifer not only for agreeing to take part in this interview, but for all she has done, is doing, and will do for tap. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is as big as a proponent and innovator for tap in Canada than her.
I’ve always liked Mt. Rushmore; the look of it, the artistry, the skill, the commitment, the patriotism, the celebration of good and success, among other noble aspects. And I like that its symbolism reaches a variety of disciplines, such as thought, art, sport, etc. The list goes on. The idea that in each particular field there are a select group of individuals who stand head and shoulders above their peers is an everlasting one. The Mt. Rushmore of theology and philosophy. The Mt. Rushmore of filmmaking. The Mt. Rushmore of football. These individuals are recognised for their achievements, seen to be those who others should aspire to be like, and considered to be the type of leaders who watch over those entering and pursuing the field in which they helped cultivate.
If Canada was to recognise those few special individuals who have helped to promote and foster the art of tap dancing in their country, Jennifer Bishop would be one of them.
Tap is not just blessed to have her skills. Tap is not just blessed to have her knowledge. Tap is not just blessed to have her passion. Tap is not just blessed to have her creativity.
Tap is blessed just to have her.
Please check out the below websites. Some include more info on Jennifer (including bio and works she has been involved with).
Bishop Dance Productions (run by Laura Bishop)