It started as a joke. After a tap show in early 2008, Shelby Kaufman and some other dancers were out celebrating. When they counted the number of Jewish tappers among their ranks, they started referring to themselves as “choofers” a play on “hoofer,” a common term for the style of dance Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers made famous, and more contemporary icons like Gregory Hines and Savion Glover carried into subsequent generations.
“Of course they were kind of just kidding around, but the next day I was thinking about it and I was like, you know what, this would be a great idea to start an actual Jewish tap company,” Kaufman, 25, recalls. And after much brainstorming, Mazel Toes was born. Outside of a troupe of Israeli hoofers called Tradition in Tap, Mazel Toes appears to be one of the few such groups working the simcha circuit.
The company, which now has seven full-time members, is committed to keeping alive the Jewish comedic spirit that created it. In addition to hoofing, which is often identified with blindingly fast and complicated steps, company members want to focus on audience engagement and entertainment.
According to MT member, Dana Fisch, 29, an injection of humor would not be an innovation so much as a return to the roots of tap. “When it first started, tap was about song and showmanship, but now we’ve gotten more into the artistry of it and gotten away from the showmanship. ... The young tappers hit these crazy sounds, but they don’t ever acknowledge their audience.”
“There is nothing going on from the waist up,” laments Kaufman, the director and choreographer of the group.
To increase the levity, Shelby is working on the “Timeless Bar/Bat Mitzvah medley,” which the company hopes to perform at the Jewish coming-of-age events that the dance is named for. Having grown up very culturally Jewish in Michigan, Kaufman attended three to four parties a weekend during bar mitzvah season. The medley will be comprised of the songs she remembers dancing to as a young teen. “It starts with [Kool and the Gang’s] ‘Celebrate Good Times’ and ends with Donna Summers’ ‘Last Dance’ and a friendship circle,” Shelby says. They even plan to create a tap version of the Electric Slide.
But not all of these songs are universal, as Arleigh Rothenberg, 25, points out. As a native of upstate Elmira and its very small Jewish community, she attended far fewer affairs than did Kaufman and never heard some of the tunes included in the medley. Some of these songs and dances are probably better known to the kids’ parents. Fisch, who works at the 92nd Street Y, had to teach her students the Electric Slide in gym class.
“I teach the Running Man,” Kaufman adds. “I think the ‘90s need to be remembered,” she says half-seriously.
But Kaufman and Co. don’t simply foist their tastes and styles on others. Like performers everywhere they play to their audience. While helming the tap dance group at the University of Michigan, she realized that the college students in the audience were just waiting to see the hip-hoppers perform. “So I completely changed the face of what my tap company was. They didn’t want to see us doing moon dances. They wanted to see us doing hip-hop mixes. That’s what they wanted, and that’s what I gave them.”
Kaufman says she is willing to be equally adaptable by adding newer bar mitzvah anthems, as well as incorporating the kids into the dance. The troupe hopes to find some tap happy kid and lift him or her on a board so he can hoof for his guests.
Many in the tap and greater dance communities disdain this sort of pandering. “The attitude is, ‘If they don’t get it, shame on them,’” Fisch says, offering a likely reason that the audience for tap shows is mainly comprised of other tappers. The network television show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” features nearly every dance genre, from ballroom to krumping, but has yet to choreograph a tap routine for the contestants, perhaps because hoofing is thought of as too inaccessible for a general audience.
Not that the Mazel Toes completely eschew hoofing. They hope to showcase the remarkable foot dexterity of the dancers but in a way that’s engaging, by selecting recognizable music and being expressive throughout their bodies, not just with their feet. “We’re going to get such a better audience if we can be package deals,” Kaufman realizes.
And pluralistic. The Mazel Toes’ first performance as a company happened in the most unlikely of settings — at a women’s-only open mike session in Coney Island organized by Rivka Nahari, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman and performer. Kaufman teaches several classes at Nahari’s dance studio in Brooklyn. The Mazel Toes adapted their style to the standards of the ultra-Orthodox community, which meant that their outfits were modest, the musical accompaniment wordless and the men of Mazel Toes, Xander Weinman and Daniel Starer-Stor, were booted from the routine.
This did not bother the company, which is rounded out by Sarah Reich and Nicole Ohr. Kaufman and her cohorts viewed the limitations imposed by Orthodoxy as challenges, and were willing to be respectful of the rules in order to bring tap to a population that probably had never encountered it before.
But the Mazel Toes want more than recognition from the Jewish community. All of the members were already associated with professional companies before they joined MT, and they want to earn the respect of the greater tap and dance communities. To that end, Kaufman got the group into Tap City, an annual event featuring the best troupes from all over the country. This was no mean feat for a new choreographer since the typically weeklong extravaganza was pared down to a single night this year. The Mazel Toes performed to a sold-out audience at the Upper West Side’s Symphony Space. The full company tapped to a string quartet version of Coldplay’s song “Clocks.” They did the piece again (sans the male members) for Nahari’s annual show.
When the Mazel Toes look to the future, they see more humor. They plan to add the popular American folk song “Cotton Eye Joe” to the medley. Kaufman would like to choreograph a tap piece with some hip-hop flavor. “It’s gonna be called ‘Pop and Lox,’” she says, laughing.
For information about Mazel Toes, contact Shelby Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org.