Heavy metal

Before interviewing Chicago-based dancer Anthony LoCacio, this reporter had assumed that tap dancing in heavy work boots would be a decidedly awkward endeavor. As utilized in Tapdogs, a comedic production about the steel-construction industry, it seemed a charming — but bafflingly impractical — touch of authenticity.

Not so, explained LoCacio, with a laugh: “It’s great to tap in work boots. … Due to the nature of the show, if we attempted to dance in anything other than work boots, we would probably cut our feet up pretty bad. There’s all this steel on stage, and pieces of wood. … We dance on metal; we dance on wood; we dance up and down ladders; we dance up and down ramps. I even dance upside down during the show: They strap me into a harness, pull me up, and then I flip over.”

LoCacio is one of the six dancers whose boundless energy drives Tapdogs — a turbocharged, award-winning show created by Dein Perry. The production, set to contemporary rock music, is admittedly light on plot — but only because there’s little room for story lines amid the chaos on this construction site.

“The show’s about a bunch of construction workers, but we don’t really delve greatly into [their stories],” the dancer explains. “The real focus is on the dancing, and on how each character on stage interacts with [the] others. … There’s a lot of comedy, and the dancing is just intense. There’s no break in the show, no intermission. We work very hard for the whole [time].”

Perry — an Australian who grew up in Newcastle, an industrial town north of Sydney — birthed Tapdogs in 1995, after stints choreographing the West End London musical Hot Shoe Shuffle and dancing in the popular Sydney production of 42nd Street.

Tapdogs is no condescending idealization of blue-collar life, either: Perry knows firsthand what that tough, workaday world is all about. Despite years spent studying tap dance and performing as a child, he received his union papers at age 17 and worked as a machinist for six years.

Perry never fully cast his more artistic ambitions aside, however: The call of tap continued to beckon. When it became too loud to ignore, he quit his blue-collar job and immersed himself once again in the dance world — resulting in a string of acclaimed performances in Australia and beyond.

To bring Tap Brothers (an early version of Tapdogs) to life, Perry drafted his childhood dancing pals. Inspired by their leader’s example, these frustrated tappers left their “sensible” jobs to help Perry realize his vision: creating a gritty alternative to the overdone, dated, high-gloss productions that dominated the genre.

Today, however, the choreographer’s brainchild features dancers from four continents. And while the cast may vary, the premise remains as solid as a steel beam. LoCacio, who’s been with the show for two years, credits Perry’s hands-on knowledge of his subject with making Tapdogs work: “Oh, man, I think that you couldn’t [create] this kind of show unless you had lived that kind of life,” he observes. “It’s very, very blue collar — very, very industrialized. I mean, I don’t think anyone could have envisioned the show … if they had never had anything to do with that type of industry before they did this.”

But it’s the dancers, of course, who must deliver the goods. Improvisation, says LoCacio, is a key to Tapdogs’ ongoing appeal: “I’ve done this show [close to] 500 times, and I don’t think I’ve ever done the same show twice,” he relates. “We’re six guys having a good time … and this show wouldn’t look the same if it was perfectly set up every night. It’s 99 percent the same, but with little extra pushes or jokes. We do whatever we can do to keep the audiences really interested.”

A perennial critic’s darling, Tapdogs was hailed by Time Out, London as “the hottest show on legs,” while the Los Angeles Times raved: “Spectacular! Triumphant! A major achievement!”

And audiences, says LoCacio, are equally enthusiastic — for diverse reasons. “We have a very wide base of clientele that come to the show, which is fantastic,” he gushes. “Little kids are all starry-eyed and smiley when they come out, and the older folks like it because they like to see us ‘young kids’ running around,” he jokes (LoCacio himself has been dancing for 25 years).

In the end, it’s that “running around” that may come closest to explaining the way Tapdogs consistently tickles audiences on both sides of the generation gap: “This show is total, raw energy for an hour and 20 minutes,” LoCacio proclaims.

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