From Tap Shoes to Tassels and Back Again

Jessica Rae and puppet. Photo by Dan Davis Jessica Rae and puppet. Photo by Dan Davis

Some people wear many hats. Jessica Rae wears many shoes. Dance shoes, specifically. The first thing Rae tells me is that she has a background in competitive dance. Like the kind of dancing from Shall We Dance? Strictly Ballroom? Dirty Dancing? Yes, that kind of dancing. She trained in dance from the ages of 5 to 18. That’s 14 years inclusively of competitive jazz, tap, ballet, and lyrical dance before she began to move into new realms.

“It’s totally different,” Rae says about competitive dance. “You’re drilled about technique. There’s a right and wrong way to do things. You go to class and you’re taught this choreography. You learn it and regurgitate it to perfection and perform in competitions.”

She’s grateful about the experience. “I’m so thankful my parents put me in dance classes and that it has led me to where I am now. Competitive dance fosters a camaraderie and an environment of friendship. You’re part of a community. It gives you dance techniques.”

Jessica Rae. Photo by Mary Elam

Jessica Rae. Photo by Mary Elam

After years of competitive dance, though, Rae made the move to Montreal and found herself doing something completely new for her — joining the burlesque scene. She has had many different stage names, most prominently Zelda Blue. “It was exciting for me. It was more underground just six years ago,” she says. “Now there’s lots of classes, a few different schools, and more performance venues. For example, I was performing at Le Belmont. I started with the Blood Ballet Cabaret there once a month. It was fun and underground.”

I’m curious why burlesque appealed to her. “It’s a beautiful community and the performers come from different backgrounds. Some come from dance. There are many with a theatre background, and some come from a make-up and costume background,” Rae says. “Also burlesque is about telling a story and expressing sexuality on stage.”

Although still very much part of the burlesque community as a teacher at Arabesque Burlesque, she stepped away from burlesque performance and began pursuing a degree in Theatre and Development at Concordia, a program focused on many forms of theatre, such as feminist theatre, theatre as social activism, theatre in unconventional spaces. “Most of it is using theatre to work with community, whether political or creating theatre with people. It’s a made up term that lends itself to a lot of things,” she says. Her program shared a floor with the contemporary dance program and their work inspired her. As a competitive dancer, she says, “The only concept of modern dance I had is what I saw in competition. It was super abstract and out there.” She began to engage with the contemporary dance students and professors in new ways.

Jessica Rae. Photo by Georges Dutil

Jessica Rae. Photo by Georges Dutil

“Coming from a competitive dance background I didn’t know that dance could go on past the age of 25. I didn’t know dance was something I could explore and combine with puppetry and theatre,” she says. “Once I discovered there was dance on the same floor [as my program], I felt like I don’t know… not envy but… inspired. I wanted to be part of it.”

She took classes with Philip Szporer, the dance traditions teacher and learned about the history of contemporary dance from its beginning to today. “That was fascinating for me. It was just a great lesson every week.” Szporer further connected her with an internship at The Dance Current magazine. “It was awesome I had access to this otherwise foreign world. I knew about events going on and my knowledge of the contemporary dance world grew.”

Her practice now includes a combination of contemporary dance and tap, as well as teaching burlesque. “I’m interested in puppetry,” she says, dropping another I-can’t-believe-she-does-another-really-fascinating-thing on me. “I’ve built one with the help of a mentor and friend Chris Godziuk, a great puppet maker. I’ve only made one puppet, so I don’t call myself a puppeteer. But I’m performing in the Off-Wildside Festival on puppet night (Jan 14th) and I’ll be performing in the Bouge d’ici Cabaret with the puppet.”

How exactly does one dance with a puppet. “It’s fairly large. I wear her. I created the face. Under the mentorship of [Godziuk], I created a bigger than human-sized head and then I bought her an outfit and stuffed it with polyester, so she has a body and a tutu. I slip into the tutu with her. And I move her arms and stuff. It’s fun.” Rae hopes to try tap dancing with the puppet next.

Jessica Rae. Tap photo by Dan Davies

Jessica Rae. Tap photo by Dan Davies

As for tap, it’s only recently that Rae returned to some of her earliest training as a competitive dancer. After not doing tap for many years, she pulled out her tap shoes two years ago. “I didn’t know about today’s tap world. I didn’t know much about it back in the day either,” Rae says. “I just started tap dancing again. I looked to YouTube to refresh my steps then took lessons with Pierre Hobson and the Klaxson Dance School. I tap jam with a friend. We both have tap boards and tried tap busking.”

Tap jam is exactly what it sounds like. Rae and her friend get together and tap dance. “We exchange things, practice, we’ll just tap together or go back and forth. We create our own music.” A tap board is exactly what it sounds like, a wooden board made for tap dancing. “A wood worker made one for me,” Rae says. “It’s about four feet by four feet. It’s got wood on top. The most important thing is that it is elevated so it can reverberate. It is so fucking heavy. I had to wheel it around on a dolly.”

When tap busking, Rae brought the aforementioned tap board to Prince Arthur or the Village and would tap. She intended to go with her friend, but the stars for busking as a duo never lined up (they have performed together at the Wiggle Room). Solo tap busking was perhaps better as a concept than it was in practice. “Tapping makes you sweat. It’s hot. I would busk for five minutes in the summer heat and need to take a break,” Rae says.

The best thing about tap is that if you want to try it out, Rae offers a workshop as part of Bouge d’ici. “I’m not an expert,” she says. “I don’t think you need to be an expert to share knowledge, though.” The workshop is back by popular demand. Last year she taught the workshop to an eclectic group of people with different skill levels who had never tap danced or only did it a few years ago and wanted to explore. “I introduced people to tap. It was super casual, fun, and chill. We explored rhythm and sound. I taught some tap steps and a short choreography,” she says. You don’t need taps or special shoes to go, just “any sort of comfortable shoe.”

I ask her if there’s anything she can say generally about dance, especially for non-dancers. “There’s lots of different dance out there,” she says. “Dance is so many different things and there is so much variety. It opens up a whole world of storytelling and imagination.”

You can catch Rae performing at the Bouge d’ici festival in Montreal. Bouge d’ici takes place January 6-16 at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St. Laurent). The Tap dance workshop is from 5:30-7 p.m. on Friday January 8 at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St Laurent). pwyc. Info HERE. The Cabaret Bouge d’ici is January 16 at 8 p.m. at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St Laurent). $12/10

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