More than Applause: Joe Orrach’s Modern Tap Dance-Theatre
Friday, January 29, 2016
By Kathryn Roszak
“Tap is the most important dance in America. It’s like jazz; it says things deeply,” says multi-faceted artist and teacher Joe Orrach, creator of a new brand of tap dance-theater that he performs locally and internationally in Paris and Shanghai. Tap dance is loud and few dance studios will rent rehearsal space to him, so Orrach rehearses relentlessly on a small wooden stage installed in his characterful home in the East Bay Hills, which he shares with his partner and collaborating writer Lizbeth Hasse.
Dancer, choreographer and teacher Joe Orrach. Photo: Alexander Reneff-Olson
Originally trained as a boxer, Orrach’s trainer suggested he take ballet to improve his footwork. He fell in love with dancing, taking his ballet classes in secret; by day, he drove a delivery truck to support his ballet habit. While he took classes he lived on the couch of his teacher, former Ballet Russes dancer Karl Sandemar. “Boxing lets you talk with your hands,” Orrach says, “But tap dance makes you see the music and hear the dance. What other dance can be performed on the radio?”
Orrach perfected his tap technique at the notorious Fazil’s, tromping grounds of the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. While performing as a street dancer on a wooden board on Columbus and 72nd Street in New York City (“I raised three kids while busking for two whole summers,” he says), he was discovered by Gregory Hines. Orrach soon took his act from the street to the stage, performing at Home for Contemporary Theatre and Arts in Tribeca, on Star Search, and with Liza Minnelli and Savion Glover.
Orrach’s most well known work to date is In My Corner, autobiographical tap dance-theater piece that traces his Puerto Rican roots, his conflicts with his father, and his dream of first being a boxer—then a dancer. It combines boxing language and rhythmic movement to tell a story of pain, frustration and violence in his family. This year, Orrach will draw upon his unique skills and life experience to invent choreographic dance/movement for Terence Blanchard’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz at San Francisco Jazz Organization (SFJAZZ) Center, which runs Feb. 19-28. He also breaks new ground by collaborating with Michelle Dorrance, winner of the coveted MacArthur Award, one of the very few women tap artists to achieve such recognition.
Orrach’s unusual journey to becoming a dancer inspires both his shows and his teaching. Now a nationally recognized teacher, Orrach works with high school students, incarcerated youth and clients of addiction recovery programs like Delancey Street. His workshops help those uprooted by despair and violence to transform rage into creativity. Orrach helps young people find their artistic voices, telling them: “I don’t give a shit about your steps.” Instead, he guides students to delve into rhythm and repetition, helping them legitimize their experience and gain the confidence to perform solo and tell their stories to the world.
“I’m teaching kids how to write,” he says, “then, through moving with words, suddenly something happens with all that rhythm and repetition.”
Orrach clearly gets a blast from teaching. He was the recipient of the Dance Studio Life 2015 Generous Heart Award for Teaching and hopes to expand his work by bringing it into prisons with adult populations. “I love teaching because I love watching students grab on to something, and then step into empowerment,” he says. “Watching them means more to me than applause.”
Kathryn Roszak, artistic director of Danse Lumière, is directing a dance film tribute to poet Tomas Tranströmer. She is also the producer of the inaugural Women Ballet Choreographers Residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.