When you Google Ian Berg, the first video result shows a circle of 20- and 30-somethings gripping Solo cups and cheering loudly over his tap dancing.
Berg’s long curly hair bobs seconds after the rest of his body as his feet move at hummingbird speed. I tell him the crowd is so energetic and youthful, you might guess he was breakdancing or in a footwork battle, not tap dancing.
“We don’t really do proscenium performances,” Berg says about the stance that Subject:Matter, his company, has adopted on formal shows. “Nothing we make is appropriate or reads on a proscenium stage. It’s about the interaction … tap dancing is half dance and half music, both of which are equally as important. Many would argue that the music half is more important.”
His training began in “one of those strip mall, Dolly Dinkle sort of studios” in the suburbs outside Chicago. Eventually he became a pre-professional at the Joffrey Academy of Dance, home to the Joffrey Ballet, and a member of the MADD Rhythms tap company before graduating high school and moving to Boston to continue his education at Boston Conservatory.
What Berg couldn’t have anticipated was the “very unique flavor” of tap dancing awaiting him in Somerville, stemming from fellow Chicagoan-turned-Bostonian tap dancer Leon Collins. Following tap dance’s resurgence through the ’70s, Collins moved his studio to Brookline and taught a new generation his signature Routines, key exercises for strengthening tap dance technique, until his death in 1985. Three of Collins’s students, Dianne Walker, Pamela Raff, and C.B. Hetherington, continued educating dancers in his style.
“The school burned down, but the community really stuck together,” Berg says. “What you have now is a community that’s older and has other jobs, but also a connection with all the people, that the younger people in the tap dance community look up to.”
Tap dance in Somerville has found a new home at the Deborah Mason School of Dance, Berg says, where Walker teaches the Routines on Thursdays nights. Berg says this is “the perfect time to be here as a tap dancer.”
He strives to make dance more inclusive through Subject:Matter. The company breaks down dated conventions surrounding gender and audience dynamics within the dance world with shows that incorporate improvisation and break the boundary between the performer and the audience.
As the company works on an evening-length piece based on the Herbie Hancock soundtrack for the 1966 film “Blow Up,” Berg’s direction is a warm, “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” style that’s already carved its own niche in the local dance scene.
“I’ve had a lot of experiences with directors, especially in the ballet world, that are just awful—verbally and emotionally abusive, really manipulative, just a lot of things inside the world of concert dance that make you feel like you’re really worthless,” Berg says. “Tap dance is a form that is so based on the individual. Everyone has their technical approach, everyone sort of looks a little different when they’re doing it, and that’s OK!”
This story appears in the Arts & Architecture issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.
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