While most dance companies concentrate on the glory that comes from stage performance and audience applause, California Rhythm Project has instead made it its mission to further education and innovation in tap dance.
The company, which began around 1996 and is in residence at Hammond Studio of Dance in Solana Beach, started when its founder and artistic director, Carmel Valley resident Pam Thompson-Spinner, wanted to "push the envelope on tap." Unfortunately, the regular dance classes she taught did not allow her that freedom.
"Because we had a syllabus to get across and so forth, I thought starting a dance company was the best way to do that," said Thompson-Spinner, who is also a founding member of the International Tap Association.
The company is made up of tap instructors and/or professional dancers, and "hard-core tap fans," Thompson-Spinner said. The goal of the company, whose motto is "pass it on, take it further," is to preserve choreography of the great masters of rhythm tap, in addition to encouraging the younger generation of tap artists to be innovative and take the art form to a new level. Although performing is not the focus, the company will usually present an annual concert.
Because many company members also teach, Thompson-Spinner said she hopes this will have a ripple effect and the choreography will survive throughout generations. The company also regularly brings in well-known tap dancers for master classes, be they older dancers who perform more traditional styles, or younger ones who are more influenced by the urban rhythms of rap and hip-hop.
When Thompson-Spinner was a toddler, she had both whooping cough and asthma and doctors told her mother she would be wheelchair-bound and unlikely to live through her 20s. Her mother thought physical exercise would stave off the illnesses, so Thompson-Spinner was enrolled in dance classes through the local parks and recreation department. A friend of Thompson-Spinner took classes at a local dance studio, and one day she decided to tag along.
"I went with her one day, and I stood outside with my little nose to the window into the dance room and finally the teacher said, 'Get in here,'" said Thompson-Spinner. "And that's how it all started."
At the age of 19, Thompson-Spinner opened the hugely successful La Jolla Jazz Tap, a dance studio specializing in tap dancing. She regularly commuted to Los Angeles for classes from acclaimed tap instructors, and soon she heard that the well-known tap master Eddie Brown, who was himself, mentored by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, was looking for a protege.
"My name somehow, possibly even mistakenly came up, and I was told to contact him in L.A.," Thompson-Spinner said. "So I drove up every week, and then eventually commuted every day to L.A., and taught up there, as well as worked with him. And that was a blessing."
California Rhythm Project's honorary president is the famous tap dancer Dianne Walker, also known as "Lady Di" and "The First Lady of Tap." Several years ago, when tap dancer Savion Glover, who is well-known from the film "Happy Feet" and the Broadway show "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk," came to San Diego, he was unable to teach master classes because of his strenuous performing schedule. Walker taught in his place, and Thompson-Spinner brought in students and teachers from all over San Diego and even as far away as Orange County and Los Angeles to attend the class.
"Tap is a unique American art form, as is jazz music," said Thompson-Spinner. "Even though culturally it comes from all different places, from Africa, from Ireland, even some flamenco, all of it kind of merges together…and the funny thing is, here at the dance school, sometimes there will be young skateboarders that will go by and they'll hear us and they'll stop. Even the adult class that has older adults in it, they'll stop. And they'll come back and they'll hang out in the door and listen. There is just something that captures the spirit, the rhythm, that's just very elemental, and it still has that kind of appeal to a younger generation that may not have been exposed to it. We've got a future ahead of us."