Gwen Epstein is the second on right in this photo of Sister Suffragette, performed by Razzmatap. The troupe’s upcoming show at the Rothstein has already sold out. (photo from Razzmatap)
The audience at the Norman Rothstein Theatre on June 27 will be treated to a uniquely entertaining show – The Best of Razzmatap.
The local amateur tap ensemble’s members are all women, among them representatives of diverse professions – from a judge, to a teacher, to a physical therapist – and a range of ages, from 40s to 80s. Founder, director and choreographer Jan Kainer talked to the Independent about the group’s roots.
“When my daughter was 7, I started a little class with some of her friends, so she would have an opportunity to tap dance. One class grew to several classes at Kerrisdale Community Centre and, in about 1987, I added an adult class. It was just for fun and fitness. After about six months of class, I asked the adults if they wanted to participate in a Christmas concert. Only one person was willing but, by yearend, the group had worked up the courage to dance in public, and they never looked back…. After we started doing performances and competitions, we decided we needed a name. Everyone put in suggestions, and we voted on Razzmatap.”
The initial core members are still with the ensemble, and several new members have joined through the years, explained Kainer. “The dancers’ average age is 65,” she said. “Our oldest dancer is 86, and I do have to take her health and strength into consideration. I choreograph around the strengths of the dancers in the group, so it forces me to work at making the dances interesting.”
A multiple-award-winning troupe, the upcoming show at the Rothstein, like many Razzmatap events, is already sold out. Kainer thinks the group’s success is largely due to her dancers’ obvious delight on stage. “My group has learned over the years how to tell a story and how to express the joy they feel when dancing. I think it shows.”
One of the dancers, Gwen Epstein, shared her enthusiasm with the JI. “Our teacher Jan Kainer is wonderful,” Epstein said. “When she works on new dances, she tries to give everyone a small solo, to showcase what the individual dancers do best, but, most of the time, we dance as a group, and everyone participates in almost everything.”
Epstein joined Razzmatap about 20 years ago but, like Kainer, she has danced most of her life. “I always liked dancing,” she said. “My mom was a ballet teacher. Of course, I started with ballet classes but I liked tap dance better.”
She took tap dancing lessons until high school, then took a break from her late teens to early 20s. When she got married, she resumed dancing and never stopped, not while raising her three children and not while working full time as a microbiologist.
“I was with a couple of different groups for awhile,” she remembered. “When my daughter was 6, I took her to tap dancing lessons and learned that the teacher also had an adult group. I joined it. It was Razzmatap.”
According to Epstein, the group participates in several tap dance competitions every year and usually wins. “We like to compete,” she explained. “We’ve competed in B.C. and in Germany. We also traveled to New York, Chicago and San Francisco for workshops. We danced in Tap on Broadway in New York. It was fun.”
Everything connected to her favorite group is fun for her. “Tap dance is such a happy activity. The music is lively. You dance and you think of Fred Astaire and Singing in the Rain. You want to smile. Even though none of us is very young, dancing makes us feel young. People come to rehearsals and complain – my knee hurts, my back aches, my feet are sore, some wear knee braces – but then we start dancing and we dance.”
The group usually rehearses twice a week for two hours, but now they have increased to three times a week in preparation for the new show, and everyone is excited. “Everyone has to come to the rehearsals,” she said. “We’re all very enthusiastic about the coming show.”
In the June 27 performance, Epstein will appear in nine dances out of 10, but her favorite is the one where she gets to reminisce on stage – in dance, of course. “I perform in my mom’s clothing in that dance, and it makes me think of her. This dance is very important to me, especially now, when she passed away.”
Each dance of Razzmatap is a story, told in music and movement. Some pieces have serious historical connotations, while others invoke a vague sense of nostalgia or memories of bygone eras. Of course, to create the right ambience for such dances, the performers need multiple props.
“We make all our props ourselves,”
Epstein said. “One dance needed human-sized man puppets as our dancing partners. Another needed suitcases. And then there are costumes. Of course, Jan sets the tone, like the color or sequins, but we make them.”
Epstein has quite a collection of costumes by now, from 20 years’ worth of dancing. “I keep them all in labeled boxes. It’s interesting when we have to travel with all of them.”
Epstein enjoys all aspects of performing: the spotlight, the music, the public. “Before the show, you’re nervous, but after, you feel such a thrill,” she said. “And the audience loves our shows. They are smiling, laughing…. I like entertaining people. When I was young, I didn’t think to make dance a career. I still think it’s nice to have a good job and a hobby you love, but if I had another chance, I might have chosen to be a professional dancer.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].