Denver tapper Andrea Coffey
by Sarah Prit
Denver, Colorado was once known as the “Harlem of the West” when it came to its rich dance culture and history. “In those days, everybody danced,” Harriet Butcher, a Denver tap dancer and singer, recalls what the region was like in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. “At a national level, you don’t hear that much about tap dance, but it was really a part of our life. Tap was everywhere.”
Tap remains a prominent fixture in the Denver dance scene today, especially with the arrival of the Mile High Tap Festival in February, 2020. With Artistic Director Sarah Prit, the Mile High Tap Festival aims to challenge, inspire, and educate the tap community, both locally and abroad. The current climate surrounding COVID-19 hasn’t stopped them from making a splash in the international dance scene. Since the quarantine, they’ve managed to pivot their strategy, providing hundreds of hours of free tap education to dancers around the world.
The festival originally planned to hold a local National Tap Day event on May 25th to help raise funds for their first festival, but COVID-19 prevented large gatherings. They quickly transitioned to a free online format that was open to all levels. Top instructors from across North America donated their time, forming an impressive lineup that included Kelsey Rose and Shelby Kaufman of the Motor City Tap Festival, Mike Glenney of Music in Motion, Rodney Howell of United Taps, and Anthony Lo Cascio from the Tap Dogs. Together, they provided over 16 hours of quality tap instruction. This quickly became an International Tap Day event, with hundreds of people participating around the world.
The Mile High Tap Festival isn’t the first tap fest to arrive in the area. The Colorado Tap Festival was a huge source of community in the 1980s, attracting talent such as Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde, and Eddie Brown. The Colorado Tap Festival was also noteworthy for providing some pivotal moments for women in tap dance. At the time, high profile female tap dancers were involved with the festival and did not perform with their male counterparts.
Since the festival’s inception, women had been invited only to participate in panel discussions. That changed, though, when Terry Brock, a female tap dancer who often attended the Colorado Tap Festival, pushed for women such as Brenda Bufalino, Lynn Daily, and Jane Goldberg to become equally involved in the festival. She interrupted a discussion to ask “Why aren’t they also performing? These people are our mentors!” The festival attendees enthusiastically backed Brock, immediately demanding that women be included on an equal level with men.
To demonstrate their support, Brenda Bufalino and the other women in attendance put on an improv show right then and there for the crowd. It was an experience to remember for all those in attendance. This led to more equality in dance events everywhere, but especially at the Colorado Tap Festival. The Denver community became known for supporting all artists, regardless of sex, gender, or race, and is still known for this today.
The Colorado Tap festival eventually ended, and for decades Denver went without a tap festival of any kind. The arrival of the Mile High City Tap Festival revitalized the tap dance scene in Colorado and sent out ripples around the world, as local personalities such as Suzanne Dirscherl, Andrea Coffey, and Las Vegas Tap Fest founder Victoria Jones joined their all-star lineup. Local organizations also offered to lend tap boards, sound equipment, and even their studio space to assist in the success of their first annual event.
Now, the Mile High Tap Fest provides scholarships for youth in the community, as well as numerous opportunities for free education online. Kovac streams two free online tap classes each week, and has established a blog and community space on the website so that dancers can read, learn, and connect with each other on various tap dance topics, no matter where they are in the world or on their educational and creative journeys.
“It’s an incredible thing to see our tap community coming together to celebrate such an incredible art form,” Sarah Prit, says. “This pandemic has everyone scrambling, and we wanted to ensure we accommodated as many dancers as possible, whether they’re local, across the nation, or the world. We’re in both our startup phase as a company, and a pandemic adjustment phase with the rest of the world. I’m so happy to be touching the lives of people around the world through this art form, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
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