Imagine Xena and Hercules strapping on taps after a few tankards of mead. Or Men at Work – dancing with women like Rosie the Riveter. Thirteen dancers in ripped sweats and cut-off jeans are pounding dents into the floor of a mid-town rehearsal studio, hurling tires and swinging heavy chains. Shod in Blundstone work boots, they look more like rugby players celebrating a victory than hoofers as they sweat and stomp through the end of an eight-hour rehearsal under the watchful eye of steelworker turned choreographer Dein Perry. This Rivet-Dance is Australian for tap. The Steel City dancers, says set designer Brian Thomson, “try to do all the things that tap dancing represents, in a way that’s more like what would happen at a pub.”
Though a full band will blast the wall-shaking score by former Crowded House and Split Enz member Tim Finn when Steel City kicks off a 35-city American tour at Radio City Music Hall, January 26 to 30, only a drummer plays at the rehearsal. As Perry, whose Tap Dogs is still touring around the world, barks his orders, the tip of his cigarette jerks to the longhaired bloke’s backbeat. Two months before their New York debut, the Aussie dancers, aged 17 through 25, are sweating their all for Perry. Wooden palettes tended to splinter dangerously mid-routine, so now they limit themselves to safe props – jackhammers, forklifts, wrenches, cars, and trucks – as they turn some eight tons of Newcastle steel into a massive drum kit.
Perry finally calls it a day. Damp from exertion, the kids clear out and return to their rooms but don’t, as you might expect, pass out. Nor do they rest their bodies before another hard round of rehearsals. These dancers – many from Sydney or Newcastle and thrilled to roam Manhattan for the first time – light up a smoke and duck into their hotel for quick showers and a change of clothes before fleeing middle-aged midtown and heading due south in search of odd Irish pubs and loud bars.
I meet four muscular, mostly black-leather-clad tappers – Mel, Nigel, Aaron, and Rebecca – in the Holiday Inn lobby. Rebecca and Nigel grab a cab; I tumble into another with lanky Aaron and bleached-blonde tough girl Mel. As we speed toward the East Village, they assault me with questions: Where d’ya buy shoes in SoHo? What’s rent like? Where d’ya go clubbing? Ya like tequila? Where are we? The two rubberneck so violently at the sight of the Flatiron Building, they bash heads, Larry-and-Moe-style, while describing the view from the Empire State Building, the hot dogs in Times Square, hats plucked off the heads of flirtatious Central Park policemen, guards who booted them out of Carnegie Hall, and the “awesome” Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk.
We join up with Nigel and Rebecca on 4th Street and attack a heaping pasta dinner and several bottles of wine as the women describe the professional-forklifting crash course they were required to complete before they were allowed to spin their machines about the stage. Rebecca, the only woman in a class with twelve career forklifters, didn’t crash, and aced the course. “She’s good, mate,” brags Aaron. “A friend of mine works in a warehouse – says she’s better than the blokes he works with.” Nigel, a buff dancer with a chiseled jaw who’s more interested in drinking and scoping out the scene than in telling war stories, is ready to move on, so we tromp over to B Bar, where we’re forced to chase rapid-fire double shots of tequila with Heineken because they don’t stock the exotic American export my Australian companions desire – Budweiser. The dancers do scope out our indigenous Marlboro reds – they puff smoke from them like the Newcastle steel factories that inspired their production. Winking, with a lime peel clenched between her teeth and a cigarette pinned between her fingers, Mel jokes, “We’re not just taking a bite out of the Big Apple; we’re gently sucking it,” which becomes a kind of bizarre mantra repeated throughout the night. Suddenly it dawns on me: It may be late autumn in Manhattan, but it’s just warming up in Sydney. I’m trapped in the spring break from Oz.
“They party harder than any rock band I’ve ever toured with,” Finn told me. After more tequila, bawdy stories, and smooching in the back of a cab on the way to 5 a.m. jazz at Zinc Bar, they finally call it a night. Aaron and Nigel averaged about three hours of sleep on their American tour; Rebecca survived with about four; while Mel dozed for only a combined nine hours in four days. All this before waking early for yet another rehearsal – stopping traffic along 51st Street by stomping on top of a yellow cab. Even with tap-enhanced work boots slamming, drums pounding, and kids crying among blaring taxis, the tappers seem hardly to feel the headache that I, squinting and cringing, nurse with Gatorade and slow, deliberate movements.
It’s with no little trepidation that I face January 26, when the troupe has vowed to keep me up dancing all night after they tap onstage for 90 minutes to open Steel City. Tap Dogs was a sort of “Stomp Meets The Full Monty” in which Perry and six sweaty men turned the resounding beats of their workday into a percussive, seductive floor show that went on to gross $15 million worldwide (and counting). And though it was not his intention, Perry says audiences have been lusting after his new group, too. “A couple of the boys started taking their shirts off,” he explains. “I had to put a stop to that because it started turning into bloody Chippendales.” So what’s different? “Well, I got girls,” he says, smiling. “Everyone’s got something to look at. When I put Tap Dogs together, I just wanted to get a lot of guys together that really didn’t look like dancers, you know? And that’s the charm of the whole thing. Just like average street blokes or workers or whatever.” Audiences responded like the thrilled biddies in The Full Monty, though Perry says Mayor Giuliani will have no reason to worry: “The women’ll keep their shirts on.” As for the men of Steel City: “We only go to two shirts off now. That’s the max, yeah.”