As crazy as it may sound, I sometimes have an itching suspicion that I was born in the wrong time. While the 2010s are good and well, I have always felt a certain calling to a different time: the teased-hair, dark-lipstick-wearing world of 1990s. Perhaps it’s because I almost missed the boat on the 90s, being born in December 1998 and feel a need to cling onto the decade as a sense of birthright. Or maybe it is because the 1990s are the first decade I associate more with myself than with my parents. Recently, however, I have come to find that I am not alone in this in my infatuation with velvet scrunchies, chokers and oversized denim shirts. Reboots like “Fuller House” and “Girl Meets World” inform me that the world at large seems to be missing its daily dose of 90s nostalgia. So maybe it was this sense of worldly duty that drew me to Yale Taps’ Fall Showcase, “Tap-Back to 1990s,” this Wednesday night.
When I walk into the FKA Calhoun Cabaret, the first thing I notice is that the stage decoration is minimal: six stage lights, a red brick wall, a small electric keyboard in the corner of the theater and a dark empty stage. Suddenly, Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills” blasts over the speakers, I settle in, and the show begins.
From this point, the show builds throughout the first act, whipping across genres and decades — the show largely keeps to its 90s theme but diverges occasionally with samples from contemporary artists like Frank Ocean and Selena Gomez. Small groups of three or four performers showcase their tapping talents in routines of varying styles, impeccably choreographed to incorporate equal parts complex step combinations and good, old-fashioned groove. When the entire group appears onstage together for the first time at the end of the first half, it’s electric. Clothed in hilarious combinations of denim-on-denim (reminiscent of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake’s now-infamous coordinated VMA outfits), oversized flannels and tattoo chokers, the tappers engage in a dance-off that is more reminiscent of “Stomp The Yard” than “Singing in the Rain.” It is a strange sight, but all the more enjoyable in its unexpectedness. By the time the dancers stomp their feet in a unison for a final time, the viewer is itching for more.
While most shows encounter the inevitable second-half slump, “Tap-Back to the 90s” continues to gain momentum in the second half, bolstered by a show-stopping opening number choreographed by Imani Butler ’20.
Interspersed between these dynamic dance numbers are 90s-themed skits, poking fun at defining features of the decade like Bop Its and the movie “Titanic.” These interludes are corny, yes, filled to the brim with self-aware humor but charmingly so; the dancers often can’t help themselves from erupting into giggles onstage and their obvious delight is contagious. One especially reference-heavy skit is told almost exclusively through dialogue composed of 90s song references from Britney Spears’s “Oops I Did It Again” and NSYNC’s now springtime anthem “It’s Gonna Be Me.”
Despite the flashy costumes and over-the-top skits, the dancing, itself, is truly the star of the show. While the music occasionally overwhelms the theater, preventing the viewer from hearing the synchronized stepping so distinctive of tap dancing, more often than not, the music and dancers interact in a captivating symbiosis. It is entertaining to see the performers adapt tap dancing, a style often seen as esoteric and one-note, to a wide variety of musical styles and dance. A few standout numbers include the aptly titled “#rushtaps,” a stripped-down number technically impressive enough to make any Yalie, freshman or senior, want to rush, and “Come Back to Taps,” a lovely ode to the classic style of Fred Astaire. Perhaps a result of the inherently in-sync nature of tap-dancing, the group chemistry is palpable. Shared glances and smiles onstage give the appearance that the dancers enjoy spending time with each other outside of rehearsal, an attitude which makes reaching the conclusion of a particularly demanding number all the more rewarding.
By the time all 15 dancers return to the stage for bows, dancing along to MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This,” one cannot help but smile. Unlike a play or narrative show, there is no gut-wrenching climax or cliche moral at the end of the 90-minute performance. It is simply a quick break from reality, a time-bending journey back to the world of grungy flannels and color-blocked windbreakers.
As a child born at the tail end of the decade, I’ve always felt a bit dishonest calling myself a 90s baby. Any encounter I had with an Easy Bake Oven or Game Boy was due to sharing a room with my older sister rather than personal ownership. However, I am no stranger to 90s reruns. In middle school, I spent many Friday nights glued to the Nick at Nite lineup of “Friends,” “Full House” and “Boy Meets World.” During this time, Nick at Nite provided an escape from the unexpectedly harsh world of junior high. It was a time to laugh, relax and dive into a world so different — and significantly more technicolored — than my own.
I find myself in a similar situation this week as I work toward completing my first semester of college. Overwhelmed by the stress of finals, I am relieved to spend 90 minutes surrounded by the enthusiasm of a time where television theme songs were choreographed and hair ties were the size of doughnuts. So while there can be great value in the art of the dramatics, sometimes all you need is some damn good tapping and good, old-fashioned fun.