Dancers who talk with their feet

The Jazz Tap Ensemble performs tap-dancing the way it was in tap's heyday: as part of the music. The ensemble's three tap-dancers have studied with the dancers who made tap famous in the '30s and '40s, and the three jazzmen in the company seem equally devoted to tap - to the point of putting down their instruments and leaping to their feet to join in every once in a while.

But a recent evening with the ensemble at Jacob's Pillow, the dance festival here, was anything but nostalgic. It was strictly an '80s experience. You didn't long for the golden age of tap, you were happy to be alive and listening right at the moment, which must have been the way the '30s and '40s audiences felt, too.

The performers (who have left Jacob's Pillow and are performing today through Saturday at Ballet Aspen, in Aspen, Colo.) come on stage in a line, snapping out a tattoo with their feet while whapping a rhythm on chests and thighs with their hands. Each dances to - and is - his own different drummer, and it all fits together in a polyrhythmic jamboree.

They split up - musicians to their instruments, dancers to the open floor. Camden Richman, Fred Strickler, and Lynn Dally, dressed in elegant white outfits , wheel around the stage playing off each other's rhythms and then closing in as their feet click into perfect unison.

You never know where the next beat is coming from - out from under an elegantly behaved toe, or from Paul Arslanian's rollicking piano, Keith Terry's drums, bells, and sticks, or Tom Dannenberg's laid-back electric bass. In ''Caravan,'' the musicians suddenly lay down their instruments and soft-shoe at the tappers. They answer back, pouncing into a rhythmic barrage that rattles them back to their instruments.

The Jazz Tap Ensemble doesn't just dish out hot steps. It gives you a show whose language happens to be rhythm. The dances tell stories, like ''Spoon River ,'' in which Lynn Dally stomps around to spoons and country-sounding music as if wandering around a small town.

The musicians keep it going as much as do the dancers. Everyone steps, taps, slaps and plays with such charm and ease that you begin to think this is perfectly natural, and that life is really a collection of witty, melodious rhythms intersecting.

The dancers are masters of their form, but they're accessible, because they don't dance as if they were trying to save a dying art, but vibrantly, triumphantly, and as themselves.

Watching tap look perfectly at home with the twang of an electric guitar, you could see that the tap-dancing of the future will mean what tap-dancing has always meant - that there's music everywhere, and at special moments it comes out of people's feet.

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