Date: June 23 2012
Matt Papa's dancing career started with a dare. When he was 10, his younger sister challenged him to come to her dancing class at Canberra's Legs Dance Studio. He did, and he's never stopped dancing since. And he's been able to turn his passion into a professional career, dancing both here and on tour overseas with the phenomenally successfully Australian group Tap Dogs.
Just what was it he found so compelling about dance? ''I have no idea,'' he says. Initially, he says, he ''hated everything about it'' - but something kept him going. ''I fell in love with it a little bit,'' he says. ''I've always loved music and rhythm … to me that's what dancing was, the feeling you get from it, being a part of it.'' And once he discovered tap, he says, ''Everything else went out the window.''
He claims to be ''incredibly unflexible'' but finds something in the flow and timelessness of tap that invigorates him. ''You're part of the music when tapping as opposed to going with it … in tap you can play around with it, with the timing and everything like that.'' He says his friends used to make fun of his dancing when they were younger, but he never got bullied. ''Maybe that and playing rugby cancelled each other out.'' And now, with his professional career in full swing, they've come around. ''It feels like tap can be a cool thing.''
What's it like being on stage in Tap Dogs?
Papa says, ''I feel like I don't even work'' but that's not to suggest there's no effort involved. ''It's 80 minutes of insanity, pounding your body hard the whole time … Obviously there are times when you get tested but at the same time it's what I love doing.''
The 24-year-old, whose professional performing career began in Canberra in his final year of school when he did a season as Brumbies mascot Brumby Jack, is coming back to his home town for the first time professionally since he became a Tap Dog.
Each dancer in the show has a character on a set that's a simulation of a building site with plenty of knockabout humour - though most builders don't wear Capezio taps on their Blundstones. He plays ''the Enforcer'', a guy who's meant to keep everyone in line. But the mild-mannered, modest dancer doesn't seem particularly intimidating offstage. ''Maybe it's because I'm taller than the rest of the guys,'' he says of his casting. ''I've got a bigger look; I don't look like a dancer.''
But a dancer he certainly is. Michelle Heine, who runs Legs, had noticed his love of tap and suggested he try to get the attention of Tap Dogs creator Dein Perry.
''When I was 17 I used to come up to Sydney every Friday and Dein Perry would run an open class, then I drove back home. It's a little insane, thinking of it now. I did that for about 12 months.''
But if it was madness, there was method in it. Perry did notice him and two weeks after finishing his secondary schooling at Canberra Grammar he was performing with Tap Dogs in Melbourne at a corporate gig. ''It was an audition and it just went on from there,'' he says. ''Dein put a lot of trust in me.'' And, he says, ''It hasn't stopped since then - we've been to the US, Asia, Europe, around Australia … everywhere.''
He thinks Tap Dogs as a concept has been successful in Australia and around the world since it began in 1995 because ''it's a working-class, fun thing that appeals to men and women, everyone, of all ages''. Career highlights include performing in the West End (''That was the best''), Russia (''amazing'') and India (''for the good vibe of it all''). When he gets time Papa also teaches tap classes in schools. He says in one school recently some of his young male students performed in front of their school. ''That would never have happened 20 or 30 years ago.''
While he's still going strong for now, Papa knows the life of a dancer is limited and has plans for his post-dance career. ''I want to go into other avenues … I want to produce shows, direct shows, choreograph, look at that other side of it, not being on stage. I want to be the person who puts it together, who makes it happen.'' He's already made a short dance film, SHWDWN, which he wrote, directed, choreographed and produced and uploaded onto YouTube, ''just to try, to see how to do it''. His belief is, ''If you want to do something in the artsy field, do it yourself.'' And his career so far is proof of the success of that.
Tap Dogs is on at the Canberra Theatre from July 3 to 7 at 7.30pm with 2pm shows on July 4 and 7 and a 3pm show on July 8. Tickets $49-$99. Bookings: 6275 2700 or www.canberratheatrecentre.com.au
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