He was just another pony-tailed left- over from the late '60s: a hippie with
a psychology degree and nowhere to take
it but straight back to the classroom. And
though Gene Medler ' 72, a fencer while
at UNC, already was work-
ing toward his master's in
physical education, fate
foiled those plans. First,
he found his way into a
dramatic playhouse and
suffered an attack of the
thespian nature. And
then, fully getting in touch
with the topography of
the right side of his brain,
he chanced upon a role that required him
to learn tap dancing.
After the final curtain lowered, he
decided to stay in character, a Fred Astaire
on the Hill.
"Here I was, going in to see my dad,
who had played football, baseball and ten-
nis, and saying,'I need a pair of tap shoes,' "
It was decidedly a good move. His father
had no qualms about the tap shoes. Today,
Medler, who also cultivated an early perfor-
mance career as a soloist, is the founder of
one of the premier youth tap groups in the
country-the North Carolina Youth Tap
Ensemble, or NCYTE.
Tall and lithe, now sans ponytail, Medler
started teaching tap to children in 1978.
Four years later, he thought the five girls
and five boys in his command deserved
something more than the hackneyed par-
ents-and-siblings-attended recital that cul-
minates most tap education. He gave the
group a name- The Children's Tap Com-
pany-and choreographed a show. One
reviewer called it the start of something
special. She was right.
Over 22 years and a handful of name
changes, NCYTE has grown from I0 kids in
a local spotlight to a group of 40 that per-
Zen on Tap
forms regularly at the Chicago Human
Rhythm Project and the St. Louis Tap Fes-
tival and frequently tours the United
States. In July, NCYTE performed in Vienna,
job,' " says Medler. That he is joking bears
reminding in the figure of his greatest pro-
tege, a woman who calls him "The Guru,"
Michelle Dorrance. Given the occupation
of her father, UNC's women's soccer coach
Anson Dorrance ' 74,
it's no small wonder
that Dorrance, 20,
wears tap shoes for a
living instead of cleats.
But rest assured, the
wispy-framed but rod-
strong dancer indeed
has found herself a
"real job," thanks to
NCYTE. She began
training with Medler at age 5 and now per-
forms in New York, where she also is a stu-
dent at New York University.
"Michelle just destroys me," says Medler,
clutching his chest at the thought.
To listen to Medler on tap is to meta-
phorically sit among the bonsai trees in a
Japanese garden. Peace and mysticism
reign. His own children have spent time
with NCYTE, and he is respectful of the
power of his art form and of its power
upon his young students. It is, he says,
And he talks about his dancers the way
a parent talks about his children with other
members of the PTA, at turns beaming
and proud and exasperated and annoyed.
"There's a bonding agent in any kind of
performing art that makes you feel like a
family," he says."There are days when it's
tedious and a lot of work. But most days it's
a joy. You watch them grow up and become
teenagers and then young adults ... and
with NCYTE changes right along with
them. I can't imagine that this is not what
I'm supposed to be doing.
"These kids are bringing something very
precious to the stage," he says."They're
-Beth McNichol ' 95
Gene Medler ' 72 and members of the N C. Youth Tap Ensemble.
"We're not talking about Shirley Temple
and tutus, Goodship-Lollipop stuff here,"
says Medler."Our kind of tapping is an
exacting, complicated, percussive dance. It's
speaking with your feet!'
Indeed, when NCYTE held its sixth annual
"Day of Rhythm" concert at the Carolina
Theatre in Durham in the spring, ditties by
the 7- to 20-year-old performers were
sassy and jazzy, combining the urbane
sophistication of Duke Ellington with the
gritty drumming of the musical Stomp.
Perhaps the most remarkable detail of
Medler's creation is that there are no lesson
fees for NCYTE. Never have been.
"For many years, I was the bank account,"
says Medler."I was dirt poor myself when
we started and in grad school. I figured every-
one was like me. I couldn't see charging kids
to learn how to tap. If I had, it probably would
have prevented a lot of folks who couldn't
afford us from turning into really talented
Instead, NCYTE now relies on grants and
proceeds from shows and on the dedication
of parents to pull off the non-monetary logis-
tics-coordinating with school schedules and
getting days off approved, when necessary.
"There have been a few times when I
looked back and said, 'I gotta get a real
S epie 11/ b er / 0 CI 0 b e r 2000