Listen to Austin 360 Radio

For Canadian dancers, Austin just clicked

Tappers Travis Knights and Tanya Rivard moved from Montreal for the challenge, satisfaction they've found at Tapestry Dance Company.

Claire Canavan

Travis Knights loves being a member of a secret society.

No, it's not the kind of mysterious group you'd find in a Dan Brown novel. The society Knights belongs to is the worldwide community of tap dancers.

Knights, a principal dancer with Austin-based Tapestry Dance Company, calls tap dancing a secret because it's not exactly at the front and center of popular culture.

Over frappé mochas and raspberry iced tea at Bennu Coffee, Knights and his fellow tap dancer (and girlfriend) Tanya Rivard talked about their chance meeting as kids in Canada, their passion for tap, and their newest project with Tapestry.

Both dancers grew up in Montreal and discovered tap at an early age. At 3, Rivard started ballet classes but didn't like them because she was too small to reach the barre. She enrolled in tap classes soon after and was immediately drawn to its musicality. Just as ballet is linked historically to classical music, tap dance is tied closely to the rhythms of jazz.

Knights' path to tap was less direct. "My parents were concerned about me when I was a kid," he laughed. "I was socially awkward and didn't have a lot of friends, so my parents decided I needed to play team sports."

After failed stints in hockey and baseball, a 9-year-old Knights saw a clip of famed tap dancer Gregory Hines in a tribute performance to Sammy Davis Jr. Knights marveled at the way Hines moved with control, ease and joy. "That's what I wanted to have in my life," Knights said, "as opposed to the awkwardness I felt in everyday life."

Knights and Rivard first met as kids at legendary dance teacher Ethel Bruneau's studio in Montreal. "This dance school did everything it could not to be found," Rivard laughed. "There was no listed phone number."

Both of the young dancers' mothers happened to find out about Bruneau through colleagues, and they enrolled their children at the same time. "It was amazing that we both found this one woman hiding from everyone else doing something incredible," Rivard said.

They took classes together for years, became friends as teenagers, and started dating in their early 20s. In 2005, Knights formed a tap dance company called Dynamix Soles, with Rivard as assistant director.

In May of 2010, Knights and Rivard flew to Austin to audition for Tapestry at the invitation of the company's co-founder and artistic director, Acia Gray, and both joined the 2010-2011 season. Tapestry's newest show, "Are You Listening to Me?" premieres Friday through Sunday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts' Rollins Studio Theatre.

Rivard recalled that Gray kicked off the rehearsal process by reminding the cast of the show's title and asking them: "If you could say one thing and know that people would listen, what would it be?" The show, which includes guest spoken-word artist Zell Miller III, is based on that initial conversation.

Knights said the show is "the most demanding professional experience I've ever had." This is saying a lot, as Knights' career has taken him all over the world, from touring the high-energy show "Tap Dogs" to performing in the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But as opposed to a show like "Tap Dogs," where Knights had to give it all he could physically, the challenge in "Are You Listening to Me?" is to be vulnerable, which he said is one of the hardest things he has ever done.

As for what artists inspire them at the moment, Rivard described herself as "obsessed" with Janelle Monae's new album, while Knights confessed a weakness for Radiohead. Both agree that the dancers and artists at Tapestry, especially Gray, are constant sources of inspiration.

They call Gray a pioneer of a new way of teaching tap that deconstructs the dance form. Rather than learning specific dance choreography, Gray teaches dancers to break tap down into its most basic elements, which can then be recombined in new ways. It focuses on the music and rhythm, not the steps. Rivard said that she and Knights, though highly experienced dancers, sometimes take Gray's beginner classes because her method is so different from how they learned before.

The life of a professional tap dancer can be demanding, unpredictable and transient. Rivard said the transition from Canada to Austin has been easier to make with a partner. And Knights sees the nature of the dance form itself as a way to deal with the struggle.

"We have to recognize in life that you're going to stumble and fall," he said. "And you have to get back up."

"Tap dance is one of the most beautiful art forms that recognizes that. In pursuing a career in this, you have to recognize that as well."

'Are You Listening to Me? A Rhythmic Tour of the Human Condition'

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Rollins Studio Theatre, Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive.

Cost: $35

Information: 474-5664, www.thelongcenter.org