Since the advent of "Riverdance" 14 years ago, step dancing has been associated with spectacle. The blockbuster Irish dance extravaganza is a big-budget production that frames its lines of dancers in swirling mist and dramatic lighting.
The StepCrew, a step dance production coming to the Peddie School’s Mount-Burke Theater on Saturday, April 5, is something else altogether. Much smaller in scope – seven dancers, three fiddle players, and a five-piece band – it has an appeal all its own. In the troupe’s promotional video, viewable on YouTube, the dancers perform a deceptively simple line dance while seated on chairs. Their percussive footwork, however, is immediately riveting. You want to see – and hear – more.
"I think it’s the age-old thing of experiencing joy through watching an art form steeped in tradition and culture," says Jon Pilatzke, 29, one of the founders of StepCrew and a dancer and fiddler from way back. "It’s that pure feeling between the audience and the performers. I really think there’s a connection made there, in dance in general, whatever style it is. People walk away amazed at the energy level, with a smile on their faces."
The troupe does three styles of dancing: Irish step, American tap, and their specialty, Ottawa Valley. Pilatzke and his older brother, Nathan, also in the cast, learned to dance from an early age. They grew up near Ottawa, Ontario, the sons of a father in the lumber industry and a mother who was a floral designer. Their mother is Irish, but they were not raised in any kind of Irish tradition.
"I was about four, very young, when we started. More than anything it was just something to do to get us into something artistic, get the energy out of us and all that," Pilatzke says. "We ended up going to competitions for step dancing in and around Ontario and Quebec, almost every weekend in the summer. After that, we would work our butts off every fall and winter to get it together and win prizes."
Along the way, the boys learned to fiddle. Pilatzke was nine when he picked up a violin and began to study. "Again, from just being at these competitions where there were tons of dancers and fiddlers, a lot of dancers end up at least trying the fiddle," he says. "I actually studied classical violin but not everyone does. When I was growing up, people knew that classical training would vastly help you out in the future for your fiddling as well. I did it for six years, and it was the best thing I ever did."
It is the Ottawa Valley style of dancing that makes the StepCrew unique, Pilatzke says. Some say it looks like Appalachian clogging and tap. "Ottawa is very up off the floor, very leggy," he says. "My brother’s nickname is Crazy Legs, for good reason. Irish is more structured, more technical, while Ottawa tends to be very free-form. And tap is a little closer to the floor. There is a lot of sound coming out of the feet but not a whole lot of motion going on. You can describe them all you want, but seeing the styles side by side is the best way to judge for yourself. All three styles are changing, even today."
Pilatzke says Ottawa Valley dance is believed to have originated in the lumber camps of French Canada. "It started off as just kind of keeping time to the music," he says. "What started out as just kind of stomping along turned into somebody standing up and doing basic shuffling. Somewhere along the line, taps got put on and the steps became more complicated and intricate."
The Pilatzke brothers and one other member of the cast of StepCrew are the Ottawa Valley specialists; others handle the Irish step and American tap numbers. They all know each other from childhood. "We met through the circuit," says Pilatzke. "We’re all varying ages, but we’ve known each other for quite some time, which is pretty rare."
Cast members are versatile and also tour regularly with such troupes as the Chieftains, Bowfire, Cherish the Ladies, and Needfire. Cara Butler is the sister of Jean Butler, a star of "Riverdance." Joe Dwyer is a step dance champion who also happens to be a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley in New York. Stephanie Cadman, 26, was a winner at the 1998 World Tap Dance Championships and is one of the world’s most in-demand Celtic fidders as well as a charter member of Bowfire, the Canadian troupe that melds violin playing and high-energy dancing. However, since Bowfire only tours three months of the year, Cadman joined Pilatzke to dream up StepCrew to fill out the year. Pilatzke himself was headed for a career in medicine before chucking it for the stage.
"I was actually in a pre-med program in university. Who knows how long I would have lasted there," he says. "Show business called before my third year. Things seem to be getting larger and larger for us, so I think things would have to naturally die off for me to go back. Performing is so much fun and basically a part of who I am now."
Pilatzke always loved dancing, but as a child he and his brother kept it to themselves. "There was quite a bit of razzing. In the whole school, we were probably the only two males who actually did this," he says. "Going to competitions, we’d deny where we were. We wouldn’t brag about winning anything. But the first time we had to perform in front of our school, we actually got the feeling that the kids supported it. Nowadays, everyone is enthused about what we do. There was definitely a feeling of not out-and-out denying, but not bringing it up."
While the StepCrew show is Celtic in flavor, other elements like jazz and world music play into the program. The Peddie School appearance is part of the troupe’s second tour; the show is new. Pilatzke was struck by reactions to the first show, which differed depending on the location. "It’s very interesting. Even going to somewhere like Ireland, I find the response there to be really genuine," he says. "They’re amazed by us because they’re so used to seeing a different style."
Before embarking on the current tour, Pilatzke and his brother ended a world tour with the Chieftains. At 29, he says he is starting to feel a few aches and pains. But he can’t imagine a life without dancing. "Right now I’d consider 40 to be a goal of mine," he says. "In competitions, there is a 65-and-over class. We’ll see."
The Stepcrew, Saturday, April 5, 8 p.m., Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown. Irish and Celtic dance and fiddle work presented by six dancers and a five-piece band. $20. 609-490-7550.