Following the fancy footsteps of legendary entertainers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Howard “Sandman” Sims and Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, tap dancer Nico Rubio deserves a good nickname like his heroes of the past.
Perhaps the locally grown phenom could be the “Tap Dance Kid,” an ode to the Broadway musical, or Nico “White Shoes” Rubio since he’s known for wearing white kicks during his performances. Sobriquets aside, Rubio is busy making a name for himself via his improvisational dance routines that conjure up adjectives like “inspiring” and “preternatural.”
Whether he’s cutting the dance floor with precise moves like the shuffle ball change, cramp roll, Maxie Ford, or Shim Sham Shimmy, Rubio treats audiences with an unforgettable, visceral experience.
“When I perform, I want people to feel how I feel when I’m dancing,” Rubio said. “A lot of people say tap dancing has died but it really hasn’t. Everybody in the tap dancing world would like to see it become more mainstream again in movies and music, but we aren’t trying to make tap dancing the next big thing. We’re just trying to give it the respect it deserves.”
Rubio’s most ardent supporter, his mother, Karen has spent the last nine years helping the dedicated 17 year old hone his skills. On Christmas Eve she’ll be at the airport to pick up her son when he returns from China after performing in an international dance festival there.
“It hasn’t always been easy because it involves a lot of time, money and commitment,” Karen Rubio said. “What I always liked about tap dancing though is that you can see how tap dancers respect each other and the history of it. We have made some sacrifices, but I truly can appreciate Nico’s talent.”
With members of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Rubio’s career will hit a high this month when he travels to China on Dec. 17 to perform in Beijing. The Beijing International Dance Festival, which will be broadcast to millions of Chinese viewers, will be the largest-ever presentation of tap in China. Sponsored by the Ministry of Culture for the People’s Republic of China and the China Performing Arts Agency, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project will join the Paul Taylor Dance Company and 13 other countries in the historic tap dancing event.
“I’m really excited about the trip,” Rubio, who will be making his first international engagement, said. “It’s a really big show and an introduction for the Chinese to tap dancing.”
Rubio discovered his love of the art form and its rich history during formative visits with his mom and sister to the Chicago Human Rhythm Project tap dancing festivals. Inspired by the experience, Rubio has since performed at festivals and competitions in Los Angeles and St. Louis, as well as improvisational gigs in the busy streets and subways of Chicago.
“Basically, I started dancing along with my sister [Michelle] who was in all types of dancing at Panda Studios [in Forest Park],” Rubio said. “At the first tap festival I attended, I watched my sister perform and my mom helped out with the event as well. I roamed around and checked out the classes. The atmosphere of the festival and how they talked about the art form was very interesting.”
After his return from China on Dec. 24, Rubio will resume his intensive rehearsal and performance schedule, while also finishing up his senior year at St. Joseph.
Rubio, a member of the M.A.D.D Rhythm Tap Company, recently performed at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago. Through the years, he has participated in workshops like the Chicago Dance Connection, Bradley Tap Festival and M.A.D.D Rhythms Chicago Tap Summit. He’s also appeared on television broadcasts in Chicago and Los Angeles, taken classes from Debbie Allen and met Dick Van Dyke.
“Nico is able to internalize what tap dancing is all about on a deeper level,” Diane Walker, a tap dancing legend and one of his instructors, said. “Nico’s tap dancing is full of soul. It’s honest and you can hear it in his dancing.”
Rubio, an avid student of the history of tap, loves to improvise when he’s dancing, particularly in “cutting contests” and street performing. Also known as challenges, cutting contests are analogous to rap battles. Two tap dancers essentially engage in a call and response, can you top this exchange of tap dancing steps.
“Timing is really important,” Rubio said, who has won cutting contests in Los Angeles and Chicago tap festivals. “You can beat another tap dancer on a visual aspect with steps or on a musical aspect with rhythm.”
On the streets and in the subways during summertime, Rubio hooks up with his funk band, Ill-Noise, also featuring friend and fellow dancer Jaybo Dixon, a clarinet player and a drummer.
“We do a lot of choreography but also improv,” Rubio said. “Street performing really allows you to bring out your personality and be creative.”
Metaphorically speaking, Rubio’s unassuming, affable nature blended with his passionate style of dance is like the calm before the storm.
“Still water runs deep-that’s Nico,” said CHRP Founder/Artistic Director Lane Alexander. “If you just met him, he’s a nice, unassuming kid. But when he puts on his tap shoes and you see all his talent come out, he’s like the perfect storm.”
Armed with a confluence of talent, dedication and respect for tap dancing, Nico “The Perfect Storm” Rubio is on course to reach his dreams.