Forget the jazz hands and cheesy smiles. Nico Rubio stomps. His feet move from heel to toe, creating rhythm, sound and depth. His body slumps, his arms at his sides, and his legs jive wildly.
Rubio, of Forest Park, is a charismatic hoofer, a professional dancer dedicated to the traditionally male style of tap that originated in the clubs of Harlem, New York in the early 1900s.
“It’s weird for me to say this, but I’m definitely regarded as one of the best from my generation,” said Rubio, 29. “And this is even weirder to say, but me and a few other dancers are kind of the best of all time.”
Rubio has performed in China. He’s tapped in Mexico, near Monterrey where his family is originally from. Rubio has danced in Italy, Costa Rica, Barcelona, Brazil — and that’s just the short list. On Aug. 25, he returned to his roots in the Forest Park area, performing at Thalia Hall in Chicago, where he tapped and DJ’ed along to the first show he’s ever completely self-produced, called “By Way of Taps: A J. Dilla Tribute.” The hour-long show features nine individuals tapping along to the songs of J. Dilla, a hip-hop producer and rapper — “Kind of like the Quincy Jones of his time, not enough people knew he was the man behind the music,” Rubio said. Dilla was known for his “drunken drumming style,” which featured intentional inconsistencies, reflecting the human condition.
“It’s closer to jazz music because it’s not like the same thing programmed throughout the entire beat,” Rubio said. “Most producers will just play the same drum pattern and loop it. He actually changed it here and there, so it’s more dynamic, there’s more soul.”
Rubio has spent the last year producing the show, which is intended to highlight the similarities between tap dance and hip-hop culture. It was funded through a $15,000 Lab Artist award Rubio received from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum. He’s produced it through his production company, Shuffle Liiife Productions, and it features dancers from his tap company 333. He said the hardest part was coordinating all his dancers’ schedules — one of the dancers is his 12-year-old nephew, Xayvion Rubio, a student at Forest Park Middle School — and picking the right songs.
“Not all of J. Dilla’s songs are meant to be tap-danced to. I mean, none are meant to be, but it’s finding the right ones and figuring out the transitions,” Rubio said, adding: “Putting out work I’m passionate about and not feeling forced to do is something I’m very fortunate and blessed to do. We often have to put shows together that are somebody else’s vision.”
Rubio started dancing when he was a student at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School. The then 10-year-old had been involved in gymnastics for a year before and, after watching his sister Michelle perform, had been curious about trying dance.
But he worried about his classmates judging him.
“I had the mentality with the stigma that dancing is for girls, and I was a little worried what my friends at school, and those who were not my friends, would think,” Rubio said.
That summer, Rubio’s sister Michelle attended classes through the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, and his mom volunteered to drive visiting dancers around town. Rubio tagged along, sitting in the backseat of the family van, reading comic books and half listening as famous dancers discussed the history of tap, dance moves, movement theory and more.
By the end of the summer, Rubio decided to give tap a go, particularly inspired by conversations with Dianne Walker, an American tap dancer who has performed on Broadway, TV, in film and international dance competitions.
“Something about her connection made me feel like it was the right move,” Rubio said. “I gave it a go and found that tap was my calling.”