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Dancers groove on "Nutcracker's' twist

Everything old is new again, even when it comes Christmas.

That's what dancer Dyane Joseph tells her best students as they rap-a-tap-tap to the music of their feet.

The slaps and clickity clacks may not be the traditional sounds of The Nutcracker, but then again, they are not rehearsing an ordinary production of the yuletide ballet.

There will be tap dancing, jazz and a real Broadway star. Best of all, the teenagers will be showing their stuff on stage at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Six girls, all students at Joseph's New Tampa Dance Theatre, will tap dance at the concert hall on Dec. 14 and 15 as part of The Chocolate Nutcracker, a multicultural interpretation of the holiday classic.

"I love both," said Michelle Allen, 13, who lives in Hunter's Green and was one of the six teens chosen. "I guess it makes it more fun because it's not so formal. Ballet is so formal."

The multicultural version of the ballet will feature Vincent Bingham, an original cast member from Broadway's Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk. The girls will be among 16 local teens selected to join the cast.

Make no mistake, this is is not your father's Nutcracker.

"It's not just the tap part," said Sarah Vestal, 17, of Brandon. "The whole Chocolate Nutcracker is a different Nutcracker. You see it in a different way. It's funky and fun."

Joining Vestal and Allen are Deanna Velazquez, 12, of Hunter's Green, Vicki DeRenzo, 13, of Hunter's Green, Evie Austell, 15, of Pebble Creek, and Jasmine Jones, 17, of Cross Creek. The girls practice their five-minute routine with Joseph on Tuesday nights after their elite tap class.

The girls will also be a part of Joseph's production of a more traditional Nutcracker at Wharton High School on Dec. 7 and 8, though that will feature some jazz and modern dance, too.

Joseph, who is the rehearsal director for the tap dancing scenes in The Chocolate Nutcracker, said all of the girls are serious students with professional aspirations.

"They take at least three ballet classes a week," said Joseph, 31, of Tampa Palms, who danced professionally in Manhattan and has owned the Pebble Creek studio the past six years. She said the girls also take one weekly jazz tap and modern dance class, too. That's at least six classes. Some take up to eight, which translates into as many as 12 hours each week of dancing.

"And that's just the classes," said Joseph. "That does not include rehearsal time."

The girls spend an extra half hour on Tuesdays rehearsing the routine Bingham choreographed just for them. No music, just the girls slapping their shoes against the hardwood floor. Joseph leads them, and they are right in step.

Joseph calls it a tribute to the "hoofing days," a style made famous by stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and the Nicholas Brothers.

"Basically, tap dancing is all about stealing steps," she said. "You say, "Hey, I like that,' you take it home, practice it and it becomes your own."

She compares the girls' upcoming performance to high school basketball stars playing hoops with Michael Jordan. The girls agree, and they hope they can steal a few moves from the pros next month.

"That's how you get better," said Austell. "You watch their body, and try to make yours much like theirs."

_ Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or