Kelsey Leonard

2019 Ambassador Kelsey Leonard

Zachary Carroll: (00:05)

Hi, this is Zach Carroll. I am a former ambassador with Dance Wire in Portland, and I’m here with Kelsey Leonard, who’s a new ambassador this year, and we’re going to talk about her life and career in dance as part of the Dance Wire Artist Stories series. To get started, can you give me, Kelsey Leonard, an overview of your current titles?

Kelsey Leonard: (00:33)

I am the co-founder and artistic director of Portland Tap Alliance, which is a nonprofit that I started. Our mission is to promote tap dance in the Pacific Northwest. And I’m a dance instructor at Element Dance Studio, tap dance instructor, and I’m also artistic director of our company Portland Tap Company, which is under Portland Tap Alliance.

Zachary Carroll: (00:55)

Nice. You’re busy, busy lady.

Kelsey Leonard: (00:57)


Zachary Carroll: (00:58)

When did you start dancing yourself?

Kelsey Leonard: (01:01)

I was three when I started dancing, and I’m a Portland local, so I was a West Side Dance Academy kid when I started.

Zachary Carroll: (01:09)

Nice. Do you ever go back and teach there?

Kelsey Leonard: (01:11)

No, I actually left there when I was 12 to tap dance with Cindy Bren, and I just focused on tap.

Zachary Carroll: (01:18)

Awesome. As far as dance goes, what has it meant to you in your life? How has it shaped your life?

Kelsey Leonard: (01:27)

It’s huge. I can’t imagine my life without it. I think for me, I’m so musical, so I was drawn to tap very young, and being both a percussionist and a dancer is a really huge part of my life. It’s therapeutic for me being able to communicate musically and with my body through dance. I just love it. I’m a tap dance nerd, honestly. I can watch footage all night and study history and it’s fascinating, and I think it’s beautiful.

Zachary Carroll: (02:05)

I think it’s beautiful too. I’m with you. When you started dancing, what kind of challenges did you face in your pursuit of dance?

Kelsey Leonard: (02:16)

More so as a kid, I started out doing all forms of dance. I have super flat feet, and I’m very inflexible, so ballet and contemporary were pretty quickly out for me. Me being really tall was really hard because I stuck out, and I think people are more accepting now of different, various bodies. But especially as a kid, it was really hard for me because I was so tall and it was this challenge, this struggle. Recently actually, I have been battling some old ankle sprain injuries and I’ve been having pain in my feet for quite a while. I’ve been super fortunate to find a physical therapist that’s actually helping me.But, I’ve been through like 10 different doctors trying to figure out what’s going on, and no one knows, and people aren’t used to dance injuries. Luckily, I found someone that’s helping me, but it’s been a struggle for a few years.

Zachary Carroll: (03:13)

I’m glad you found somebody. My wife is actually a physical therapist and used to be an Oregon Ballet Theater with me. So I know the value of somebody who knows, who gets it, what you’re doing, so that’s great.

Kelsey Leonard: (03:22)

Or someone that’s just willing to investigate and figure out.

Zachary Carroll: (03:25)

Absolutely. We all have our history in our body. And sometimes your body says, hey, remember that time, 2004? And you’re like, ah, right, right, right, right.

Kelsey Leonard: (03:36)


Zachary Carroll: (03:37)

What do you think as far as resources or people, who helped you most in your journey, mentors?

Kelsey Leonard: (03:49)

I would like to say the whole tap dance community. I was really fortunate to find Cindy Bren when I did, she was a part of the original Tap Festival Portland, which was the first ever tap festival in the entire country. She studied with Honey Coles and Charlie Atkins and Diane Walker and all these amazing, Gregory Heinz, all of these amazing people, and that was passed that on to me, which was amazing. Anyone who studied with her was so fortunate. She introduced me to going to tap festivals, which then brought me into the greater tap community. She really set me on a path towards the actual tap community, because when you’re in the dance studio, you’re so often not getting that actual connection to the tap world. 

I was very lucky to have her. And then, I also got my master’s degree from NYU Gallatin. And I studied tap dance and Derek Grant was on my thesis panel and also came to my show and it was a really nice connection working with him and having his support and insight throughout that process, I think really it changed me as a dancer throughout that time.

Zachary Carroll: (05:03)

That’s great. What stage do you feel you’re at in your career, and how do you want to move? This is kind of a three prong question. So what stage do you feel you are in your career? How do you want to move forward and what goals do you have? Like I know, what a huge, like what’s the meaning of life. Right, right.

Kelsey Leonard: (05:30)

I feel like in a way my career’s just starting. I’m really finding my own voice as an artist and a tap dancer at this point. I think I’m still growing technically, which is hard to do in Portland because there’s not a lot, like New York and LA and Chicago are the big places to train. So it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re in Portland. I still think I’m growing and as far as Portland Tap Alliance goes, I think my ultimate goal is that I really want to do cultural diplomacy work with tap dance. I think tap dance is an amazing way to tell American history and talk about cultural blending, and the African American diaspora experience in the United States.

Kelsey Leonard: (06:20)

Tap dance is, in my opinion, truly America’s vernacular dance form. And so, to be able to go and exchange cultural ideas and art with other countries and cultures I think would be really amazing. That’s the ultimate goal of mine, of Portland Tap Lines, is that we turn our company into something that can travel around the world and do cultural diplomacy. That’s going to take a lot of grant funding. So it’ll be a slow climb up, but I think we’re getting there, we’ve built a solid little company. We had a show that debuted for the first time in October and we’re going to do it again in May, and we’re getting there, laying the groundwork right now.

Zachary Carroll: (07:03)

That’s fantastic. Slow and steady. What a great vision, and what a great way to connect with people. Because I think tap is so accessible. It’s fundamental human rhythm. That everybody can tap into. Whereas, it’s not that case with I think all different dance forms.

Kelsey Leonard: (07:22)

I had this experience, I was in Barcelona. I was working with Roxanne Butterfly. Who’s a tap dancer from France that’s now living in Barcelona.

Zachary Carroll: (07:32)

What a cool name.

Kelsey Leonard: (07:33)

That’s her nickname. Jimmy Sly gave her that nickname. They do this jam in Barcelona. There’s this big old cathedral or, I’m sorry, gazebo. And it’s a wood gazebo wood floor, which is amazing. It’s huge. All these tap dancers show up every Sunday. I was jamming with this girl from Portugal, and we couldn’t speak to each other. She didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Portuguese. But we had had this really beautiful conversation through music, which is so cool because we’re communicating with our bodies, but also with our music and it was just a, we hugged each other after and didn’t say a word, but said so much.

Zachary Carroll: (08:13)

The transcends everything. So how cool. You’re a director. So, how is it balancing the admin and directing with your own artistic endeavor and being a performer?

Kelsey Leonard: (08:33)

It’s so much. I feel like as artists we all get put in this box of you have to do the admin work, unless you’re fortunate enough to be like Peter Martins, just artistic directing. But you know, it’s a lot and it definitely I think wears on anyone who’s having to do the admin stuff. You lose your time for creativity.

Zachary Carroll: (09:04)

There’s a reason why you went into dance because you know, the other part, maybe not your fave.

Kelsey Leonard: (09:10)

I mean it comes naturally, the business side to me, I actually have a business degree for my undergrad degree. But yeah, it’s not my favorite thing to do.

Zachary Carroll: (09:21)

So maybe it’s a grant, you’ll get a grant for that role, you know? And have your manager hand pick.

Kelsey Leonard: (09:27)

That would be great.

Zachary Carroll: (09:28)

This is kind of a heavy question, but do you have an artist statement, like if you were to assess it down here’s my statement or for your company.

Kelsey Leonard: (09:44)

I haven’t really thought about a personal artist statement. I’ve created them for things. That’s a big question that I’ve done, for works. I think to me always my goal is to create beauty and community through this art form. Honoring the past is really important as a tap dancer, our whole community takes on the brunt of carrying on history because for so long it was considered low art street art, and wasn’t taken seriously academically. We’ve passed on our history, and that’s something that you get to understand at a very young age because you have these masters being like, who are these people? And you have to remember them, and it’s your job as an artist. Definitely honoring the past, and always being thankful to the people that paved the way for us to do what we do is very important to me. But other than that, just creating a place for people to come together and appreciate, and the joy that is, I find so much joy from it, and if I can just pass on part of that joy, that’s all I want to do.

Zachary Carroll: (10:59)

And teach it, and see those discoveries. That’s great. How would you describe the current dance scene in Portland? It’s pretty vibrant. There’s a lot going on, but what’s fabulous? What’s it lacking? What does it need?

Kelsey Leonard: (11:18)

I think if we’re going on a grand overarching thing, I think Portland in general doesn’t have as much appreciation for the arts as I would like. I think there’s a lot of people like, I’m going to go hiking, interesting. And it’s not like, I’m going to go see a show. It’s like, I’m going to go to Multnomah Falls for the day. You know? So I think in general, we kind of have this underground dancing to an extent, you kind of have to be in it to know it’s there, but if you’re in it, it’s there. Of course, I’m speaking mostly to tap. I also do Lindy Hop, and there’s like a pretty good Lindy scene, but for tap, there’s no really professional opportunities. So we’re all working day jobs, you know? We’re all tapping on the side and working day jobs. It doesn’t afford us the opportunity to really foster our community because we’re all trying to survive.

Zachary Carroll: (12:16)

Do you feel that way too when you’re trying to allocate funding, that the funding for tap is not as considered as contemporary and ballet?

Kelsey Leonard: (12:24)

For sure, and that’s nationwide. Lynn Dolly who ran Jazz Tap Ensemble had just found this out, that’s huge company. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, Sam Weber, danced for them, they were huge. When she applied for grants, she wrote that they were a contemporary company, because she knew if she put tap that she would not get the funding. And so she said cont- or maybe modern. And I mean, they were beautiful dancers. Sam grew up in San Francisco Ballet, beautiful dancers. But they were tap dancing, but she did that because she knew that. I’ve had that experience with applying for grants from different organizations and the feedback that I get back, it makes me cringe because people don’t understand tap. You get people reviewing that, that are like putting these notions on it that don’t exist.

Zachary Carroll: (13:10)

Often, not dancers who are allocating funding for dance, which is the admin stuff we talked about, it’s tough.

Kelsey Leonard: (13:16)

So it’s hard. And tap also doesn’t have the clout that ballet and modern and contemporary have, especially if you’re talking about New York City Ballet. It’s a status thing to be like, oh, I’m on the board of directors for the ballet. Verses for tap. It’s not a status at all, you do it because you love it. So it’s hard, it’s a struggle. It really is. 

There is one professional tap company in the entire United States. It’s in Austin, Texas and they actually started out as a ballet company. So they have their foundation from being a ballet company and then transitioned into tap. They’re 25 years old, but it’s still, the people that the dancers are barely, barely surviving on their salary. So yeah. One in the entire country. It’s crazy.

Zachary Carroll: (14:08)

And you think back to Agnes Demille, when she did Rodeo Theh Champion Roperm it’s a tap solo, but right. And everybody in there has to do a time step, which when I did it, it was definitely a learning curve. But you know, it’s the fact that it’s struggled even with that kind of recognition so early. It’s weird. Especially when you see tap. I mean, it blows my mind. And if you want to get a kid hooked on dance, put’em in tap. It’s beautiful. Your art form is beautiful to me. 

If you were to paint a really idealistic picture of the dance scene and let’s say in Portland, because you know, you can get global in 10 years. What would it be? Big free studios and huge amounts of…?

Kelsey Leonard: (15:04)

I would love some big performing art center that had good theaters. That were medium size theaters that were not expensive. And wooded floor dance rooms. There are no…

Zachary Carroll: (15:20)

Everything’s Marley.

Kelsey Leonard: (15:20)

Everything’s Marley like, come on, we want to dance on wood, it’s tap dancers, come on. And accessibility, venues and rehearsal space it’s just not there. I  wish we had some big studio space, like Danny Studios or something like that. I think more residency programs here would be amazing. To give artists time to develop work. More funding. But I mean that…. That’s every artist we’re like double the NEA. For tap, I think we are working on we’re actually working on starting a monthly jam. My friend, Sarah Brahe, and I are working on that. Getting that established and getting kids here to the point that they understand tap is a musical form. 

Our goal is to really educate kids, I think starting at like age eight or 10, they need to be working with musicians and understanding the musical aspect of it. Because often they’re 18 and they go to a tap festival and it’s the first time they’ve ever even heard that, like, oh, we can work with a musician?

Portland Tap Alliance puts on a festival every year, and so it’s on Memorial Day weekend. And for the first year we’re doing a junior residency, it’s the eight to twelve year olds. And there is a bucket drummer here in town, Dennis Dove. He has a nonprofit called Kids Junk Orchestra, and he was actually the bucket drummer for Bring in the Noise, Bringing in the Funk.

Zachary Carroll: (16:57)


Kelsey Leonard: (16:58)

We’re doing a combined thing with his bucket drumming kids and our tap dancers and they’re going to work together. I think it’ll be a really cool opportunity. Stuff like that where these kids can learn.

Zachary Carroll: (17:11)

That’s amazing.  I wish I had an eight to 12 year old, I want to put my kid in that.

Kelsey Leonard: (17:15)

If it were the most perfect world in 10 years, everyone would love tap dance. Like everyone would be like, this is such a cool art form! And I feel like people when they really see it. My good friend, Sarah Rice was in town from LA and she had a show at The Goodfoot because she wrote, this is amazing, she wrote an album based off tap dance. So she came up with all the sounds, the band, she gave them, she scattered them all the rhythms and they filled in melody and everything. It’s all based off her tapping. She’s doing this tour with her album, and I had all these friends come because I performed with her and I’m like, come check out this show. It’s going to be really cool. And I think every single person was like, that was incredible. Like, I’ve never seen tap dance like that before. Because they’re used to seeing kids doing like 10 times steps in a row.

Zachary Carroll: (18:06)

Like tea for two.

Kelsey Leonard: (18:08)

Yeah. Like a little soft shoe. And Sarah’s out there just killing it, and we’re all interacting with the band, and for them to see really technical tap dancing, but also really passionate. I mean, Sarah almost started crying on stage talking about how much she loves tap dance. When people actually see that they appreciate it, but they just don’t know that that’s a thing to go see.

Zachary Carroll: (18:36)

Well, it sounds like you’re taking steps in that direction though. I mean, with your vision and you have a start and you’re doing the groundwork, and slowly but surely. But that’s the way to build art in our country, right? Well, that’s great. I have really enjoyed talking to you. You’re super cool, and all the best, and I’m sure you’ll do great and welcome to Dance Wire ambassador-hood.

Kelsey Leonard: (19:01)

It’s been fun. 

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