This Thursday (November 19th) starts the previews of the world premiere of Banana Shpeel, Cirque du Soleil’s newest creative endeavor, at the Chicago Theatre. A blend of tap, hip-hop, slapstick comedy and a zany story, this “new take on vaudeville” is only in Chicago for seven weeks before it heads to NYC.
After watching a short rehearsal, I sat down with brother/sister tap team, Joseph and Josette Wiggins (known as The Double J’s), who are featured in the show. They’ve been tapping since ages 9 and 12 (respectively) and have danced nationally and internationally (42nd Street, LA Tap Festival, ACGI Tap Company) in the 13 years since.
Where did the nickname “The Double J’s”come from?
Our father. He was basically our manager. We were in a competition and we won and he came up with the name The Double J’s…and it stuck.
Where are you based now? LA – NYC?
For the most part we’re both in Los Angeles. She’s been there…
I never left.
I spent about 4 years of my life in New York. For school for one year and then working, but the past year I’ve been back in Los Angeles. So…I’m home.
I’ve always been there. I just travel out.
Was it difficult being separated? Are you used to dancing together?
We would come together for shows…whenever something would happen.
The Los Angeles Tap Festival is one we would always come back and do.
When did you know this was something you wanted to do for a living — or that you could do this for a living?
You can go first.
I was actually about 12. I was riding around in the back seat of our first teacher’s (Paul Kennedy) car. I used to assist him with after school programs…actually both of us (did). I just remember riding around with him one afternoon and I was like, “I can’t believe I’m a tap dancer.” It really hit me. It really hit me because I never knew what I wanted to be. I was always into baseball, basketball…shortly before we started dancing; we were playing piano…so I didn’t know where my life was going. After a while…after being involved in performing…the amount of shows we did with The Kennedy Tap Company…it was like kind of a shock. My life just completely took a different turn. And that was when I realized that I had such a strong connection with the dance – being athletic and artistic.
For me, I kind of fought it my whole life. I knew I loved dancing and I would always dance for my…as long as I could breathe and walk, but I never really saw it as a career. And so, I went from wanting to be a lawyer at one point to wanting to be a human rights activist at another point…um, wanting to start my own business. I even did. I started a coffee business for a little bit and I would say…in every endeavor, my dancing always took me away from it. And so that’s when I finally realized…if this is what I’m supposed to be doing then it’s really making it clear. The dancing is just kind of saying this is where you need to be. And I knew that…it’s always been my escape, it’s always been something I could turn to deal with issues and deal with things. It’s been my coping mechanism to get through life and a passion of mine, but I never say it as what I would do for the rest of my life until now. I’ve finally come to terms with it!
And you look happy.
What made you decide to audition for a Cirque show?
They actually contacted us. They saw footage of us dancing on You Tube and invited us to one of the auditions.
And there are few opportunities for tap dancers today, especially with a company that’s as well known as Cirque du Soleil. When we heard that they were interested in doing something that focused on vaudeville, we couldn’t miss this opportunity of where our teachers come from…that is passed down through the dance, hand-down…the opportunity to pay homage and also…
…to show tap dance, because it’s really not shown on a scale this large. There’s a scene, but it’s an underground scene that tap dancers and people who know about tap dance go to, but on a large like this, tap dancers aren’t really exposed unless it’s in a commercial setting. This is the first time I feel that it’s going to be…best represented in its truest form.
And today, the tap dance scene is busting…
It’s really spreading everywhere. This (show) is going to be huge and they have three finalists on SYTYCD that are tappers…I love it. You don’t see tap everywhere and I think this show will bring it back…really since Gregory Hines…he was the last big thing.
Do you know him? Do you guys hang out?
Not hanging out. We know him, but not…
The community is so small, but I don’t have his cell phone number. Many folks that came out of his show that he choreographed…some of who are our mentors and teachers. We learned indirectly from him. A lot of the hoofers that he studied from hands on, we still go back to footage of the dancers that really took this dance in a different direction when they added their own personalities. They did it for 60 years…they did it until the end. They had a different understanding.
Can you explain the difference between tapping and hoofing?
There’s no difference. (Answering at the same time)
There’s no difference. It’s the same thing…a step is a step — a shuffle is a shuffle.
It’s not just a style difference?
No, hoofing is what tap dancers call…tap dancers that really spend a lot of time with improvisation. They really perfect the expression of…their own expression through tap dance.
Their voice. They find their own voice.
They can create, they can choreograph, but they’re really defined by how well they can create a picture, a story visually right on the spot.
Right on the spot. (Again, at the same time.)
Just like any of your best jazz musicians. Like when Bunny Briggs was still alive, he would perform with Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Earl Hines and create performances that people would think were choreographed, but were really made up on the spot.
Do you prefer improving or set choreography?
I prefer improvisation, personally.
I like both. I know I spend the most time on choreography, but it’s better when I can improvise and know myself. I really enjoy both.
For Banana Shpeel, is it a lot of set choreography and then you get to improv as well? Or were you involved in the process of creating the choreography?
Well, right now the show is changing so much and for the moment…for our featured segment, we can choreograph also. We have the artistic opportunity…
Of your section?
Yes, for our section.
Gregory Hines came up with this term “improvography,” where there are certain ideas that are outlined and we have artistic room to make that change…to make any changes on stage or that happens beforehand. We’ll have elements of both.
So, when you work together, who’s the boss?
We both are.
We have – so far – found a way to compromise. Give and take.
…It kind of flows naturally. I think the one you might have seen us perform, we choreographed in four hours.
I read that you did it two days before you performed it at 3 o’clock in the morning.
It was kind of fun.
*video of New Orleans Bump from the 2007 LA Tap Festival
Did you guys really used to practice in the kitchen in your socks?
Yes, when we first started that’s how we…because I started three months before him and once he started, I was so excited because I had someone to practice with and someone to share this new thing with.
And it was summer, so we had time…
We had so much time, so we’d just go in and went for it. I remember when finally school came around, we had to go to school, but we would go to bed and then wake up and go into the kitchen and practice.
So do you think you have a…kind of psychic physical thing where you know what the other one is going to do because you’ve worked together so much and know each other so well?
Yeah, we don’t call it psychic, but we definitely have a…We pretty much know each other very well. I know her probably closer than any other…in this career. She’s 26, I’m 23 – we’re just three years apart.
We were raised together.
I’ve probably spent the most time with her than anyone else in my life.
To see The Double J’s and the rest of the cast of Banana Shpeel, go to: www.thechicagotheatre.com or call 800.745.3000 for ticket information.