Dancer and choreographer Luke Hickey taps into his North Carolina roots at the American Dance Festival.
As told to Addie Ladner
From New York to Beijing, tap dancer Luke Hickey‘s career has taken him touring far and wide – but this year, the American Dance Festival in Raleigh is bringing him home. The Triangle-bred director and choreographer will be presenting his newest percussive revue, A Little Old, A Little New, at the North Carolina Museum of Art this fall.
What are your earliest tap dancing memories?
Growing up in Colorado, I was surrounded by music, dance shows and a huge hippie scene. My family was invested in the arts, and immersed me in everything from African dance shows to river dance to Musical Gumbo. My earliest memories of dancing are of studying at Starstruck Dance, a small studio in Colorado where I went once a week to learn tap and hip hop. I was an athlete and played soccer, so I was especially drawn to tap as the crossroads of my interests in music and physical athleticism.
I moved to North Carolina and met my mentor, Gene Medler, when I was 8 years old. I enjoyed the instruction I was getting at the time, but my tap dance teacher wasn’t a tap dancer. I wanted to advance quicker, and I wanted more rigorous training. Another parent recommended Gene to my mom. I took a class from him, and saw him as a superhero. He was tall, handsome, soft-spoken, encouraging and warm.
You started dancing young – when did you realize that you were really serious about it?
After several weeks of classes, Gene said, “You should audition for the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble.” I practiced through that summer, auditioned in October and got in. Dancing in the NCYT Ensemble was a major step in furthering my education and rigor. It happened quickly – traveling with the ensemble, learning history and doing shows, really flipped my life upside down.
At 10, I was asked to join the ensemble’s international tour. I didn’t expect to be asked – there were high school students that wanted to go. I didn’t even have a passport, so we had to have one expedited. We toured to China, Germany and Mexico, doing outreach and education and assisting in workshops.
I think kids can really benefit from starting as early as I did – 7, 8, 9 or 10. Dancing is the same as learning a language, where you can become fluent so quickly if you start young. It also instilled me with maturity; On tour and in the studio, doing things like speaking to band members, counting on cue and working with crew members allowed me responsibility from a young age.
You’ve traveled a lot, but your roots are in North Carolina. What has it been like returning to the Triangle after years away?
I went to high school in North Carolina, but moved to New York for film school when I was in college. Between trying to find a grounding in New York and then touring later on, I didn’t have a lot of time to go home. The pandemic changed that for me. When it shut down the tour I was on, I flew home to North Carolina and stayed there for 2 months – it was a drastic change from barely being at home to suddenly living at home.
While I was home, I found a new appreciation for Chapel Hill. I didn’t appreciate home when I was in high school, so it was really special to reclaim it when I came back. Since then, I’ve spent much more time in the Triangle. I’ve even been able to work with a few other NCYT Ensemble alumni, like Elizabeth Burke – Elizabeth and I performed together at opening night of the American Dance Festival’s 40th anniversary in 2017.
What are some of your favorite arts companies to support and places to visit when you come to the Triangle?
In terms of arts venues, Carolina Theatre in Durham is like the Apollo Theater: so much history. It’s where the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble has their yearly end-of-season performance, a revue where high school seniors are given the responsibility of making the show order. It’s been a home to me from ages 8 to 18. Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill is also a beautiful space, another place of royalty. The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, with its triangular stage, is such a different space. I also love the Forest Theatre, the open-air amphitheater in Chapel Hill’s Battle Park.
For coffee or a bite to eat, my favorite Triangle spots are Open Eye Cafe, Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen and of course Bojangles. Monterrey Mexican Grill and Spicy 9 Sushi are also great spots. For recreation, I like catching a movie at Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill.
We’re getting excited about the American Dance Festival in September! What part of the festival are you most looking forward to?
I’m so excited! It’s a special thing. I had the opportunity to perform with Elizabeth for the 40th anniversary, and now this year is my first opportunity to present work of my own and bring some work I’ve been crafting for a few years. It’s an honor.
It’s a crazy thing to produce shows in North Carolina. There are more venues and opportunities in New York, but I’ve been dying to come back home and present. What better way than the American Dance Festival? It’s the pinnacle, and not just for percussive dance. To have a live band and be surrounded by dancers I respect and admire is really fun, and it will be beautiful to see.
Catch Luke Hickey, director and choreographer of A Little Old, A Little New, at the American Dance Festival at the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Joseph M. Bryan Jr. Amphitheater on September 11, 2022. Hickey joins Micaela Taylor’s The TL Collective, Limón Dance Company and PHILADANCO! in the festival lineup.
This story was originally published on August 25, 2022 on waltermagazine.com