In the past two years, people in countries worldwide have become familiar with Riverdance, the splashy Irish dance troupe whose members' hallmark is tapping their feet 200 times a minute in unison.
But what people in Anne Arundel may not be aware of is that based in the heart of the county, in Crownsville, is another nationally recognized, award-winning percussive dance troupe -- Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble.
The 18-year-old group, which toured Europe with Riverdance for two months last year, will offer five performances at the State House during First Night Annapolis, the New Year's Eve celebration that turns the courtrooms, classrooms, churches and auditoriums of Annapolis' historic district into stages.
The six-member troupe has practiced out of a Maryland Federation of Art studio in Annapolis since 1980, creating dance routines for its cross-country tours, including some that started with shows at the Kennedy Center. The troupe is widely recognized in Japan and England, where it recently ended five weeks of performances.
Still, except for local schoolchildren who have encountered the group at one of the many educational programs it puts on in county schools, county residents are largely unaware of Footworks.
"We're not all that well-known in the state because we always tour elsewhere," said the group's artistic director and founder, Eileen Carson. "We're based here, do our rehearsals here and work in the schools here, but it's only been recently that we have wanted to be more involved with adult performances here."
The group debuted in the county over the summer with a sold-out performance in Annapolis. It was one of 176 shows it has performed this year.
Crownsville, where some members live and work, might seem to many artists an odd place in which to locate a dance troupe, especially one specialized in dance steps that only recently have found mass appeal.
"People always say if you want to succeed in dance, go to New York," Carson said. "I love New York for what it can do for the arts, but I am not a terribly urban person. Annapolis is a nice place to live near, and I love Maryland Hall."
While the tradition of Irish dancing is centuries old, it stayed mostly underground in the United States, playing out only in competitions and the occasional folk festival until Riverdance performances introduced it to U.S. audiences over the past two years.
"It was an incredible milestone," Carson said. "It was like the first time tap was put in a Broadway show."
But what makes Footworks distinctively American is its artful blending of several styles of dance. The group not only performs the traditional Irish dance, but has also mastered Appalachian clogging, flat-footing and African-American hambone.
Its expertise in rarely performed dances makes it hard to find experienced dancers, said the group's Baltimore-based publicist, Rena Snyder. The troupe is looking for a male dancer to join the co-ed group, which performs with a three-member band.
"Finding very talented artists is difficult enough," Snyder said. "But then you have to find one who can flip back and forth between rhythms that are very complex and very difficult."
The group was called the Fiddle Puppet Dancers when it was formed in 1979, which might help explain its lingering local obscurity. The group changed names in 1994 because too many people mistook them for puppeteers.
The name was intended to reflect the idea that the dancers were mere puppets to the fiddle's music.
"We said, 'We don't care. We're from the old tradition. We're not going to change it,' " Carson said, of the original name. "But it was stupid, and it held us back."
With its First Night debut and many more local performances scheduled for the coming year, nothing appears to be holding Footworks back from winning local fans.
Pub Date: 12/11/97