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One to watch this fall: Starinah "Star" Dixon has performance in her blood

Tap dancer attributes her hard-hitting style to being taught by men

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Dance is a family affair for Starinah "Star" Dixon. Her mother, two brothers, and multiple cousins are all practitioners. How'd that happen? "My grandma put my brothers and all my older cousins in class when they were young." They did "all kinds of dance" at the Better Boys Foundation in North Lawndale, where Dixon grew up.

Dixon, 25, learned African dance and hip-hop as a kid. But what truly stuck was tap. Her eldest brother, Bril Barrett, who's now artistic director of the MADD ("Making a Difference Dancing") Rhythms tap company, would drill her in it.

"Pretty much when I started walking, Bril was like, 'Do this shuffle,'" Dixon says. She stands on one foot and flaps at the floor with the other to illustrate. She must have been a talented toddler. "At the grocery store—where my mom would stay for like 50 years—my brother would improv, then tell me to go. So improv has never been a problem for me." Dixon attributes her hard-hitting style to being taught by men.

Now a MADD Rhythms performer and teacher—as is her other brother, Jabowen "Jaybo" Dixon, 28—Dixon has started taking the spotlight. But two years ago she was feeling frustrated. "I didn't want to quit or anything," she recalls. "But I was looking at my peers and seeing how they were getting a lot of solo work and traveling. I was trying to get to the next level and I didn't know how.

"But all of a sudden, last year, stuff started flying in."

Dixon won the cutting contest (in which dancers trade improvised licks) at the DC Tap Festival, then taught and performed at the Los Angeles and Detroit tap fests. But her biggest break so far came in August 2011, when the venerable Chicago Human Rhythm Project asked her to contribute a solo to "Juba!," the concert series that culminates CHRP's annual Rhythm World event.

"That was the most nervous day of my life, because so many great tap dancers were there," Dixon says. "But then Nico [Rubio, of CHRP] gave me a pep talk. He said that I'm a beast and one of the best female tap dancers, and that I shouldn't be nervous because I'm gonna kill it."

According to Dixon, a good tap dancer is "someone who's listening to the music, basically singing with the music. Someone who's trying things. Someone who's putting it all out there, showing what they can do."

That would be Dixon herself. She did indeed kill at "Juba!," improvising to Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of "Lullaby of Birdland." Her determination showed in her face ("I'm just so focused on what I'm trying to get out," she explains). But her joy showed, too, in the blazing smile she flashed afterward.

Woodworks
Fri 10/26, 7:30 PM, Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Dr., 773-604-1899, maddrhythms.com, $20-$60.

One Singular Sensation
Sat 11/3, 7 PM, Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Dr., 773-373-1900, hwccchicago.com, $250.

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