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Traveling Dance Troupe Visits UNC

The performance company -- an eclectic, 10-member cast whose ages range from mid-teens to middle age -- mixes tap, clogging and step dancing with juggling, comedy skits and old-time music provided by a live string band.

"It's almost like a circus," said Sharon Leahy, the group's director.

Leahy and her troupe have spent a weeklong dance residency at UNC. Arriving Monday, Rhythm in Shoes performed for several elementary schools and the Durham School of the Arts, gave swing dance lessons at the Chapel Hill Senior Center and taught a master class for the University's tap dance group, Carolina Style.

After a series of performances and educational activities, the troupe will cap off the week's activities with a performance at 8 p.m. today in Memorial Hall.

Leahy choreographs most of the dance routines herself, while her husband, Rick Good, provides guitar and vocals and composes much of the band's music.

Leahy and Good founded the Dayton, Ohio-based company in 1987, with performers who were steeped in traditional American music and dance forms.

But as the group added dancers and musicians, the performances incorporated the members' new influences, Leahy said. "I direct the energies of the company," she said. "I try to extract the best from each of them."

And that includes silly children's songs penned by band members and juggling routines that include pyrotechnics.

But the troupe always returns to its roots at the end of each show, closing with a high-energy clogging routine, Leahy said. "There's nothing more cheerful, nothing that makes people smile more than clogging," she said.

As much as the group enjoys spreading happiness with its performances, Rhythm in Shoes is equally committed to educating children about music and dance.

"It's very important for children to experience live performance arts," Leahy said. "Sometimes, this opens up a whole new world to the kids."

The troupe has spent most of its residency performing at local schools and for campus-based youth mentoring programs. Amid clapping hands, stomping feet and high-pitched giggles, the troupe taught simple dance routines and songs to children from the Campus Y-sponsored Hype program and the Sonja H. Stone Black Cultural Center's Communiversity program.

Rhythm in Shoes' programs help to boost the kids' confidence, said dancer Beth Butler, an eight-year veteran of the group. "You can show them that you don't have to be self-conscious when you move," the 30-year-old said. "Usually, kids are so self-conscious. If they see you acting like a fool, they get into it too."

Foolishness aside, the performers also strive to promote a sense of unity -- the same thing that strengthens the group's bond, Leahy said. "Rhythm is what holds a community together," she said. "Moving together brings people together."

And the rhythm is contagious.

Leahy's three children have all joined the act. Her youngest and middle both dance, while oldest child, Ben Cooper, plays the bass and banjo ukulele.

Daughter Emma Leahy-Good, 14, was born into the troupe. The youngest member of Rhythm in Shoes performed in her first show when she was 5 and has been dancing regularly with the group for nine years. "It's tough," Leahy-Good said. "We definitely argue a lot, but it's also a plus. We're all really close."

For Nate Cooper, 24, touring with his siblings and the rest of the group is often tiring but never boring. "I was a kid sleeping on the studio floor," he said. "I couldn't imagine not doing this. I love performing and traveling."

While the group's busy schedule leaves little time for relaxation, the members' faces light up each time they take the stage. "It gets tiring," Butler said. "But it's all worth it when the show rolls around."

Admission for tonight's Rhythm in Shoes performance is $6 for students and $12 for the general public.

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