Arts & Culture

Fleet feet, energetic music keep this Celtic group flying

The StepCrew, performing at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, showcases a high-flying dance style.
The StepCrew, performing at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, showcases a high-flying dance style.

There’s a moment in The StepCrew’s stage show when two musicians step out on stage — one carrying a banjo, the other a traditional Irish drum called a bodhrán. 

As they strike up a tune, all extraneous flourishes — lighting cues, background noises, narration — fade away, and the focus shifts to the music, explained Nathan Pilatze, fiddler and Ottawa Valley stepdancer with the Toronto-based group. 

 “I love that moment for that reason,” he said.

Pilatzke applies the same “less is more” philosophy to The StepCrew, which specializes in a fleet-footed blend of Irish stepdancing, Ottawa Valley stepdancing and modern tap set to Celtic music.

 “To sum it up, every show that anyone might consider to be high-quality performance really rests on its core on talented people who really know what they’re doing,” said the performer, who’s gleaned that wisdom from 13 years touring with legendary Celtic group The Chieftains. “If you don’t have that core there, you’re really just fluffing up a subpar piece of work.”

Pilatzke and his older brother, Ottawa Valley stepdancer and StepCrew bandmate Nathan Pilatze, have been dedicated to their craft since their childhood in eastern Ontario. 

After spotting an ad in the newspaper, their mother signed up 6-year-old Nathan Pilatzke for Ottawa Valley stepdancing lessons. “As siblings are, I was obsessed with anything he was doing. I couldn’t wait to start,” said his brother, who joined at age 4. 

Soon the siblings were spending their summers at weekend competitions across Canada.

“It was such a fun world for us as children. You go off on these weekends and you’re surrounded by kids your age doing what you’re doing,” recalled Jon Pilatzke, three-time winner of the Canadian Open Stepdancing Champtionships. Not content to focus solely on dance, he started playing fiddle at age nine. 

After high school, the Pilatzkes headed off to university — until show business’s call proved too strong to ignore. 

They caught their big break at an after-concert party for the Chieftains at a Toronto pub. 

“We ended up bringing our (dance) shoes into the pub and dancing,” Pilatzke recalled, capturing the attention of bandleader Paddy Moloney. A year later, Moloney invited the brothers on tour. 

“Seeing how they operate, how they work the crowd, they’re just geniuses,” Pilatzke said of The Chieftains. “There’s a whole mentality to putting on a great show.”

When Pilatze, his wife, Irish stepdancer Cara Butler, and his brother created The StepCrew six years ago, they tried to follow the Chieftains’ example. 

“From the beginning we knew it had to be unique,” Pilatzke said, not another Riverdance clone.

Their central concept was bringing together three separate styles of dance in a way that would showcase the similarities and differences between them. The StepCrew highlights traditional forms of each style while introducing brand-new dances that incorporate all three.

Although most audiences are familiar with tap and Irish stepdancing, Pilatzke acknowledged that Ottawa Valley stepdancing is less well-known. 

The dance style, which focuses more on lateral movement than its Irish counterpart, arose from Ottawa’s lumber camps, where English, Irish and Scottish immigrants gathered after long hours felling trees to play music and blow off steam. 

“It was a work hard, play hard atmosphere in those camps,” he explained, resulting in an energetic dance form that incorporates rapid-fire footwork and relaxed arm movements. 

In addition to Butler and the Pilatzke brothers, The StepCrew includes tap dancers Christine Carr and Sarah Uddin. They’re backed by vocalist Alyth McCormack and a five-piece band featuring bassist Rob Becker, keyboardist Ryan MacNeil, guitarist  Jeffrey McLarnon, percussionist Kirk White and fiddler Mark Sullivan. 

Although StepCrew shows have evolved over the years, incorporating singing and narration, Pilatzke said the focus remains the same. 

“We wanted to make sure that dancing was the main instrument, the main focus,” he said, so that shows are “completely live, completely fresh.”

If you go

The StepCrew

7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Cohan Center, Cal Poly

$20.20 to $48

756-4849 or www.pacslo.org

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