Monday Profile: Pamm Drake’s tree season
Eighteen years ago, the Tap Dancing Christmas Trees began as a joke that Pamm Drake’s dance students employed as a closer to their holiday show. Now, Drake says, “tree season” is one of the biggest things at her Santa Clara Avenue studio, Dance/10. The group, which features dancers seasoned and new, mothers and daughters and folks of all different professional stripes, has performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and was featured in a Coke ad. They’re now gearing up for “The Nutcracker – All Jazzed Up,” their annual take on the classic ballet, which they’ll perform at 3 p.m. Sunday, December 13 at Kofman Auditorium (tickets are $15, $12 for students, seniors and kids 12 and under). They’ll also be featured in the upcoming PBS documentary, “Dance Stories,” which will tell the story of three Bay Area dance groups. In the midst of it all, director Drake took some time to talk tree with The Island.
How did you come up with idea?
We were preparing for a holiday recital, just like I’m doing now, with a Nutcracker type of theme, and my adult tap class wanted to do something different. Finally somebody said, ‘Why don’t we just be Christmas trees?’ We made our Christmas tree costumes, and there were seven of us, and we did this whole thing as a spoof to the finale to our holiday show. And we had somebody chasing us around with a chain saw and everybody laughed. Then I kind of tabled the idea. People started asking about the tap dancing Christmas trees, what happened to them. So a year after that, we brought them back and we kind of said, ‘By popular demand.’ And that’s how this all started.
What’s happened since?
I took out an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle. It said, ‘Add some kick to your holiday party. A chorus line of tap dancing Christmas trees.’ And I got a bunch of phone calls. The first year we probably did four or five performances. Then I started contacting cities for tree lighting ceremonies, and country clubs, and all types of different events. After 18 years, we do over 35 performances, four parades, and this year, there’s 40 tap dancing Christmas trees. That’s our 18-year overnight success.
What’s your personal history?
I studied dance as a kid, and I majored in dance at UCLA. I got a master’s in choreography from Mills. Then I started auditioning for shows, and I did a number of local nightclub shows and theater shows. I was in the national touring company of “A Chorus Line.” I’ve done film. I used to be a competitive disco dancer. I was a magician’s assistant. And then in 1984, my dance partner and I decided to start our own dance company, Dance/10. We held auditions and put together a dance company 10 guys and 10 girls. We started as a college circuit tour on the history of jazz dance.
You’ve performed at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and in a Coke ad.
In 2001, I was in New York City with a student who was junior Mr. Dance of California. I took him to New York to attend a national competition, and I had my little scrapbook of the Tap Dancing Christmas Trees. I went over to Macy’s and asked to see the head of the parade committee. I met this young man and asked if I could be in the parade. This was in August. He kept telling me applications were due in April, there’s absolutely no way. And he kept running down the hall telling people, ‘Come and take a look at these pictures.’ He took my business card and thanked me for coming. Two days later when I got home, I got a call asking if I could be in the parade. We scrambled to get the money, and there were 27 of us. And then 9/11 came. The head of the parade wrote me this letter (that said), ‘We understand your concerns about security. And we ask you to be in the parade.’ So we went. It was the most incredible experience, politically. We took all the dancers to Ground Zero. It was very somber and very serious, with all of us saluting the flag, and Giuliani coming down. We went back in 2004 and again in 2007. They have 1,000 applicants, and they pick two or three dance groups.
How does one get in troupe?
There’s so many ways. There are students who come here to study tap and find out about the Trees and become serious tap students, with the intention of wanting to do that. One of my newest trees this year saw us last year in the Oakland holiday parade. She’s been commuting from Walnut Creek all year long, studying tap to become a tree. She’s an ex-show dancer from Chicago. Most often it’s people pursuing us, or coming to me and saying, ‘I’d like to be a tree. What do I need to do to be a tree?’ First of all, you have to study tap. You have to be in good shape. We dance all the way along the parade route.
Who does your costumes?
The tree costumes were really a collaboration with Susan Brown, who makes all of our character costumes. The other fellow who makes costumes with her is Jean Marie Bouin. He actually was a sailmaker, and is quite a tailor. We’re on probably the fifth prototype of tree costume. One day we’re going to do a retrospective fashion thing, because I have all the old costumes down in my room.
How did you end up in Alameda?
I grew up in Oakland, and I had a lot of friends in Alameda. And I ended up marrying someone from Alameda. I was going to school at Mills, doing student teaching, and they assigned me College of Alameda. I needed part-time work, so I walked into the Alameda School of Dance on Park Street and got a job there, and stayed for 22 years.
What’s your Alameda Top 5?
We have a huge affinity for Juanita’s. After rehearsals we’d go there because it was open until 2 in the morning. The beach. When we were kids, there was no beach. That’s all landfill. Alameda Theatre. When we were kids, we used to go to Alameda Theatre. The trees danced in the lobby one year, when it was all boarded up. Kofman Auditorium. I have been doing shows at Kofman Auditorium since 1974. And Dance/10. This has been a lifetime in the making, and I am so happy to be here.