‘You’ve Taught Us Everything’: Former Students’ Teary Tribute to the Great Gene Medler

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Dancers reunite for a sold-out tribute performance at The ArtsCenter to honor tap legend Gene Medler and his decadeslong teaching career

Gene Medler
Gene Medler

By Arshia Simkin | Photography by John Michael Simpson

Caroline Brodie was 8 or 9 years old when it dawned on her that her tap teacher, Gene Medler, was kind of a big deal. The home-schooled sophomore, now 15, recalls the moment with a smile: She was at a tap festival in Dallas and wearing a North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble sweatshirt. As she walked to one of her classes, she recalls, “One of the professional dancers who was teaching was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re from North Carolina – you’re with NCYTE, aren’t you?’” Caroline adds, “I think like 20 people told me to tell Gene that [they] said hi.”

Gene founded NCYTE in 1983 and has been its artistic director for almost 40 years; for the last eight years, Caroline Vance has worked by his side as associate artistic director. Gene also teaches at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill and founded the NC Rhythm Tap Festival, an annual event where students can receive feedback from seasoned tap dancers that takes place at the school every June. Throughout his long career, Gene has trained thousands of students, taught classes around the world and, according to the NCYTE website, “has received many honors for his contributions to dance and his achievements as a dance artist.”

Dianne Walker performs at tribute to Gene Medler
Dianne Walker

Caroline Brodie, who has trained with Gene for seven years, co-produced a special tribute performance at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro on Feb. 26 in honor of the 73-year-old. Former and current NCYTE members as well as internationally renowned professional dancers all showed up to honor Gene’s decadeslong legacy of teaching and mentorship in a sold-out show. “It was truly an honor to be with so many who have shared my passion over the years – teachers, colleagues, students (past and present) and friends,” he says.

Nicholas Van Young performs at tribute to Gene Medler
Derick K. Grant

Robin Vail, former student of Gene’s and a partner, administrator and teacher at the Ballet School of Chapel Hill, attended the show and marveled how Gene “created this entire rhythmic tap mecca right here in Chapel Hill.” Zans McLachlan, who studied with Gene for 40 years and was a performer that afternoon, says, “When I was a member … [we] learned how to use wood glue and toilet paper to fix our tap shoes. And now the members perform internationally, and they learn incredibly sophisticated tap from literal living legends – some of whom honor us with their presence today – and they produce complicated and incredible shows like the ones you’re seeing, and this is because of Gene.”

Elizabeth Burke and Luke Hickey perform at tribute to Gene Medler
Elizabeth Burke and Luke Hickey return to NCYTE to celebrate their former teacher, Gene Medler

Among the other performers were: former student and 2015 MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Michelle Dorrance, who is also founder of the New York City-based award-winning dance company, Dorrance Dance; tap legends Brenda Bufalino and Dianne Walker; and Chapel Hill natives and NCYTE alumni Luke Hickey and Elizabeth Burke, members of Dorrance Dance. The performances were accompanied by live music from a three-piece band.

Michelle Dorrance
Michelle Dorrance

For someone so universally beloved, Gene, who was born in New Hampshire but has spent the past 55 years in Chapel Hill, is modest about his own origins in tap: “I thought it was cool, and I took a few lessons. … My dad was probably my motivation because he was a baseball player, and he knew how to do a few little soft shoe steps and sing a little. He’d be … working on the lawn mower, and then he’d go dancing across the garage.” When asked what sort of advice he gives his dancers, Gene says he tells them to “dance to express, not to impress.”

It was clear that Gene’s students took this maxim to heart in the performances on display: The dancing featured an impressive array of styles, from energetically jazzy to slow and sinuous; from powerfully athletic to delicately graceful – all animated by an intense love of the medium. The finale – a first-time collaboration between Dorrance Dance and NCYTE – was a buoyant showcase that featured deft footwork and included a whirlwind of backflips and break dancing. The performances were emceed by an upbeat Josh Hilberman, another former student of Gene’s and a tap dancer who has performed all over the world. 

Past and present North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble dancers perform at tribute to Gene Medler
Past and present North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble dancers

One of the most eye-catching moments of the show was an impressive duet by Luke and Elizabeth. Luke, with his shock of blond hair and dimples, and Elizabeth, who resembles actress Kristen Bell, with her square jaw and piercing blue eyes, were a mesmerizing duo who exhibited intense focus and a synergistic appreciation of each other’s talent. When asked what he thought of their performance, Gene says, “Nothing they do surprises me. Elizabeth and Luke are my family, so they never really leave home.”

In speeches before each performance, the dancers all emphasized Gene’s generosity, leadership, humor and immense kindness. Before presenting him with a plaque, Michelle said, in a voice overcome with emotion: “You’ve taught us everything in the language of tap dance. You encouraged us to take risks, and you took risks with us, and it’s just so much more profound than everything that I could ever imagine. You have forever changed the arts community in North Carolina, the global tap dance community and our lives.” 

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