Where Tap and Sushi Combine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's twilight, and soothing jazz mixes with the din of voices coming from across the crowded tables.

Talk soon fades. Heads turn. All eyes are drawn to the frenetic steps of three tap dancers whose rapid-fire clicks fill the room with the intensity of marching infantry.

But this isn't a supper club--it's a sushi bar, tucked into a mini-mall with a nail salon, a carpet store and a fast-food chicken joint.

Sushi on Tap seems like an unlikely setting for a burgeoning dance scene. Yet here--amid the neatly arranged sake bottles, hunks of octopus and Pacific yellowtail--is what tappers say is one of the best spots in Southern California to catch up with their contemporaries and show off their spins, stomps, slides and shuffles.

"It's one of the only places around that provides a forum for a tap dancer to improvise," said Denise Scheerer, a Valley Village resident and professional tap dance teacher. "It's also great for a meal."

Scheerer and her dance partners Becky Twitchell and Hiroshi Hama are regulars, appearing every other Saturday night.

Like any artist introducing new material to an audience, the dancers may borrow from the steps they've practiced or simply lose themselves in a groove.

Those who stop in at the Studio City establishment say it's one of those unique spots in Los Angeles where you have to bring friends and colleagues. Otherwise, they might not believe it exists.

"The atmosphere is fun," said Silver Lake costume designer Isabella Braga, who was dining with friends Josie Gammell and Monica Castro. "It gets everybody into the mood."

As the set winds down, the stage area fills with dancers ranging from those with a few years experience to some with Broadway-caliber talent. It's the tap equivalent of a jam session.

"For a tap dancer, these times are definitely magical," said Twitchell, 21, who first strapped on her tap shoes at age 3 and has toured the country with a Los Angeles-based tap company.

"It's like being in a room with musicians," she said, "except the music is made with our feet."

Tap luminaries Gregory Hines and Savion Glover have been known to stop in for sushi before hitting the floor that Sushi on Tap owner Kiyo Sone had built especially for tap.

A native of Osaka, Japan, Sone first envisioned opening a club with entertainment including jazzy music, big bands and tap dancers like those he saw in the movie "The Cotton Club."

The film about the legendary Harlem nightspot helped fuel his curiosity about tap, but Sone says he was frustrated to find there were no dance studios nearby.

So when he and his wife came to Los Angeles in 1991, they immediately signed up for tap lessons at the old Joe Tremaine dance studio in North Hollywood and later at the nearby Debbie Reynolds dance studio.

When it became clear that he couldn't afford to realize his grandiose vision, he decided to combine his love of tap with something he knew: sushi.

Using the money saved from working at restaurants back home, he and his wife, Ryoko, opened Sushi on Tap on Ventura Boulevard.

During the week, it's a place for office workers and studio types to huddle with co-workers and business clients around the small, square tables.

But weekend nights lure the club set, a more casual crowd who dress in jeans, T-shirts and leather jackets for the tap shows.

The tap floor, which can accommodate perhaps a dozen dancers, is in a corner of the restaurant away from the door. The "sprung" wood floor is slightly elevated.

A wall near the restaurant's entrance is a paean to tap greats. Besides Hines, one steps back through nearly a century of dance history with the images of Sammy Davis Jr., the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Sone, a goateed, bespectacled 38-year-old, usually spends his hours behind the counter patting rice on pressed seaweed and adding fish and vegetables.

But underneath his soft-spoken, workmanlike exterior is an irreverent and exuberant showman. And at no time is that more evident than on birthdays.

At the appointed time, Sone and two sushi chefs rush from behind the counter, their tap shoes gracefully slapping the floor.

The chefs cut a swath to the back tables for their serenade.

Meanwhile, back on stage, Ryoko--normally the quiet fixture behind the cash register--belts out an accompaniment on the electronic keyboard.

Sone hopes to open another tap restaurant in New York City.

"I've always wanted to open a restaurant in New York. The people who fly in from the city love it here. People appreciate art there, especially jazz music. Hopefully, our next Sushi on Tap will be in Midtown or Soho."

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