Bril Barrett

Tap Dancer
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Maia Rosenfield 


Bril Barrett is a Chicago tap dancer, teacher, and historian. Born and raised in North Lawndale on the West Side and now based in the South Side’s Bronzeville, his four-decade career is rooted in place and crosses time. 

Tap was created by enslaved Black people who, when drums were made illegal due to the instrument’s role in resistance, communicated by making rhythms with their bodies instead. These rhythms were passed on in clandestine improvisation circles known as “shouts” or “ring shout,” one of the few West African prayer practices to survive the Middle Passage. It is in this tradition that Barrett learns and teaches. 

Barrett fell in love with tap at age four thanks to a program offered by his first teacher, Carlton Smith. After the program ended, Barrett’s mother committed to continuing the lessons, riding with him two hours on the Red Line each way—where Barrett met his primary mentor, Ayrie “Mr. Taps” King. 

Barrett joined a long line of dancers who came up “shedding wood” on street corners. After winning grand prize in 1988’s Search for Chicago’s Tap Dance Kid, he toured with companies such as Riverdance and Aaron Tolson’s Imagine Tap. During that time, he learned from several early 20th-century legends of tap, including Dr. Jimmy Slyde, Dr. Bunny Briggs, and Dr. Leonard Reed. 

Barrett soon realized that many audiences didn’t know tap the way he had learned it. They might know Shirley Temple or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but did they know Robinson’s teacher, Alice Whitman? Did they know about tap as resilience, or resistance? He began to include a history lesson in every class he taught, recounting stories given by his teachers in turn. 

With co-founders Jumaane Taylor and Martin ‘Tre’ Dumas III, Barrett created the Making A Difference Dancing Rhythms Organization (M.A.D.D. Rhythms) in 2001 to provide a place for young people to learn and grow. M.A.D.D. Rhythms is now a leading tap collective worldwide, developing a partnership with Bronzeville’s historic Harold Washington Cultural Center to provide affordable arts education and mentorship to Chicago youth. 

In 2020, Barrett was awarded the Chicago Dancemakers Forum’s Lab Artist Fellowship, and in 2022 he received the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Foundation for the Arts Achievement Award. M.A.D.D. Rhythms is a part of the International Association of Blacks in Dance’s 2023-24 FRWD cohort, as well as the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project’s 2023-24 cohort. 

Barrett’s pedagogy of shared improvisation for social-emotional learning shows his students that their lives and selves matter. His circles weave past, present, and future to pass on our history in the way it was created—in the rhythm of our breath, and bodies, and feet. 

By Yul Ailea Stites, Making A Difference Dancing Rhythms Organization