O’Neal on his heels: The freshman tap dancer

Amanda Morse

Tap-dancing shoes hit the stage floor, sending clicks echoing through the packed theater one shuffle step at a time. A fleet of dancers from Happy Feet Dance Company occupy the stage, each person following the same pattern of taps, creating a symphony from the movement of their feet. Among this group, freshman John O’Neal looks out across the crowd, showcasing his lifelong talent of tap dancing.

John O'Neal dances during tap class
Practicing his moves, John O’Neal dances during tap class.

“You basically get to make noise with your feet and there are so many different combinations that it is just really fun to always change it up,” John said.

Growing up in a house with a mother, Moira O’Neal, who was a professional dancer until the age of 22, and having an older sister who was also a dancer, John was exposed to the art at a young age.

After being a performer for many years, Moira believes that it is beneficial to take any opportunity to perform on stage, as it teaches people how to handle the nervousness and stress that comes along with being in front of an audience.

“When you grow up performing, getting up in front of other people and showing what you have worked on, [that] makes it so much easier when you get out into the world,” Moira said.

With a family background rich in dance, it was almost inevitable that John would grow up dancing. He decided to take his first dance class at Happy Feet when he was in third grade and has been involved ever since.

John began by taking jazz classes, in addition to tap. Like any new activity, understanding the art of tap was difficult at first. There were many complicated patterns only applicable to dance, but John was able to pick it up quickly.

“It was definitely pretty tough in the beginning but once you hear the same words and associate a sound and a movement with a word, then you start to pick up on that and then you keep learning new or different steps,” John said.

Leading the group at the front of the class, freshman John O'Neal plans on continuing to dance and perform for as long as he can.
Leading the group at the front of the class, freshman John O’Neal plans on continuing to dance and perform for as long as he can.

Behind every dance or song, there is a rhythm guiding each movement or every note played. Following this pattern, in tap, there is a language behind the footwork that reveals a deeper level to this form of art, according to John. John greatly enjoys being able to express himself through each combination of taps he uses.

“Once you get better and can listen to something and know how to make that with the two taps, it’s a lot easier to think about,” John said. “There are different words that don’t really mean anything to other people like ‘flap’ and ‘shuffle step’ but they are huge parts in tap. It’s part of the language that you learn throughout learning tap dance.”

When he began high school, his schedule became busier with school work and his two other sports, cross country and track and field, so John decided to drop his jazz class and continue only with tap. Solely focusing on tap has allowed John to perfect his techniques and continue practicing his talents. He has participated in school plays in addition to the Throckmorton Theatre Company’s production of “42nd Street.”  

Throughout John’s career, his instructors at Happy Feet, specifically the four Bechellis who run the company, have had a major impact on him. Director Cece Bechelli and her daughter, co-director Caitlin Bechelli, run the company with the assistance of Sheri Bechelli and Matt Bechelli, who are both instructors. Caitlin is John’s current teacher who has worked with him since he first began dance and has helped turn him into the dancer he is today. Since the beginning of John’s tap career, the instructors have kept him engaged by challenging him with more advanced steps.

Following the moves of his instructor, John continues to advance his capabilities as a dancer.
Following his instructor’s moves, John continues to further his skills as a dancer.

Along with the Bechelli’s, Moira has been alongside John throughout his journey as a dancer and has seen him grow extensively from the first time he stepped into his tiny dance shoes in the third grade. According to Moira, she is extremely proud of how far her son has come.

“I’ve watched him grow as a tap dancer from doing really simple shuffle steps, to doing some really complicated advanced tap steps and combinations. It’s such a mental development as well as physical development and it’s really a joy to watch that,” Moira said.

Despite the fact that he has a busier schedule than he did before entering high school, John is going to continue taking tap classes at Happy Feet and further enjoy his time spent with those who dance with him.

Junior Mackenzie Kenneally, who also dances for Happy Feet, started dance when she was two. She has known John since elementary school, when they both performed in plays and  danced with the same company.

“He is really confident and always very sure of himself. He always knows what’s going on and is on top of everything which is super helpful,” Kenneally said.  “He’s super fun to be around, and he is very professional when it comes time to put on a show.”  

With hopes of being able to continue dance throughout high school and potentially in college as well, John will only continue pushing himself and his abilities as a dancer.

“[John’s tap career] could lead somewhere for him if that’s what he wanted to do. I would not be surprised if I saw his name on a billboard and looked up and said ‘Oh hey look, it’s John!’” Kenneally said.