Hoofer Jessica Vetrano had already bested about 40 dancers when she approached her final opponent in the D.C. Tap Festival’s Cutting Contest tap battle last year. “Everyone was watching us, but I was confident,” Jessica says. With tap mentor Chloe Arnold clapping a beat, Jessica improvised tough steps: cramp rolls, over-the-tops and shuffle turns. Her signature green tap shoes—a nod to her favorite basketball team, the Boston Celtics—accentuated the flurry of sounds.
After about two minutes, Jessica won the match, taking the contest’s title. Arnold wasn’t surprised. “Jessica’s timing and musicality are unbelievable,” Arnold says. “She’s one of the young women on the rise in our genre.” A loose-torsoed, athletic tapper, Jessica’s following in the footsteps of women like Arnold, Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who prove that female tappers are just as fierce as men. “I like when other girls see me tap and realize that hoofing is cool and you don’t have to be a guy to do it,” Jessica says.
Not only is this 16-year-old wowing tap idols like Arnold, she has also performed at such prestigious events as A Tribute to the Great Jimmy Slyde in Boston and Ayodele Casel and Sarah Savelli’s Tappy Holidays. And as a member of the New England Tap Ensemble, she often dances solo improvisations, her favorite aspect of hoofing. “When I go onstage to improv, I lose it,” she says. “I start dancing, and sometimes I’ll make a mistake that I like, so I’ll riff on that. It’s so exciting!”
Jessica started dancing at just 2 years old at Broadway North in Belmont, NH, where she studied jazz, ballet, hip hop and tap. At 7, she began competing in various styles with the studio’s dance team. A year later, tap teacher Aaron Tolson’s arrival at the school changed everything. He introduced her to the relaxed posture and hard-hitting sounds of hoofing. “With this style, you don’t have to use your arms in a specific way, and I loved the improvisation,” Jessica says.
When she was 14, Jessica followed Tolson to Creative Steps School of Dance in Tilton, NH, where she continued studying tap and hip hop. In 2007, Tolson created the NETE, a group of 16 tappers aged 10 though 35, and Jessica was one of the first dancers he invited to join. “Jessica is free, fearless and has that spark you can’t teach,” Tolson says. “She has an artistry way beyond her years.”
Now, Jessica’s one of the troupe’s leaders and Tolson’s assistant, often helping younger dancers pick up steps with what Tolson describes as a kind and fun approach. Whether in rehearsal or class, Jessica’s own sound is “monstrous,” Tolson says. “She wants China to hear her!” Jessica hopes her hard work and bold moves will get her into a tap company; she dreams of dancing alongside Arnold or Derick Grant. She’d also enjoy performing “tap hop,” a tap and hip-hop fusion, plus she wants to teach and she’s working on creating her own tap clothing line.
For now, though, Jessica’s “confidently putting her stamp on the tap world,” Arnold says. “There are little girls in the Ensemble who told me they want to tap like I do,” Jessica says. “I’m most proud of that.”
Non-dance hobby: Collecting colorful sneakers
Favorite movies: Step Up 2: The Streets, Center Stage, Batman
Busy body: Jessica just joined a new hip-hop company under the direction of Olivia Cotton at Creative Steps School of Dance.