Finding your unique voice and identity is important for everyone, boxer-tap dancer Joe Orrach illustrated for a San Quentin Prison audience.
The show encouraged in- carcerated people to tell their own stories as part of their re- habilitation, making the show more than just entertainment for San Quentin residents.
Nearly 100 people made up the audience in the Protestant Chapel on Dec. 13 for the program titled In My Corner.
Orrach told his story with a combination of boxing moves and tap dancing, reflecting his past as Air Force welterweight boxing champion turned professional tap dancer.
He narrated, danced and mimed his authentic tale of growing up in the Bronx, the son of a Puerto Rican father and an Italian American mother. The dominant themes in Orrach’s progression from boyhood to young man were boxing, dancing, and his struggle to gain the approval of his hard-to- please father.
The show began with Orrach jumping rope on a raised wooden platform, tapping out a beat each time the rope arced over his head. The slap of the rope against the wood blended with the tapping. “I loved when he was able to incorporate his jump rope into his tap rhythm,” said San Quentin resident Loren Mears.
As the story progressed, the boxing theme continued, with Orrach punching a speed-bag to a smooth jazz beat.
Mears smiled when he recalled this part of the act, “What really impressed me were his speed-bag skills,” Mears said. “Every time he threw a punch, his whole body was in it. You could tell he was a very good boxer.”
“I had never seen anyone act out his whole life all by himself,” said Mears.
The former boxer appeared to be in fight condition as he moved vigorously, without breaks, throughout the 75-minute show.
Orrach reported it was through his boxing that he ultimately gained his father’s approval. That breakthrough came on the night of his first fight, which he pantomimed for his San Quentin audience. Knocked down three times in the first round, he came back to win the fight in the second.
He retired from boxing after five years and moved on to a successful career in dance. As a young boxer, he had been encouraged to study ballet by his trainer. He ultimately found his dancing niche in tap, touring inter- nationally and dancing with greats like Gregory Hines.
At one performance, Hines was in attendance. In a tribute to Orrach, Hines “threw his shoes on the stage,” said Orrach’s script writer, Lizbeth Hasse.
On stage with Orrach were composer and keyboard player Matthew Clark and percussionist Dan Gonzalez. They skillfully blended their supporting sounds with Orrach’s movement and narrative.
Pauses in the act were consistently met with applause and the audience frequently broke into laughter.
Orrach told his story with humor, passion, and intensity in English (with a Bronx accent) and in Spanish.
When he lapsed into Spanish, it invariably evoked laughter from Spanish-speaking audience members, who seemed to share an inside joke. Bilingual audience member Luis Figuera confirmed that Orrach was indeed sharing some good-natured fun with his fellow Spanish speakers.
A promotional flyer explained that “Orrach and his team work to illustrate the challenges and importance of finding one’s unique voice and identity.”
Orrach has presented the show in a juvenile facility, but this was the first performance in an adult prison.
After the show, audience members responded with a standing ovation and lined up to shake Orrach’s hand, thank him, and praise the performance.
Orrach, perspiring heavily from the intensity of the performance, looked like a boxer after a fight.