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By Jenai Cutcher
In 1997, I sneaked into a rehearsal for Savion Glover’s newly-formed company, NYOTs (Not Your Ordinary Tappers), and lay on the floor between two rows of seats in the theater to listen. I just assumed that the female voice amidst the conversations and laughter from the stage was someone from the technical crew or the press or maybe even a dancer’s girlfriend. Seated in the audience later that night, when Ayodele Casel took the stage with Glover and the rest of the male ensemble, I realized how wrong I had been. The female voice was Casel’s and it was suddenly speaking loud and clear through every heel drop, shuffle, and wing.
Whether she intended it to or not, Casel’s tap dancing voice resonated far and wide. Her dancing with NYOTs was similar to the men’s: crouched stance, leg movements that reached away from the body, and generating forceful sounds when hitting the floor. It didn’t seem like a big deal to her at the time, but in hindsight, she sees how significant her presence was. It came right on the heels of Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk, Glover’s Broadway musical that turned the public’s attention back to tap while introducing them to a new style, referred to in the show as “hitting.” Noise/Funk, which ran for 1,135 performances and toured the nation for years, featured only male dancers in its cast.
“Once NYOTs came,” Casel theorizes, “and Savion Glover had a woman addition to his group, people took notice. All of a sudden it became, ‘Girls can do this, too!’ ” Nearly 10 years later, the girls have proven this many times over. Now they’re discovering they can do a lot more than just dance like the guys.
Or as a guy. In terms of women hoofers at that time, one may have been overlooked for a moment, but certainly not because of her technique. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards wasn’t such visible proof that a woman could dance as well as a man because she was dancing as a man. In order to step into the Noise/Funk role on Broadway, she had to “man up” by wearing men’s clothing and assuming a more rugged attitude and posture. But in the revival tour (2002-03), she played female characters. “We were present in that history,” says Sumbry-Edwards. “We were on the train, too!”
When asked how it felt to finally dance the choreography as a woman, Sumbry-Edwards sighs with relief. “It was a huge weight off my shoulders.” And who needs that extra weight when you’re rocking the high heels? In several performances since Noise/Funk, including Flight of the Bumblebee with Jazz Tap Ensemble, Sumbry-Edwards has garnered attention for “killing it” while wearing a skirt, heels, and a smile.
“That woman can do anything and she can do it in heels, which takes an incredible amount of technique in its own right,” remarks Acia Gray, a tap dancer and artistic director at Tapestry Dance Company in Austin. After spending the first 10 years of her career tap dancing in drag, Gray is happy to see heels come back from the days of chorus girls at the Cotton Club. Yes, high heels are a different instrument when compared to the flat tap shoes dancers usually wear. And yes, many women fought long and hard to come down from them and be taken seriously as both dancers and musicians. Many emotions and opinions are wrapped up in this footwear comeback, but the heels now serve a higher purpose. Whether it’s for the look, the sound, or the fun, whether a fashion, political, or historical statement, the shoes cannot be ignored. The high heels are tangible evidence that women are exploring what it means to be a woman within the art form.
Whether it was dancing in drag like Sumbry-Edwards and Gray or adopting masculine traits because the only role models available were male, women in the 1970s and ’80s did what was necessary to get to the next level in rhythm tap. While women were burning their bras in the street, Brenda Bufalino, Lynn Dally, Dianne Walker, and others were lacing up flat taps in the studio. They not only insisted on eschewing heels and learning the rhythm tap technique, they also passed the form on to younger generations. Thanks to them, Michelle Dorrance (“On the Rise,” March 2005) and others like her had opportunities never before available to females. Call it the Title IX of tap dance: For the first time ever, young girls in dance schools were trained in the art of rhythm tap, fully supported and encouraged to find their own expression. Because of that training, says teacher and performer Barbara Duffy, a growing number of girls have come up with a different attitude about their dancing. “They were told, ‘Yes, you can go out there.’ But the vibe was not like that when I was coming up,” she says. “It was just a different generation.”
Dorrance, along with Cintia Chamecki (“Blame It on the Bossa Nova,” Nov. 2004) and this writer, works with Duffy in her all-women tap company, formed in part to examine such issues and explore the unique energy created by women onstage.
In performance, “femininity can be a handful by itself,” observes Sumbry-Edwards, a sentiment echoed by Duffy, Roxane Butterfly, and Sarah Savelli, all of whom have headed female tap ensembles (along with Chloe Arnold and her Syncopated Ladies in Los Angeles). Butterfly says her BeauteeZ’n The Beat was powerful because of the “infinite range of emotions women are capable of exploring and their ability to incorporate them honestly into their dancing.” She feels the strength of women lies in their capacity to connect quickly with both the audience and each other.
Savelli speaks of such a bond with co-founder of Rhythm ISS Idella Reed. “From our first meeting, there was something magical between us. That’s the thing about tap dance,” she says. “How else could an 18-year-old white girl from the suburbs of Ohio and a 34-year-old black woman from Chicago relate so strongly?”
Dorrance and Chamecki do not limit themselves to female dancers in creating their own work. Chamecki values diversity in style, physique, and personality and tries to include men and women. Dorrance’s Music Box, performed in Tap City 2005 at The Joyce Theater in New York, diffused gender boundaries with its combination of movement and costume. Nine dancers—six of them women in dresses—bent their knees, assumed a wide stance, and in eight quarter-note heel drops illustrated a concept that may be unique to the feminine tap dancing experience: the sugar and the spice. Dorrance (who demonstrates in Music Box that her athletic, energetic style adapts well to a strapless dress) speculates that one advantage to being a woman is the freedom to move between traits traditionally considered masculine or feminine. It is now perfectly acceptable for women to traverse a wide range of styles, like dancing loudly or softly, pulling up out of the floor or relaxing into it, and interacting with the audience or focusing inward.
“The female dancers are the most interesting on the stage these days,” Bufalino says. “They are not clone-ish like the men, who seem to feel they must outdo each other with the same step or the same trick.” The phenomenon she describes is like the X Games of tap dance: fast and furious hoofing packed with gravity-defying stunts. If one dancer jumps in the air and makes six sounds before landing, the next will try to go for seven.
Bufalino notes a versatility and creativity in female dancers that might come from their efforts to find alternatives to this modern flash dancing. Jeannie Hill, who teaches tap at University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, remembers making a conscious decision to focus on musicality and performance qualities in order to distinguish her voice. “Trying to hit louder and faster didn’t make me dance better and didn’t feel as good on my body,” she says. Instead she used her clever, sensitive rhythms punctuated by equally rhythmic upper body gestures to set herself apart.
Women tap dancers are more inclined to pursue an exchange with the audience or other performers, observes Chamecki. Especially in improvisation, the focus tends to be conversational rather than competitive.
Emotion also plays a huge role, according to Butterfly. “Women are more honest with their feelings,” she says, “and willing to be vulnerable, which affects their dancing.” In the process of creating their own images and standards, women are questioning what is important to them in terms of presentation. Butterfly sees this ability to question as another feminine strength. “Men don’t doubt; they have certitude. They take appreciation for granted.”
Tap adapts and progresses rapidly. We are not dancing the same as even 10 years ago, Butterfly points out. Hopefully, we are moving out of the phase in which hard hitting women are a novelty and hard hitting is favored over soft hitting, witty hitting, or any other sort of hitting. Casel, for instance, is now into tinier movements: microscopic shuffles and rapid sixteenth notes that stay right under her pelvis. She often crosses one foot behind the other in unexpected places and sometimes twists her hips while doing single foot wings.
But whether it’s because of what they are wearing, how they are dancing, or where they are performing, the female voice is undoubtedly getting louder. These tap dancers, who happen to be women, will continue to contribute to the form, pushing its boundaries, and challenging audience perceptions.
Jenai Cutcher is a writer, tap dancer, and teacher based in New York City. She is currently directing a documentary film about women in tap dance.