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By Max Pollak
A young man walks onto the dance floor. He nods to the orchestra, which strikes up a stomping tune. His shoes begin to hit the floor like a drum. His feet follow the melody line, becoming conductors of the music. The dancer is hopping, chugging his heels, flat-footing through a smooth turn with outstretched arms. A shuffle-stamp-touch, then he takes a bow. Applause.
I clap and shout too. I am elated, my brain feels a serotonin explosion as if the entire world just opened up and embraced me. Why would a simple tap dance performance have such an impact on someone who sees and dances tap every day? Because I am sitting in a traditional restaurant in Lhasa, Tibet.
The young Tibetan man was performing a traditional percussive dance from the Himalayan mountains. I was there to research Buddhism, art history and the political climate, and this came as a beautiful surprise. Tibet was letting me and other tourists (many of them Chinese) know it spoke my language—a different accent perhaps—but a basis for mutual understanding nonetheless. This was 2001.
Now, in 2007, there are even more reasons to be optimistic as a practitioner of percussive dance: Tap has reached a new popularity worldwide. Thirty countries are represented in the International Tap Association (www.tapdance.org). Finland alone has three tap dance organizations and two annual festivals. Due to technology and the relentless enthusiasm of tap aficionados all over the world, there is now more contact between places that have a percussive dance tradition and those that did not until a short while ago. Or, in cases where people do not see eye to eye politically (Cuba-U.S., Israel-Palestine, Turkey-Greece, China-Tibet), at least there can be an exchange between tap-happy citizens.
The foundation for this expansion was laid with the international tap festivals and tap workshops of the late 1980s. In the mid 1990s the demand for world music, percussion and percussive dance burgeoned following the success of big touring shows like Riverdance and Stomp, and movies like Buena Vista Social Club and Latscho Drom. However, most places outside the U.S. only knew tap from old Hollywood movies. With this dearth of information about the art form, certain stereotypes associated with the big new shows proliferated. As a result many rhythm tap teachers, especially in Germany, have to answer the question, “Is that riverdancing?”
European tap today is very different from its American progenitor. When working with my European peers I frequently find myself surrounded by Moroccan musicians, walking barefoot over bubble wrap, or covered in mud (purposely). Inspired by dance theater, circus arts, and various folkloric elements, they emphasize concepts, an integrated stage with lighting and costume design, away from the technical display. A few examples are Thomas Marek and Sebastian Weber from Germany; Guillem Alonso with Camut Band and Tap Olé from Spain; Sharon Levi and Tapeplas from Spain and Israel; Sofi Kyrklund and FeetBeat, and Ari Kauppila and Indictus from Finland; and Ghislaine Avan and Tempo Cantabile, Roxane Butterfly and World Beats, and Tamango and Urban Tap—all originating from France. Each of these artists has a unique approach and a deep infectious passion.
Many of my European colleagues agree on several points about the tap situation in their respective countries:
• There is a lot of public interest in tap but not enough information and media presence.
• In each country there is only a handful of professional tap dancers (who make their living primarily by performing and teaching).
• There are at least hundreds of tap students in each of the leading countries with a good technical level because of frequent workshops with visiting teachers.
• Dedicated students and professionals have studied in the U.S. But many are finding inspiration in their own culture, away from American tap and jazz tradition.
• The annual tap world championships in Germany bring public attention to tap but also hamper the artistic development of young dancers by putting too much emphasis on technique and flashy costumes.
Following a Noise Funk tour in 2003, Japan is now in the middle of a tap boom. Lots of students attend workshops with American tap artists as well as with local tap greats like Kazu Kumagai (a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” in 2006) and Hidebo. Japanese students have been streaming into New York tap classes for about 15 years. Some have become creative forces on the international scene. Watch and listen to Chikako Iwahori (of RumbaTap, Barbara Duffy) or Mari Fujibayashi (Tapage) and your jaw will drop at their ability to take the audience’s imagination way beyond concerns about volume or speed. Tapage will perform at the Tap Dance Day Celebration in Riga, Latvia this month.
Canada is often overlooked although it has produced an impressive array of choreographers and companies. Canadian expatriates Heather Cornell (Manhattan Tap) and Lisa Hopkins have trained and influenced scores of international dancers and Vancouver, the home of a living legend of tap, Dr. Jeni LeGon, has a major annual tap festival.
Israeli dancers like Zvia Brumer, Avi Miller, Ofer Ben and Michal Israelstam, who have hosted international workshops since the 1980s, use the unifying power and popularity of tap to promote peace and diversity in their troubled region. Roxane Butterfly has performed at a hospital in Tel Aviv for kids from both sides (Israel and Palestine) injured in the fighting.
Brazil’s tap scene started in the 1970s and now has thousands of students. Tap festivals and tap-and-body percussion ensembles have cropped up in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Recife and other cities. Valeria Pinheiro, Steven Harper, and Barbatuques are some of the main figures. Many traditional percussive dance forms like the Xaxado and Chula contribute to the variety of tap styles.
The Pacific region boasts remarkable percussive dance traditions, for example the Haka of New Zealand’s Maori and the Samoan slap dance. Melbourne now has regular tap performances and an annual tap festival organized by Grant Swift that attracts world-class performers. Peru has no American tap but a wonderful African heritage that includes a percussive dance called zapateo. If you have a chance to see Peru Negro, the leading folklore ensemble, don’t miss it.
Tappers have gone far and wide to spread the love of foot percussion. Heather Cornell, a major contributor to world music tap, was performing in Beijing, China at the time of the Tienanmen Square uprising in 1989. Butterfly has been to Morocco, Indonesia and Reunion Island; Tamango has been to Senegal, Cape Verde, and Guyana (where he was born). Bril Barrett (M.A.D.D. Rhythms) went to Bosnia, Julia Boynton to Venezuela and Mexico. I have been to Morocco, Tibet, Slovakia, and Panama. I’ve been to Cuba six times to teach and perform, and each time I bring as many donated tap shoes as I can. (I almost got arrested twice because the Cuban customs officers thought I was bringing in contraband.) I love Cuba for the light in the dancers’ eyes when they realize the beat from their feet is akin to their culture’s passion for exhilarating percussion and movement.
Tap has become a citizen of the world, a goodwill ambassador with many passports. The U.S. can claim its birthright, but the world owns it now.
Max Pollak’s whirlwind tap month Köniz Castle Haberhuus, Bern, Switzerland, May 5 RumbaTap at Tanzhaus NRW’s Tap Ahead Festival, Düsseldorf, Germany, May 18-20 Alter Schlachthof, Soest, Germany, May 24 Tap Dance Day Festival, Riga, Latvia, May 25 National Tap Dance Day Extravaganza, Town Hall, NYC, May 27 Max Pollak is artistic director of RumbaTap and a freelance writer for On Tap and Ballet Tanz in Germany. His website is www.rumbatap.com.