Brilliant Feet on Shaky Ground

October 31, 2015

Tap is overflowing with talented dancers, but is the genre itself overlooked?

Jared Grimes, here in After Midnight, is one of the few tap stars seen on Broadway recently. Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy After Midnight. 

Early this century,
I decided to write a history of tap dancing. That history turned out to be even more fascinating and perplexing than I had assumed, all tangled up with the history of the United States and blacks and whites. Imitation, theft, amalgamation: I got lost in it for a long time. But the book is finally coming out this month, and so my thoughts turn from tap’s past to its present. The situation, as I see it, is both worrisome and hopeful. The art now seems to be in much the same precarious position as when I began my project 15 years ago: overflowing with gifted and dedicated practitioners, yet lacking a secure place in the culture at large.

You could say that tap has been in limbo since just after World War II, when the cultural context in which the art had grown rampant—vaudeville and variety theaters, jazz clubs, Broadway shows and Hollywood movie-musicals—began either to disappear or to change so as to exclude tap. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that tap “came back,” partly in the form of nostalgia. Gregory Hines gave tap a contemporary public face, and while his star ascended, lesser-known hoofers tried to build a home for themselves in the world of concert dance. Yet this foothold, tenuous to start, soon shrank. Almost none of the repertory tap companies that sprang up would survive past the millennium.

In 2001, tap mainly lived in insular festivals. That year saw the birth of Tap City: The New York City Tap Festival and also of Austin’s Soul to Sole. This year, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project celebrated its 25th anniversary, and tap still lives principally in these and other festivals, where dancers take classes from masters and perform mostly for one another. It’s surely good that these events exist—for solidarity, for continuity—but it’s been troublingly difficult to find high-grade tap outside of them.

Because of that dearth, it could seem there was only one tap dancer: Savion Glover. He is an extraordinary artist, drilling ever deeper into tap’s core, but he has been a prickly standard-bearer and spokesman, prone to labeling himself and a few others as “The Last HooFeRz Standing.” That attitude, coming from such a loud voice within tap, has reinforced the assumption that the tribe is endangered. But—and this is the hopeful part—it’s not true. The generation of young people that Glover inspired to put on tap shoes in the ’90s has been followed by another and another, in love with the art, well versed in its history, and capable of making it their own. And this is all the more remarkable considering how difficult it is to be a professional tap dancer.

In a sense,
tap is more widely dispersed than ever. As can be seen in the recent documentary Tap World, tap colonies are abuzz in Brazil, Taiwan, Australia, Japan. One of the biggest tap festivals takes place in Stockholm. Barcelona is a vibrant hub of tap activity. Even in the U.S., the international participants at tap festivals can call to mind the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney parks, evidence of a nearly universal appeal. And yet the world of tap remains just that: specialized, small.

Apart from the
Happy Feet
movies (in which a cartoon penguin taps like Glover), Hollywood has shown little interest. Tap dancers have appeared on several of the proliferating TV competitions, but rarely to their advantage; the filming and, especially, the sound design (or lack thereof) have made even the greatest of today’s hoofers fail to register as great.

What about commercial theater? When
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk
arrived on Broadway in 1996, it was hailed as a new beginning for both Broadway and tap. And not just the schoolroom tap of most Broadway revivals: Noise/Funk, choreographed by Glover, who also starred in it, was at once thoroughly up to date and nourished by lines of descent extending far into tap’s past. Indeed, the show was partially about tap history, along with African-American history, and while much of the telling was tendentious and reductive, the dancing was profound.

Dorrance Dance’s The Blues Project celebrates tap’s mixed heritage. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.

But after
closed in 1999, Broadway reverted. It wasn’t until 2013, in After Midnight, that you could find top-notch hoofers such as Jared Grimes and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards in a successful Broadway show. This one was a throwback, a Cotton Club–style revue in which tap played a supporting role.
But it was a cheering sign. Another is the announcement of Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, scheduled to debut in April. Glover and director-writer George C. Wolfe, teaming up for the first time since Noise/Funk, will examine black theatrical history again, which could be a boon for tap’s future—although, considering Noise/Funk’s divisiveness and the vacuum that followed it, Shuffle Along could also be dangerous.

In the meantime, tap dancers who are improvising jazz musicians of a high caliber still have trouble finding work in jazz clubs. Glover, Grimes and Michela Marino Lerman are among the few to have received repeat invitations to Jazz at Lincoln Center, a place that should be a natural home for tap. But tap, as important an American art as its sibling jazz, has no such home, at Lincoln Center or elsewhere. It has no large, well-funded institution dedicated to it, just the American Tap Dance Foundation and a few other scrappy organizations soldiering on with few resources.

This, once again,
leaves tap dependent upon the infrastructure of concert dance, a system of institutions that tend to treat tap as a special guest rather than as an assumed member of the family. Here, the most promising news of recent years has been the emergence of Michelle Dorrance, whose troupe, Dorrance Dance, keeps getting asked to Jacob’s Pillow and the Joyce Theater and other major stops on the concert-dance circuit.

Dorrance has developed her own distinct style: quirky knees and elbows attached to witty, virtuosic feet. And, in turn, she is influencing others—not to be like her, exactly, but to be themselves. There’s a surge of powerful female energy in tap shows these days, and confident oddballs and geeks are becoming almost as common as downcast floor-pounders were at the height of Glover’s influence. It’s a nice change.

Most significant, though, are Dorrance’s achievements as a choreographer, and the way she has succeeded in making tap speak (through sound and movement and the arrangement of multiple bodies) to connoisseurs of contemporary dance, as evidenced by reviews and awards. Or that’s what I long assumed was most significant, and following that assumption, I’ve sometimes been impatient with Dorrance, wanting her to advance more boldly into strange and original territory.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if she hasn’t been up to something more urgent. It’s intriguing how she deflects the attention she’s earned onto other dancers, as if to reveal the deep bench of talent. At the Joyce last April,
The Blues Project
, her collaboration with Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant, struck me not just as a tight and appealing packaging of first-rate tap but also a subtle celebration of tap’s mixed heritage. Since Dorrance is white, while Sumbry-Edwards and Grant and the composer, Toshi Reagon, are all black, The Blues Project is, implicitly yet unmistakably, a celebration of friendship—of men and women and blacks and whites treating one another as equals.

The Blues Project
celebrates this, even as some of Reagon’s lyrics remind us, as current events do, of a painful history that is not dead and that makes such friendship an achievement. I don’t know where tap is headed, or how it might find a more permanent home, but Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards and Grant suggest how tap dancers might free themselves from their past without forgetting it. 

Nicholas Young and Aaron Marcellus in ETM: The Initial Approach. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.

Plugging Tap Into the Future

Nicholas Young transforms an acoustic art into an electronic experience.

As a teenager, Nicholas Young didn’t have trouble finding an outlet for his musical urges. In his hometown of Austin, Texas, it could seem that everybody played in a band. Less common, though, was his principal instrument: his feet in tap shoes. His mother ran a dance studio, where he’d started tapping at age 5, and his skills were advanced. Yet among amplified instruments, he was at a disadvantage. How, he wondered, could he make his taps louder? He pointed a microphone at his feet, but when he turned the volume up, the input generated feedback. The question of volume led to a more fundamental one: How could he gain more control over his sound?

Young, now 37, has been working on that problem ever since—during decade-long stints performing with Tapestry Dance Company and in
, and, more recently, in collaborations with Michelle Dorrance. First, he experimented with the kind of electronic pickups used to amplify acoustic guitars, learning where best to place them on a wooden tap board. But once he discovered how to feed his taps into an amplifier, he thought about feeding them into guitar-effects pedals and laptop computers. The solution opens up new possibilities, including a broader palette of sounds, starting with reverb and extending into any noise a computer can generate. “Tap dancers have been playing acoustic forever,” he says. “This is our electric guitar.”

Crossing tap with electronics isn’t a brand-new idea. In the 1980s, Alfred Desio attached pickups to his shoes and channeled the signal through synthesizers; some of the possibilities (and limitations) of his Tap-Tronics system were demonstrated in the 1989 Gregory Hines movie
. But technology has advanced enormously since then. “We’re in a period now,” Young says, “where you can turn anything into an electronic music controller. Guys are wiring up pineapples.”

Many tap dancers have been playing around with digital looping and effects, but few have devoted as much energy as Young has to hardware development. He has taught himself circuit building and figured out how to construct a less expensive, sturdier and more easily repairable controller. On tour these days, he carries a battery-powered soldering iron for quick fixes.

Michelle Dorrance in ETM: The Initial Approach. Photo by Jamie Kraus, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.

His latest board is framed by 12 pads, each equipped with force-sensitive resistors—which means that he can play a full musical scale and sustained notes. He can build a groove, layer by layer. With a microphone and electronic sampling, he can digitally tie any sound to his tapping and manipulate it with a handheld Wii controller. He’s also experimenting with infrared proximity sensors so that some triggers will not be floor-bound: A fan kick might instigate a whoosh. But the center of the board is still just an amplified platform for hoofing. In that way, Young has stayed true to the sound of taps on wood.

Last year, Young’s contribution to the American Tap Dance Foundation’s “Rhythm in Motion” sampler earned him a Bessie Award for Outstanding Music Composition/Sound Design. Earlier that year,
ETM: The Initial Approach
, a production with Michelle Dorrance that used his boards for group choreography, premiered at Jacob’s Pillow. (The title suggests an analogy with EDM, or electronic dance music.) Each board-equipped dancer could contribute a different sound or texture to multilayered compositions.

Young and Dorrance continue to explore concert-dance possibilities, but he is just as interested in sharing a set with a DJ in a club. Just as tap dancers struggle to get people in the jazz world to recognize them as musicians, Young has had difficulty gaining the attention of people in electronic dance music. Improvising hoofers like him are ready and eager to play. “Yo! Look at what the dancers are doing!” he says with a smile. —
Brian Seibert

Brian Seibert writes on dance for
The New York Times and is the author of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, out this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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