Inside DM

More Than a Novelty

Tap artist Brenda Bufalino argues it’s time to rethink the way we write about tap.

Dorrance Dance is stretching the boundaries of tap with their theatricality and virtuosity. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.

Critics are always forecasting the next decline of tap dancing. In one instance, a 2011 review in The New York Times, Claudia La Rocco wrote, “Tap is unquestionably a great American art form. It is also unquestionably in dire straits.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a thrilling moment for tap. Never before have dancers been so skilled in technique and capable of such tour de force in a myriad of styles. Our concert theaters are filling up, for the unique choreography and ensemble tap of Dorrance Dance and Max Pollak’s RumbaTap in New York; Acia Gray’s Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, Texas; and Mark Yonally’s Chicago Tap Theatre. Tony Waag’s “Tap City” in New York hosts hundreds of dancers from around the world. Yet writers and critics persist in approaching tap dance as a novelty, investigating its origins as if it were a relic just discovered, a dying art soon to be buried again.

When writers cover other forms of dance they speak about the particulars that make up a satisfying performance. They are equipped to reference past works and compare specific dances from a choreographer’s repertory. In contrast, tap dance to date has been written about as if it were a folk dance. Many critics have created a hierarchy of authenticity that keeps tap dancers competing on the street corner.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to share with the public the subtleties and techniques of tap dance? For instance, a writer might reveal the composition of the band, and how the dancer collaborated with their chosen musicians. Were the taps clear and tonal? Was the approach to the floor hard-hitting and loud, or melodic and subtle? Could the dancer modulate between syncopated phrasing, continuation 8th note triplets, and sixteenth notes with ease? Did the dancer phrase melodically, or have the hard punch and short phrases of a drummer? 

Chicago Tap Theatre’s show, “We Will Tap You!” celebrated the music of Queen. Photo by Josh Hawkins, Courtesy Chicago Tap Theatre.

Dancers strive to create with their own unique voice. Can the reviewer recognize and differentiate between the hard hitting, hip-swinging style of Syncopated Ladies, the high-flying slides and gleeful elevation of Joseph Wiggan and the funk/jazz fusion style of Jared Grimes? What about Michelle Dorrance’s dramatic sense of building entrances and fast exits?

Unfortunately, many of those who presently write about tap and review performances have not done their research. This lack of understanding often has catastrophic results for artists seeking financial support and recognition.

There is also the notion that tap dance is a solo form. In a 2004 New Yorker review, Joan Acocella wrote, “At its best [tap] uses improvisation, and you can’t make group patterns if everyone is doing his own thing. From this limitation—solo improvisation—comes tap’s great strength, its status as an act of personal heroism: naked, here-I-stand. Nevertheless, the limitation is a limitation, emotionally and commercially.” This idea would dismiss the great variety acts of Coles & Atkins; Pete, Peaches & Duke; The Miller Brothers; The Madison Trio and countless others. It also dismisses the vitality of a tap renaissance that began in the 1970s with groundbreaking companies like the Jazz Tap Ensemble and the American Tap Dance Orchestra. They created a brand new form of concert tap dance for their ensembles, interspersing solo and group improvisation with composed, highly choreographed dances. This form, similar to that of jazz ensembles, is still employed by tap companies and soloists.

Syncopated Ladies’ video to Beyoncé’s “Formation” went viral. Photo Courtesy Chloe & Maud Productions.

Today, inspired by the Dorrance Dance theatricality and virtuosity, many new choreographers are bravely stretching the boundaries of tap. It is thriving internationally as far as India, where Jason Samuels Smith performed with the late kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das, and Germany, where Thomas Marek and Sebastian Weber create unique conceptual tap works. Festivals throughout the U.S. have been running for a decade or longer.

Tap dancers are the entrepreneurs of the dance world. If there isn’t a venue to be found then one will be created, in a club, at a wedding, in a festival, as a guest artist with the Philharmonic or grooving with the band at Dizzy’s Jazz Club. Through the dedication and passion of its dancers, tap will continue to thrive. 

Brenda Bufalino is a tap dancer, choreographer and teacher.

Dance History
Sergei Diaghilev, who was terrified of the sea, posing with a life preserver aboard a ship. Photo courtesy DM Archives

On August 19, 1929, shockwaves were felt throughout the dance world as news spread that impresario Sergei Diaghilev had died. The founder of the Ballets Russes rewrote the course of ballet history as the company toured Europe and the U.S., championing collaborations with modernist composers, artists and designers such as Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel. The company launched the careers of its five principal choreographers: Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska and George Balanchine.

Keep reading... Show less
The USC Kaufman graduating class with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Gus Ruelas/USC

Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.

Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Alice Sheppard/Kinetic Light in DESCENT, which our readers chose as last year's "Most Moving Performance." Photo by Jay Newman, courtesy Kinetic Light

Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.

We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Courtesy Chiara Valle

Chiara Valle is just one of many dancers heading back to the studio this fall as companies ramp up for the season. But her journey back has been far more difficult than most.

Valle has been a trainee at The Washington Ballet since 2016, starting at the same time as artistic director Julie Kent. But only a few months into her first season there, she started experiencing excruciating pain high up in her femur. "It felt like someone was stabbing me 24/7," she says. Sometimes at night, the pain got so bad that her roommates would bring her dinner to the bathtub.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox