Tap's Leading Lady

April 25, 2011

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards’ tap shoes spit out sounds a mile a minute. She builds a percussive plotline to any song and fills the musical gaps seamlessly with her own riffs and rhythms. All the while she wears a calm countenance punctuated by a sly smile when she hits a particularly satisfying beat. She is smooth, soulful, sultry, and sexy. Sumbry-Edwards uses tap to converse, tell stories, show emotion, and continue a legacy of all the great hoofers who came before her.


Though she’s too humble to tell you about the impact she’s had on generations of tappers, others will. “She’s the best female tap dancer alive,” says fellow tapper Michelle Dorrance. “She’s a technical powerhouse and a beautiful musician. She has an incredible attack but also so much grace and swing and funk and fun.”


Jason Samuels Smith takes it a step further. “To me, she’s the greatest tap dancer/hoofer alive right now,” he says. “She’s on top in terms of her all-around versatility and her wealth of knowledge and experience with the masters of tap. As a woman, she can present her work in a softer approach or to come strong. Most of the time when you see a tapper on television or film, it’s usually a man and there’s something particular about a man’s energy that can attract an audience. But to see a woman sustain the same energy but then bring the femininity and grace to it too—whoa!”


As the youngest of three daughters, Sumbry-Edwards, a California native, had recognizable talent from early on. “When I was 3, my sister Benita was in a dance program at school. She’d come home and be doing the warm-ups and I’d be down on the floor doing them with her.” Her family noticed that when music was playing, she would clap right on the beats. “They would look at me like, Oh the girl has rhythm! Let’s put her in a dance class.” So they did. Sumbry-Edwards started taking classes with Paul and Arlene Kennedy at Universal Dance Designs, where she studied ballet, jazz and tap. But it was the tap that stuck.


Aside from the Kennedys, she counts hoofers Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, and Ralph Brown—all of whom she worked with in the revue  in the late 1980s—among her mentors. She was all of 12. “They would pull you to the side and show you something or say something about your dancing as they’d walk by. And certain things you didn’t get right away, but then a week later they hit you like a ton of bricks,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “Being around them and seeing them perform as older men and the love and respect they had for the dance, I absorbed some of that energy.”


By the mid-’90s, a sort of boys club of the next generation of tap dancers was gathering steam. Savion Glover’s rise to fame enabled him to create Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk on Broadway, showcasing some of Sumbry-Edwards’ peers, including Omar Edwards, Derick K. Grant, and Baakari Wilder. A year into Noise/Funk’s run on Broadway, Glover called Sumbry-Edwards, who had gone back to California after Black and Blue to finish school and to teach. (They had met when Dormeshia was a child in a tap production in Rome, then worked together again in several projects, including Black and Blue, through the years.) “A couple years had gone by and I hadn’t had any sort of contact with him,” she says. “I answered the phone and he said, ‘Yo, what up D? How you feel about coming out here to do this show?’ ”


Sumbry-Edwards, now 35, was the only female tap dancer in Noise/Funk and at first was performing dressed as a man. “The guys were…I don’t want to say afraid of me…but there was a sense of respect as far as my dance was concerned,” she says. When the show was revived for touring, she was allowed to drop the drag and perform as a woman, and in heels!


“She totally revolutionized the field by reappropriating heels in a more contemporary way,” says Dorrance. “Her movement, technical ability, and her sound in heels set her apart.” Sumbry-Edwards says of her choice to wear heels in Noise/Funk, “I only wore heels where it absolutely made sense. But it blew people away. We were performing all over the world, from Los Angeles to Japan, and people would come backstage and tell me how amazed they were that I could do it in heels.”


In 1998, she married fellow tapper Omar Edwards and opened a studio with him in Harlem. They have three kids: Jeremiah, 11, Eboni, 10 (who has been performing in Billy Elliot on Broadway since it opened in 2008!), and the youngest, EmilyBalee, was born last October. Sumbry-Edwards appeared onscreen in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Michael Jackson’s music video “You Rock My World,” starred in the independent tap movie called The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang, and competed on the TV show Superstars of Dance (where the judges were hardly connoisseurs of tap). She has performed and taught in countless tap festivals, most recently at the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Winter Tap Jamboree in Chicago. In March she shared an evening with Dorrance at the Danspace Project in New York that broke some barriers between the “downtown” audience and the tap audience.


Sumbry-Edwards cites Jason Samuels Smith’s production Charlie’s Angels, which premiered in 2008, as a highlight of her career. Inspired by jazz musician Charlie Parker, the intensely intricate choreography challenges the three-woman cast to embody the bebop music. Sumbry-Edwards is a natural, exuding coolness while nailing the complex rhythms, and it’s no surprise that she was, in large part, the inspiration for the piece. Samuels Smith says he watched Sumbry-Edwards during their time together in Derick K. Grant’s Imagine Tap! in 2006. “Every night her execution was incredible. She hadn’t been featured as a star performer in any production I’ve seen, so I felt like it was way past due. Charlie’s Angels was one of my answers for that.”


Another influence in Sumbry-Edwards’ life was the late, great, Michael Jackson. Their professional relationship began shortly before she joined Noise/Funk on Broadway, and continued up until the November before his death. Her teacher, Paul Kennedy, had begun one-on-one lessons with Jackson, but when Kennedy fell ill, he turned Jackson over to Sumbry-Edwards. “Michael was curious about tap dance,” she says. “He loved rhythms. He was an absolute perfectionist. We would work for three hours on two bars!” She remembers how intensely he’d watch her dance. “He would lay down in front of me like a kid and ask me to tap and tell me, ‘Slower, slower, slower,’ then ‘Faster, faster, faster!’ Then he’d look up at me and say, ‘Can you show me how to do that?’ ”


Now, she’s turning her time with Michael Jackson into inspiration for her choreography. She prepared a section of this for her Danspace performance in March. “It’s kind of like closing a chapter,” she says. “It’s a tribute to Michael Jackson but it’s also for Paul Kennedy. Both of them are gone now.”


Sumbry-Edwards hopes that tap will gain more widespread popularity. “I believe that tap can be put in any situation. If you want to break into a dance number in a show or a movie, it doesn’t have to be jazz, it doesn’t have to be ballet. It’s OK to walk into a jazz club and see somebody tap dancing, so why can’t it happen in movies and musicals?”


What’s on Sumbry-Edwards’ dance card for the year? Imagine Tap! is headed for New York this fall, and Samuels Smith is working with a creative team on a new expanded Charlie’s Angels; Sumbry-Edwards anticipates performing in both. She’s also in the midst of recording a tap album called Once Upon a Timestep that she hopes to release this year, and working on her full-length Michael Jackson tribute. On top of that, she’ll be teaching a lot. “I was fortunate enough to learn from some of the greatest tap dancers who ever lived. I feel it is part of my responsibility to keep the information going. If we don’t talk about it and don’t teach our young ones, how do we expect it to stay alive?”


Dianne Walker, who was featured in Black and Blue, praises her for her desire to move the field forward. “With her talent she could be doing it all for herself, but she shares, she gives back. She’s an extraordinary example for the young dancers.”


Samuels Smith treasures her generosity. “Dormeshia is one of the last in my generation that got that hands-on experience from the masters. She found the art and the art found her. She’s inspired me and countless other dancers in our generation. I don’t think she realizes how important she is,” he says. “She’s one of our silent leaders who we’re gonna hear a lot about in the future.”


Emily Macel Theys is the communications manager for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.


Top: Photo by Matthew Karas. Bottom: A career highlight: Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels; Dormeshia in center, with Michelle Dorrance and Chloe Arnold. Photo by Debi Field.