Women Rising: Has the #MeToo Movement Smashed the Glass Ceiling for Women in Tap?
Writing in Dance Magazine in 1969 about Tap Happenings, those weekly tap dance jams at the Bert Wheeler Theater in New York City, critic Patrick O'Connor commented on dancers Sandra Gibson and Leticia Jay, the two sole female performers: "Gibson, the first of the red hot 'soul' mamas does a number, as does Leticia Jay, but face it, the evening belongs to the men."
Not only was the statement sexist and paternalistic, one that has been reiterated for decades about women in tap, but it was also misinformed. O'Connor may have believed the evening belonged "to the men," but it would not have taken place if not for the women. It was Gibson, a renowned jazz dancer and champion Lindy-Hopper, who reminded spectators that jazz dance was the motherlode of jazz tap. And Jay—the dancer, writer, producer, historian and philanthropist who was recently honored with the 2018 Tap Preservation Award by the American Tap Dance Foundation—who promoted and produced the Happenings that catapulted the tap revival of the 1970s.
Yet while Jay and Gibson participated in the first half of the Happenings, consisting of solos, they were excluded from the second part's "cutting contest" which was strictly reserved for men. This underscores tap dancing's century-long discrimination against women—particularly women soloists. Women were told they were weak: they lacked the strength needed to perform the rhythm-driven piston steps, multiple-wing steps, and flash and acrobatic steps that symbolized the (male) tap virtuoso's finish to a routine. Women were nurturers, not competitors, and therefore should not engage in tap challenges.
As Gene Kelly stated in a 1958 CBS television special, "Dancing is a man's game . . . and if he does it well, he does it better than a woman. I don't want this to sound as if I'm against women dancing, we must remember that each sex is capable of doing things the other can't."
Today, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have upended the public conversation about women's issues around the world, and elevated the global consciousness surrounding the obstacles women encounter in their daily lives, both personal and professional. Have these women's empowerment movements extinguished the sexism and male patriarchy that women in tap have had to endure?
I spoke to three stellar women in tap to get their take on the issue.
Michela Marino Lerman
"I think we are beginning the conversation—the door is cracked open, but we need to confront more," says international jazz tap soloist Michela Marino Lerman. With mentors that included Gregory Hines and James Buster Brown, Lerman was the only woman (since Sandra Gibson in 1949) to be inducted into the Copasetics fraternity of jazz hoofers. She has long-hosted weekly tap dance jams at Smalls, and is a frequent performer at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, where she is a tap soloist and bandleader for Michael Mwenso and the Shakes.
Lerman confesses that while she has finally arrived at a place of respect, women in tap often get relegated to certain categories—women like Chloe Arnold and her Syncopated Ladies who has allied with pop star Beyoncé and been nominated for an Emmy for her choreography on the "The Late Late Show with James Corden"; women like Michelle Dorrance, recipient of the MacArthur "Genius" Award for combining the musicality of tap with the structural intricacies of contemporary dance. "But where are there openings for a female jazz tap solo improviser?" Lerman asks. "Soloists like Jason Samuels Smith and Derick Grant—I look at Savion Glover as a model. I want to be a soloist/musician—there is a difference there."
Elka Samuels Smith
Sue Samuels, Elka Samuels Smith, Jason Samuels Smith and Jojo Smith
"I am a producer, manager and arts administrator, and very aware of how I come across," says Elka Samuels Smith, who founded the artistic management company Divine Rhythm Productions in 1999 to support professional tap dancers, performers, choreographers and musicians. "I am a very direct person by nature, and I can be taken differently than if I were a man. And if I have had to soften my approach, it is because there are people on power trips."
The daughter of renowned jazz dancers Sue Samuels and JoJo Smith, and sister to tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, Elka admits that she has had to deal with powerful men in the industry. "And those one-on-one conversations that happen behind the scenes—wow! The reaction is really crazy—complaining you are not being friendly enough." Samuels credits her survival in the industry to other powerful women who have reassured her about being unapologetic.
So, are things changing? "Yes!" Samuels exclaims. "Men are tiptoeing a little bit more now because they are being accounted for obvious discrimination. Some would say we have come a long way, but others. . .you have to understand the dynamics. The business of tap dance for women may have evolved, alongside of music and culture, but we are still dealing with people taking away our reproductive rights. We have the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter. So it is hard to say that we have shattered anything! The playing field has not been totally leveled because of who holds the power."
"Have women been discriminated against?" asks Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards. "Yes. Absolutely. But I am not sure that the doors have ever been closed for women, not really."
For Edwards, who was the sole female performer in the Tony-winning Bring in 'Da noise, Bring in 'da Funk and directed the rave-reviewed And Still You Must Swing which premiered at Jacob's Pillow, women have always been in the forefront of tap. "I know who I got to see growing up, and I know the male dancers we all look up to—most of whose teachers were women!" Edwards is also keenly looking at the women coming up. "I am trying to look at this next generation, and there are young ladies kicking it out. There are a lot of men out there, but they might be outnumbered right now by the ladies."
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.