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."
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Thirty years ago, U.S. Joint Resolution 131, introduced by congressman John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY), and signed into law by President G. W. Bush declared:
"Whereas the multifaceted art form of tap dancing is a manifestation of the cultural heritage of our Nation...
Whereas tap dancing is a joyful and powerful aesthetic force providing a source of enjoyment and an outlet for creativity and self-expression...
Whereas it is in the best interest of the people of our Nation to preserve, promote, and celebrate this uniquely American art form...
Whereas May 25, as the anniversary of the birth of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is an appropriate day on which to refocus the attention of the Nation on American tap dancing: Now therefore, be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress that May 25, 1989, be designated "National Tap Dance Day."
Happy National Tap Dance Day!
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.