Breaking Stereotypes

Women Rising: Has the #MeToo Movement Smashed the Glass Ceiling for Women in Tap?

Leticia Jay (back left) and dancers at one of her Tap Happenings. Photo courtesy Jane Goldberg's Changing Times Tap archive

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."

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards

"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."

Show Comments ()
News
Joe Lanteri teaching at Steps in the early 2000s

The iconic New York City dance studio Steps on Broadway has a new leader coming on board: Joe Lanteri. The New York City Dance Alliance founder will be Steps' new co-owner and executive director.

"For me, it's a big full circle," says Lanteri, who used to take class at Steps when he first moved to New York City, and started teaching there in the mid-1980s. The 4:30 p.m. Tuesday/Thursday Advanced Intermediate Jazz slot he held down for many years taught a slew of young talent—including choreographers-to-be like Jessica Lang and Sergio Trujillo. "As a young teacher, Steps was a platform for me to travel the world giving master classes; it became the underlying foundation for what I'm doing now in my life."

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Donald Byrd and Beth Corning share the stage for What's Missing? Photo by Frank Walsh, Courtesy Corning.

When I was approached to write on ageism in dance, I have to admit that after the initial honor of the invite, I suddenly felt old.

I guess I fit the "qualifications" to write this. I'm 63. I've been professionally dancing and choreographing for some 40-plus years, and, in the process, have accumulated a certain amount of perspective on the field. After 20 years running Corning Dances & Company, in 2000 I suddenly looked up and realized I was 10 to 20 years older than my company members. The layers of nuance I was craving were not there; their albeit lithe bodies understandably lacked a base of worldly experience and expression. I couldn't present the kind of movement or conversation I wanted onstage.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Nicolo Fonte's The Heart(s)pace. Photo by Sharen Bradford, Courtesy ASFB

Small- to medium-sized companies based in cities outside dance meccas—New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles—are often written off as "regional," or somehow lesser than their big city counterparts. But in recent decades, a few have defied such categorization as they've gained traction on the national and international scene.

So how does a company build an international profile without losing connection to its hometown? We asked the directors of Tulsa Ballet, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Sarasota Ballet to share their strategies.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Photo via Andrew Seaman/Unsplash

Dear Dance Magazine,

Thank you for demonstrating a commitment to transparency and evolution during this divisive time in our country. Over the past few years I have seen the Dance Magazine content reflect increased awareness about the value of inclusion and diversity in U.S. culture. It also has highlighted the need for the dance industry culture to self-examine and pursue constant revisions (just as dancers themselves do).

Keep reading... Show less
News
Ramasar and Catazaro, photos via Instagram

New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)

The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:

"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."

Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Natasha Sheehan says competing gave her a crack at rep beyond her rank. Photo by Erik Tomasson, courtesy SFB

As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.

"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."

Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Being an introvert doesn't mean you can't shine in the spotlight. Photo by Saksham Gangwar/Unsplash

Most people assume that for dancers to be successful, they have to be extroverts who feed off of constant attention. They figure that introverts don't enjoy being in the spotlight.

But don't let anyone tell you that just because you're introverted, you can't have a career in dance.

According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, the only real difference between introverts and extroverts is where they get their energy. Extroverts are energized by social interaction and drained by time spent alone, while introverts experience the opposite.

Keep reading... Show less
Editors’ List: The Goods

Longer ballet skirts are having a major moment. We've seen them popping up in the Instagram studio clips of dance fashionistas around the world—from American Ballet Theatre's Isabella Boylston to The Royal Ballet's Beatriz Stix-Brunell to Berlin State Ballet's Iana Salenko. And with cooler weather on the way, we have a feeling we'll be seeing even more calf-length skirts.

Beyond being trendy, long ballet skirts give any studio ensemble a sophisticated prima ballerina vibe (hi, Natalia Makarova). Try out one of these long skirt options.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Xenos, Akram Khan's final full-length solo, is an ode to the soldiers of World War I. Photo by Nicol Vizioli, Courtesy Sadler's Wells

We might have gotten a little bit carried away with this year's "Season Preview"—but with the 2018–19 season packing so many buzzy shows, how could we not? Here are over two dozen tours, premieres and revivals that have us drooling.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Mandy Moore at the 2017 Creative Arts Emmy Awards, during which she took home her first Emmy. Photo courtesy Inline/AP

Every year, as soon as the Emmy Award nominations are announced, the first thing I do is scroll down (way, way, way down) to find the nominees for Best Choreography. Last week's announcement was no different, and it was a delightful surprise to see tap queen Chloe Arnold become a first-time nominee for her work on "The Late Late Show With James Corden." Alongside Arnold, Mandy Moore, Travis Wall, Al Blackstone and Christopher Scott received nominations for their dances on awards heavy-hitter "So You Think You Can Dance." (Shout-out to Blackstone for his first Emmy nod!)

I do, however, have a bone to pick with the Emmys. Namely, that the routines for which these choreographers were nominated do not appear on the nominations section of the site. Worse, not even the episodes in which the Emmy-nominated dances appear are listed.

Keep reading... Show less
Rant & Rave
Photo Caleb Woods via Unsplash.com

Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.

When news about the lawsuit against New York City Ballet and Chase Finlay emerged last week, plaintiff Alexandra Waterbury, a former School of American Ballet student, told The New York Times:

"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."

It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.

But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?

Keep reading... Show less
What Wendy's Watching
Bill T. Jones' Ambros: The Emigrant. PC Paul B. Goode

Bill T. Jones is one of the few choreographers who can weave together social consciousness with choreographic inventiveness. This is visible in all three parts of his Analogy Trilogy, a 6½-hour marathon that comes to NYU Skirball Center on Sept. 22 and 23.

In this Trilogy, Jones goes beyond his own cultural identity. The first part, Dora: Tramontane, centers on Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who tried to help children during World War II. Her ordeal is told through interviews spoken by the dancers and envisioned in shifting scenes. The second part, Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, is about Jones' nephew, and his involvement in the underground world of drugs and sex in New York in the 80s. This section contains several gorgeously choreographed duets. The third part, Ambros: The Emigrant, is not about a real person but about the nature of trauma and memory.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Seyi Oluyole uses dance to radically change children's lives in Lagos. Via DreamCatchersDance on YouTube.

In Ikoradu, a part of Lagos, Nigeria, "The parents here don't believe in education," says Seyi Oluyole, in a video for Great Big Story. "They just want their kids to just sell stuff." Instead of watching the cycle continue, Oluyole took it upon herself to change these children's lives in a radical way.

Her method of connecting with them? Dance.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
Shankman on the set of 2007's Hairspray. Photo by Daniel James, courtesy Shankman

Adam Shankman came into the spotlight in 2007 when he choreographed and directed the movie-musical Hairspray and made his first appearances on the "So You Think You Can Dance" judging panel. But he was already more than a decade into his career as a choreographer and budding director. Today, Shankman is a Hollywood mainstay who has worked on scores of movies, TV shows and commercials, including dance classics like the Step Up franchise, which he produced. Next up: Directing the film What Men Want, which opens in January.

He recently spoke to Dance Magazine about his path to Hollywood and why the dance studio remains his favorite place.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Paul Taylor flying high in 1957. Photo by Radford Bascome, Courtesy DM Archives

The news of Paul Taylor's death two weeks ago at the age of 88 has sparked innumerable tributes to the choreographer. We were inspired to delve into Dance Magazine's extensive photo archives to see what images of the late modern dance titan were hiding there. We present a baker's dozen of our favorites from over the years.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Voices
Lucinda Childs' DANCE. Photo by Sally Cohn

Ten years ago I stood outside the New 42nd Street Studios near Times Square in New York City, freezing in a very long line, waiting to audition for Lucinda Childs. I thought about leaving after an announcement was made that dancers who did not register, like me, would not be seen. Today, I am on a plane home from Abu Dhabi where the Lucinda Childs Dance Company just gave its final performance of her 1979 masterpiece, DANCE, at The Performing Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. Lucinda will be the first to say that she asked to see all the dancers waiting outside in 2008, and I am certainly grateful to my 24 year-old self for sticking around to see what would happen.

DANCE is the first piece of Lucinda's choreography I learned and it was the first piece that her newly-formed company performed. The process of learning the work presented its challenges; there were tears and much needed pep talks from family and castmates. But I fell in love with DANCE, too. For close to ten years, I was fortunate to dance this evening-length work all over the world. I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to say good-bye.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Sergei Polunin joins the models dubbed the Balmain Army for the fashion house's Fall/Winter 2018 campaign. Photo by An Le, via Instagram.

Joining all of the fashion month festivities is Sergei Polunin—but you won't catch him walking down the runway. The dancer- turned-actor is dipping his toes into the modeling world as part of the campaign for Balmain's Fall/Winter 2018 collection in designs by Olivier Rousteing (known for his embellished creations favored by celebrities like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez).

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

You Might Also Like

477,305 likes

Sponsored

Viral Videos

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways