12 Jan 2009
Dormeshia, the Kennedys’ Role Model
by Melba Huber — Jan 12, 2009
In 1994, Arlene Kennedy said, “Today’s dancers are skillfully trained as technicians, but as performers, they are not entertaining. They do not have the role models. If we want tap to grow bigger than it is presently, they must entertain everybody, not just tap dancers.”
Fourteen years after that interview, the Kennedy family (consisting of Arlene, her brother Paul and their mother Mildred Kennedy Bradic) has heeded those very words and trained role models for this generation’s tap dancers.
Though the world knows Paul and Arlene Kennedy primarily for the tap dancers they have taught, they in fact train their students in all forms of dance; many have appeared on Broadway, on television and in movies. “The Wonder Kids,” a new documentary written by Jim Petersen and Pamela J. Richardson, tells the story of the Kennedy’s dance school. Narrated by Dick Van Dyke, it recently premiered in Los Angeles and New York. Special comments in the movie by Savion Glover explain the unique way the Kennedys have retained the hoofer style, while emphasizing an exciting performance presence.
The Kennedy siblings founded a dance school, Universal Dance Designs in Los Angeles, and operated it together for more than 20 years. Arlene continues to run the studio after her brother’s death in 2002. They taught the children of Sammy Davis, Jr., Bette Midler, Debbie Allen, the grandson of Al Williams of the Step Brothers and the granddaughters of Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers.
One of their former students, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, is considered one of the best tap dancers in the world.
“I think that Dormeshia is the most fascinating tap dancer in the world today,” says Robert Reed of St. Louis Tap Festival. “She has it all. She has the looks, knowledge, sensibilities of an artist and is extremely musical with poise, grace and strength. Every female tap dancer in the world should aspire to be Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. I am proud to say that the St. Louis Tap Festival was her first teacher, and I have watched her grow into a master teacher. She is the consummate professional dancer.”
Dormeshia began her dance career in the parks of Carson, CA with the Kennedys before they had even opened their school. “I watched her, at the young age of three, duplicate every step my brother taught to the older children,” says Arlene. “I told Paul, ‘take that one and work with her, she is truly gifted.’”
Dormeshia performed her first solo when she was five years old, at a large event, with a live band, hosted by Harold Nicholas. Other performers included Leon Collins, Sandman Sims and Dianne Walker. Present in the audience were names such as John Bubbles, Willie Covan, the Four Step Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers and Frances Nealy. “What a reception this talented, but shy, child received,” Arlene recalls. The hoofers who came to Los Angeles were definitely an influence on young Dormeshia.
“Arlene was quiet, and Paul had a huge personality,” Dormeshia said. “Paul was about style, presentation and technique, not just upper body, and he made it clear that technique and presentation went together. His choreography was not always complex, only when it needed to be. He made sure that the rhythm was there. He was animated and musically involved.”
“Arlene helped teach me ‘cool.’ She would tap you on the shoulder and say something simple. When I was eight years old my parents let me go to Rome with my dance teacher (Arlene) to the Tip Top Tap Festival. It wasn’t overkill; she made sure we knew our dances. At the performance backstage she said to Cyd Glover and me, ‘Kick ‘em out the back door.’ We had a ball. She helped keep me cool.” Starting from when she was 10, Dormeshia attended Gregory Hines’s classes when he would come to Los Angeles to teach, and this added more information to her developing skill set. Later, she had the opportunity to appear in sitcoms, the movie “Tap,” as well as the 1984 Olympics where she performed as one of the Copa Kids on the bill with the Hoofers, Copasetics and Peg Leg Bates.
Dormeshia recalls that Dianne Walker told the directors of “Black and Blue” about Cyd Glover and herself. The show was looking for two girls to dance with Savion. They had met Savion in 1984 on their trip to Rome. The producers traveled all over the world seeking two girls and finally came back to Dormeshia and Cyd for Broadway’s “Black and Blue.”
Despite her overwhelming dedication to dance and performance, Dormeshia did her homework every day, and school and grades remained important to her. Despite that, Dormeshia’s mother was extremely supportive and felt that if performing was what Dormeshia wanted to do, she should take advantage of being in New York. Soon, Dormeshia began classes at the Alvin Ailey School and Broadway Dance Center in all forms of dance.
Dormeshia became the featured dancer in “Wild Women Blues” starring Linda Hopkins. From Hopkins, Dormeshia learned the valuable lesson that mistakes on stage happen, and when they do, to move on. “Having fun on the stage in front of all these people who paid to see you is ok,” said Dormeshia.
Hopkins enjoyed the experience too. “It was such fun working with Dormeshia. I am happy to know that I have worked with the world’s best dancer. She is a beautiful person inside and out. She is beautiful to work with and I am very proud of what she has made of herself.” After “Black and Blue,” Dormeshia moved back to Los Angeles to finish high school and perform with Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble. “I learned how to improvise,” Dormeshia says. “I had taught class and done choreography but did not improvise. I would freeze up. I wanted to leave, I was afraid. Now, there was a section where I had to improvise. Derick [Grant, also a Kennedy dancer] was part of the company too and helped break it down for me. This forced me to get over the fear of improvisation. Prior to this I would do anything to avoid jam or improv. I wanted to leave, my heart would jump and I was nervous and freaking out. Look how long it took! I was 17.” One day, Dormeshia’s phone rang. It was Savion, whom she hadn’t spoken to in years. “Savion asked, ‘How do you feel about coming out and being a part of Noise/Funk?’” Dormsehia recalls. “Is he joking?” Dormeshia wondered. She hadn’t seen the show, but she quickly accepted.
Coming together for the show was an emotional experience for Dormeshia. Most of the performers were fellow classmates of hers, dancers she had grown up with. As the first female in the show, she danced as a man and wore men’s costumes. She began as a swing, working with Marshal Davis, learning all the group numbers. Later, she was offered the opportunity to join the tour, with two special numbers where she preformed as a woman in heels. She became a principal for eight shows a week.
Dormeshia was often asked how she could perform the same routines as the men in heels. She has helped answer some of the questions by teaching two sessions on the topic: “How to Dance More Effectively in Heels” and “Mastering Femininity in Tap Dance” at the Harlem Tap Studio at 401 W. 149 St. (www.harlemtap.com) that she and her husband, fellow tap dancer, Omar Edwards, own.
She met her husband, Omar Edwards, during “Black and Blue” when he would visit his cousin, Savion, and stop by to say hello to the other dancers he knew. They now have two children, Jeremiah, age nine, and Eboni, age seven, who is currently on Broadway in “Billy Elliott.”
“It is a dream,” Dormeshia exclaimed. “Is this really happening? I am so busy running her back and forth. I am extremely proud — a daughter doing a Broadway show! Eboni is enjoying herself. She is still a sweet little girl and still grounded.”
Arlene Kennedy watched and helped Dormeshia grow into the woman she is today. She is “strong, confident, mature, likable, passionate about dance, a studio owner, a mother, a performer and I am more proud than ever to say she is one of my daughters, not just in the dance world, or this community of the Kennedy Tap Family, but of my household with my mother and brother alike,” Kennedy said.
Dormeshia’s credits continue. She was nominated for best actress in the award-winning film, “The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang” and was the assistant choreographer for Spike Lee’s movie “Bamboozled.” She was a featured soloist in “Imagine Tap;” “The Rogers and Hart Story: Thou Swell, Thou Witty,” and Debbie Allen’s “Sammy.” Her choreography was featured in Michael Jackson’s music video, “Rock Your World,” and she is an official spokesperson for Capezio.
“Dormeshia combines the finest tap artistry with great performing ability,” says dance educator Joe Tremaine. “She is the consummate pro and a tap dancer extraordinaire. I watched her grow up with Paul and Arlene Kennedy.”
“Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards is the definition of a tap dancer,” says Bril Barrett from Chicago’s M.A.A.D. Rhythms tap company. “She has technical precision, amazing rhythms, fluidity of movement and style and grace. I know she is often called the female Savion or the best female tap dancer, but I think she is one of the best tap dancers in the world. Period.”
Dormeshia’s exposure to the tap legends, mixed with training in all the different art forms, plus encouragement from family, teachers and many others, helped her become the world class dancer she is today. Most of all, she will never forget Arlene and Paul Kennedy for their gifts to her and the world of tap.