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In the News > Bring in Da Tap, and Make It Last

18 Dec 2005

Bring in Da Tap, and Make It Last By CLAUDIA LA ROCCO Published: December 18, 2005 THE ceiling is patchy. A broken mirror leans against a water-stained wall. A dim neon tube illuminates the bare space. But the wooden floor at Fazil's Studio on Eighth Avenue in the theater district is basically sound, and Joseph Wiggan's eyes never leave its vibrating surface as his feet produce complicated, elegant rhythms. His arms arc out like wings as he slides and turns. Three other tap dancers hold the backbeat, punctuating it with an occasional "yeah." Later, Roxane Butterfly, who cut her chops attending Jimmy Slyde's legendary jams at La Cave in Manhattan, will drop in; at 35, she is one of the bridges to these great older dancers, many of whom have died. Mr. Wiggan, 19, started the $2Tuesday Night Jam with Maud Arnold last fall, inspired by the Los Angeles sessions run by Ms. Arnold's sister, Chloe? Arnold, and Jason Samuels Smith, who direct Los Angeles's annual tap festival. As they go round and round, taking turns as soloists, the dingy room recedes, and their circle seems like the center of a glamorous, romantic world. Generations of hoofers have practiced their art here at Fazil's, or in humble places like it. Now, building on the efforts of their elders, an ascending generation of dancers are aiming to raise tap to its rightful place of honor as a true American art form. And they are not taking no for an answer. "Regardless of whatever else is happening for tap dancers, careerwise, I'm going to be dancing - I know that," said Mr. Wiggan, an undergraduate at Marymount Manhattan College and a member of Lynn Dally's Jazz Tap Ensemble. His faith is a necessary armor. Even as tap's superstar, Savion Glover, opens what will no doubt be another dazzling, sold-out run on Tuesday at the Joyce Theater, scores of talented tap dancers hustle for gigs, and respect. Nine years after Mr. Glover's show "Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk" fundamentally altered the tap landscape when it hit Broadway, in 1996, there is still no consistent performance schedule beyond the growing but still small tap festival circuit pioneered by dancers themselves, events like Lane Alexander's Chicago Human Rhythm Project and Tony Waag's Tap City in New York. Most university dance departments, run by professors with modern-dance backgrounds, don't offer tap. Presenters, if they come calling at all, figure that dancers can tap just as well on whatever floor surface is available. Dance critics are often ignorant of its history and nuance; they "come with their modern dance or ballet goggles on, and it gets lost in translation," as the tap dancer Derrick K. Grant said. Ask a tap dancer what tap dance means, and you'll hear passionate soliloquies on its integrity, its political and social dimensions, its spirituality. Tap dancers start young and stay on the wood for decades. They are fiercely proud of their elders, many of whom went unheralded or fell on hard times - dancers like Fayard Nicholas, who was overwhelmed by medical and other expenses after a recent stroke despite a dazzling film career in the 1930's and 40's as one of the Nicholas Brothers. Tap's artistic tradition cannot be separated from its long history of hardship, from slavery to blackface to what some see as the continuing favoring of European traditions over improvisational African-American forms. "The people who carried that specific title had such a specific struggle," explained Mr. Samuels Smith, 25. "Being a tap dancer represents all of those struggles, and I feel a commitment, personally, to the title 'tap dancer.' " He does not, however, feel committed to struggling in obscurity. He is one of a number of younger hoofers pushing to expand tap's possibilities, from creating bigger shows to reinfiltrating television and film; he and Ms. Arnold are to appear, as tap dancers, in the finale of the forthcoming Outkast film "My Life in Idlewild." Many of these dancers exploded onto the scene with "Noise/Funk," including Mr. Samuels Smith, Baakari Wilder, Joseph Webb, Omar Edwards and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, that show's only female tap dancer. But they found themselves unable to build on the moment, and were often stereotyped as "hip-hop tap dancers," a ridiculous misnomer that disregards their strong ties to jazz and ability to perform with all musicians. In 1999, Elka Samuels, Mr. Samuels Smith's older sister and a tap dancer in her own right, created Divine Rhythm Productions. Founded in 1999, this New York-based talent agency is the first to focus primarily on tap, working with about 30 dancers, in addition to eight under exclusive management. Business is steadily improving, Ms. Samuels said, thanks in part to the efforts of younger dancers to connect with artists working in other media. Slowly, they are coming into their own, though establishing themselves as individual artists has not always been easy. "Savion used to be invited to every National Tap Day, and he would call us up," Mr. Samuels Smith said. "They got used to that and would bill us as 'Savion and Friends.' They treated us as if we were somebody's crew or second-rate." There were other growing pains for artists with egos to match their talent. Mr. Grant, who performed in "Noise/Funk" on Broadway, says the efforts of young men to impress Mr. Glover and prove themselves fostered a poisonous atmosphere. "To go from your neighborhood dancing school to a Broadway stage - with that ride came momentum, intensity, and then the next level was the machismo: out to prove, out to prove, out to prove," he said. "We took it upon us to decide what tap was and what it wasn't, and ridiculed others for not being that." Now married with two children, Mr. Grant, 32, has no patience for narrow attitudes. "At this stage in my career, I'm not sure I want another 50 years of this, of waiting for festivals to come up, arranging my little club dates," he said. "I've stopped expecting other people to solve the problems. For many years we sat around the campfire and everybody vented. We can do that till the cows come home. We have to take responsibility." In August, Mr. Grant's musical revue, "Imagine Tap," opens in Chicago for a six-week run. Having secured financial backing, he hopes to generate new energy for tap through an inclusive, over-the-top extravaganza. "It's my attempt at creating an environment in which all different disciplines and styles of tap dance can share the stage and coexist," Mr. Grant said. "The inspiration came from the divide in the community, where it seems everything is black or white, male or female, old or young. I'm trying to create something that could celebrate all of those things." He is also trying to move away from what he calls the nucleus of the problem with tap today: the belief that the form can't cultivate younger and bigger audiences while staying true to its roots. In an interview, he stressed the word "commercial" as if breaking a taboo. "As soon as I say that, everybody winces," he said. "Nobody wants to compromise the art form." "I don't think I'm compromising my art form by trying to make it popular," he said. "With tap, you can be righteous, but you're going to be poor and righteous. I guess we're keeping the form pure by dancing in smoky clubs that only seat 100 people. But right now tap is just a little romantic thing, that old forgotten folkloric thing that people used to do and, rumor has it, some people still do." Ayodele Casel, a dancer and actress, said that fears of selling out come, in part, from decades during which African-American tap dancers were ignored in favor of white dancers. "Nobody knows that Fred Astaire was taught by John Bubbles," she said, adding that the slights and inequities led tap dancers to turn inward, claiming their art as the true tap dance. Indeed, the idea of truth comes up often when dancers speak about tap. Marshall Davis Jr., another "Noise/Funk" alumnus, who is now an adjunct professor teaching tap at Queens College, worries that the push to drive tap into the mainstream could water down the art. "I think a lot of people want to be Savion," said Mr. Davis, 28. "Before, everyone was tap dancing because they had a true love and passion. Now, people love it, but they also see it as a way to be famous." But others worry that self-protection can become a straitjacket. "We are entertainers, people!" Ms. Casel said, laughing. "We are artists, yes, but we are entertainers. As much as I like practicing in my kitchen, I would like to share it." Ms. Casel will be performing her show "Diary of a Tap Dancer," at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington next month. She began tapping only when she was 19, but at 30 she has danced everywhere from the White House to television spots for "Monday Night Football." She and Ms. Arnold, 25, were fixtures on the "Noise/Funk" scene, memorizing the choreography and jamming backstage with the men. Establishing themselves as hard-hitting improvisers comes with its own challenges: Ms. Arnold cites producers who want women to do simple steps, and look pretty, while "the guys do the nitty-gritty." Ms. Casel researched the history of female tappers after one too many shocked responses when people learned that there was such a thing as a female hoofer. She is planning a show on their story, among other projects, which she describes only as "big things" on the horizon. For this generation of tap dancers, hurdles or no, the horizon is now. "My wife and I don't work at the Wiz, we're tap dancers," said Omar Edwards, who lives in Teaneck, N.J., with his wife, Ms. Sumbry-Edwards. Mr. Samuels Smith called her the most underrated tap dancer of her time. She says she has a project or two in the works. Mr. Edwards performed for a cultural exchange group at the Japan Society last week with his new band, Seven Less, accompanied by two students, ages 9 and 10, and cheered on by LeRoy Griffin, an 83-year-old Harlem hoofer. Like many tap dancers, Mr. Edwards sees himself as a musician and estimates that his album "Tap Dancing Is Music," recorded with a previous band, has sold 5,000 copies. Whether touring in Japan or dancing on a Manhattan street corner, he sees limitless possibilities for tap. "I'll go to the street when I don't have any money, and I make $300 in a day," Mr. Edwards said. "A person who has taken tap dancing to the artist's stage should have absolutely no problem existing as such. This is America."

Claudia La Rocco