“She dances like a man,” an audience member gushed about one of the tap stars in Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels. I’ve heard it said of women tappers before, but what, exactly, does it mean? (Not to mention, why is it a virtue?) Is “masculine” dancing a matter of skill? Style? Stage manner? Does it mean hard-hitting, rather than fluid, rhythms and furious lower leg action stripped of ornamental line? The late Steve Condos, in George Nierenberg’s About Tap, says he’s an instrumentalist who focuses only on ankles and feet, yet Jimmy Slyde calls tappers “visual dancers” who “all make pictures” and Chuck Green advises using port de bras. So which style is characteristic of which sex?
If the answer shifts with the times, the question endures, as does the issue of women tappers’ status among their male colleagues, overall. For years, it was only the women who raised such questions onstage. Now, in Charlie’s Angels, Samuels Smith—a 29-year-old tap luminary and 2009 Dance Magazine Award recipient—gives it a whirl, but the social commentary distracts from the show’s truer heart: great dance of the present set to great music of the past.
The music is Charlie Parker’s bebop, featuring labyrinthine solo improvisations of dizzying speed and harmonic design. The dancing is Samuels Smith’s choreography: one tap for every nano-note, articulating the polyrhythms and echoing the melodic contours of each tune. Chloe Arnold, Michelle Dorrance, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, three bravura tappers, each with a unique sense of musicality and performance style, make music and pictures as they bring this high-voltage, thickly textured, foot-centered revue to life.
The action unfolds in close-up on a brightly lit platform at the front of the stage. But that cozy proximity is no preparation for the explosion of taps that opens “Donna Lee” and concludes, 50 breathless minutes later, with “Salt Peanuts.” The speed alone is wondrous, exhilarating, and the show offers much of it. More impressive is that the women pull some of it off in heels. Yet it’s the authoritative clarity of their rhythms—even when dancing in unison—that declares the dancers’ skill. And it’s the performers’ expressiveness, most vivid in their solos, that carries us along the show’s rising emotional arc. Arnold teases us, early on, with feints and mock-threatening stares (“Yardbird Suite”); midway through, Dorrance tosses off toe/heel clicks, suspensions, and riffs with deft comic timing (“Charlie’s Wig”); and Sumbry-Edwards “takes us home” with her achingly tender “Embraceable You.”
A noir-ish realm materializes upstage for interludes by spoken word artist, Craig “muMs” Grant, and saxophonist, Stacy Dillard. Dillard improvises a spare bebop homage; Grant channels a god-like Parker whose final, heated exhortation condescends to the “ladies” it’s no doubt meant to inspire. But then the tappers dance once again, borne, as before, by their own inner light. Like no one but themselves.
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. She has written about dance and Italian cultural events for Oggi Sette.