Tap dancing, that beloved but often overlooked American art, seems lately to be stomping right into the center of contemporary dance. Or better said, it’s sliding, rolling, smacking, and scrabbling center stage because it’s undergoing great change. It’s being quite literally re-formed. Reform is a word often associated with religious movements, and indeed this tap revival was launched with a missionary zeal.
The great hoofers of the past who invented this form taught it to a new generation during the ’70s and ’80s. That’s when I began tapping and, for me and many others, learning from the masters was a rite of passage. Honi Coles, Cookie Cook, Buster Brown, Marion Coles, Jimmy Slyde, and Leon Collins were giving us the gospel. Their protégés—Brenda Bufalino, Gregory Hines, and Dianne Walker—created a bridge to the next generation, which was headed by Savion Glover. Due to their efforts, real rhythm tap made it to Broadway several times. Gradually this period yielded to a more introspective time during which a group of brilliant virtuosi such as Jason Samuels-Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Chloe Arnold, Derick Grant, and Michelle Dorrance (most with connections to Glover) set a breathtaking new musical and technical standard. The focus was largely acoustic—tap dancing is a form of music—and these great soloists demonstrated astounding rhythmic acuity in improvisation. While formal choreography was sometimes present, it wasn’t necessary for showing these assets.
Parallel to the first wave of the revival in the ’80s, there was also a group of young experimental tap choreographers who came from modern dance backgrounds. They too trained with the hoofers, and I worked with two of them, Gail Conrad and Anita Feldman. (Their work is not well known today although their influences show very strongly in my work.) Conrad, a student of Cook’s, created surreal theatrical narratives in which characters tapped out soliloquies and conversations. She made her name with Wave/A Tap Dance Melodrama, in which a tidal wave sweeps suddenly into the living room of an archetypal American family. Her dramatic style featured gesture, a wide-ranging use of the whole body, and an appetite for the absurd. Feldman, who performed with Bufalino’s company, collaborated with new music composers who wrote the taps right into their scores. She also featured an eloquent use of the whole body and deployed elaborate choreographic structures. I danced with each of them for over a decade.
From Conrad, I learned that audible dance rhythm can be like a dancer’s voice; like speech. It can delineate social discourse. I also learned how rhythm can make things funny—or not. From Feldman, I learned about structure—how a group of dancers can share time without being in unison and how rhythm and space relate exponentially. I also learned that tap can be deliberately composed without intuition or reaction to music and that mapping rhythms could be an intellectual task. From both, I learned that simple rhythms and slow rhythms are just as vivid as complex and fast ones, and how, if one wishes to sustain a piece beyond five minutes or so, one must master the use of slow rhythms, simple rhythms, and silence. By including slowness, silence, and simplicity, the internal logic of a work makes itself felt and the dance gains impetus over time. Without these elements, an equilibrium can set in which allows the viewer to take the sound for granted. Just as a one-act ballet cannot be composed only of batterie or grand allegro, so must we slow down and shut up from time to time if we want to make a one-act (or longer) rhythm piece. The work needs to breathe.
Straddling contemporary and tap dance, and wanting to make rhythmic work for performers with diverse backgrounds, I made a choice to work without taps for the first ten years of my choreographic career. I treated the whole body as a musical instrument and, if you will, as a tap shoe. Therefore, I developed a vocabulary that amounts to a kind of barefoot hoofing. To dance it, you need a great sense of rhythm, but you don’t have to be trained in tap. It’s audible in the theater without taps because it’s built on weight changes that use body weight to project the sound. I also adapted the falls and floor work of American modern dance into percussive falling and prone floor-whacking using the body’s joints and corners—elbows, knees, palms, hips, buttocks, heads, and shoulders. I made pieces whose scores were percussive pointe work, toe tap, the ripping and smacking of Velcro, body percussion and, at times, vocal work. These were all made by the dancers live in the theater. They were dancing “to” themselves—but not, in the strictest sense—tap dancing. I generated simple but highly inflected rhythmic plans so that the relationships expressed through rhythm would be clear and intimate and the internal motor of each piece could be felt. I made sure the rhythms didn’t fall only into a musical groove but stayed dramatically pointed. This also gave dancers without tap training the kind of intimate connection to audiences that rhythm provides. It’s exhilarating. On a more practical level, this way of working means I can perform these dances anywhere. They require no special floor surface or microphones, and the dancers can shift instantly between a supple, silent foot and a loud one. Shifts in register can be made with ease.
Gradually, I brought in music of various sorts, larger groups of people and other blandishments, but the core of the process remained rhythmic/social exploration in silence first and music (if any) second. Then, gradually, I brought the taps back in. I was also interested in finding rhythms that moved right into language. I developed a tapped Morse Code alphabet and am currently working on tapping in free verse and iambic pentameter. Tap is intrinsically syntactic; it easily expresses assonance, dissonance, alliteration, rhyme, and onomatopoeia, but more than that it’s social and rhetorical. It’s good for arguments. It can be extended into a kind of aural mime free from literal gesture. This prosaic form with its humble roots lends itself to candid, sympathetic, emotional expression. The stress and intonations of speech come readily to the feet and one can heighten, contradict, and extend this with information articulated by the rest of the body. This body movement needn’t be “organic” or “functional.” It can, if you like, be completely contrived. It provides a powerful duality, playing the exalted off the common, creating irony and ambiguity. As a gay man, I found this especially necessary. Growing up queer, a person must be very good at masks, at pretense, and at playing dress-up. Artifice, for us, isn’t extraneous to human experience, it’s essential. By molding dynamic shapes in space over the rhythms of the feet and heightening the plasticity of the body, I was able to invoke my own experience with multiplicity of expression in any given moment.
None of this should seem heretical. I’m not a tap apostate. There is no implied criticism or rejection of other forms here. All of this comes from love. Old elements needn’t be excised for the art form to move forward, nor do traditions need to proselytize at the expense of new work. I seek out knots of rhythm and movement that drive human psychology. Others seek a more sonic experience. All are welcome. The form has always been elastic enough to encompass a variety of approaches from Astaire to the Nicholas Brothers to Eleanor Powell to Paul Draper. For me, tap is a component of a spectrum of elements in my work, sometimes, but not always, primary among my considerations. It seems that this cake can be both had and eaten.
I started by looking backward, and now I’d like to look around. Michelle Dorrance has created a body of work that has broken boundaries and prejudices on all sides. In 2011, she staked out her claim on the golden, sacred floor at Danspace Project with a whooshing, sliding dance done by squadrons of dancers in socks. Was it tap? I think so. Was it contemporary? Yes. Since then, she has continued her intelligent, big-hearted interrogation of the form and has become a leading experimentalist. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards overturned current gender display in tap by dancing proudly and fiercely in high heels. Josh Hilberman dances without shoes in a chainmail vest hung with taps in his sexy and hilarious The Warrior. Camille Brown’s politically driven Mr. TOL E. RancE is as rhythmic as any tap dance but contains no actual hoofing. Nicholas Young is tapping into new soundscapes with elaborate technology. I will work next with sound-conductive suits, which can be programmed to emit snatches of rhythm and dialogue when the dancers wearing them move. All of us working in tap need to be free to be flamboyant, transgressive, playful, and, if need be, barefoot. Tap’s vibrant heritage is in good hands and its future, finally, seems assured.