In the Music

Savion Glover Taps Out the Information

For half his 30 years, Savion Glover's been considered the savior of the art of tap, anointed alike by old masters and the press. Only Gregory Hines received as much recognition, and he insisted that the future of tap lay in Glover's miraculous feet. When Hines died in August, the burden had to swell. Glover carries it into the Joyce for three weeks beginning December 16.

A three-week season is a mark of confidence the Chelsea theater normally reserves for those companies that return each year, like Pilobolus, or used to, like Eliot Feld's Ballet Tech. Tap companies are lucky to get a single week, and never on consecutive years; any one ensemble seems to satiate the appetite for tap groups in general. But then Glover isn't just any tap dancer. He's a star, and he's a man on a mission.

Glover's sense of responsibility goes way beyond teaching younger dancers. He presents tap as a serious discipline, stomping to pieces any limiting associations with old Hollywood or Broadway razzle-dazzle. "I plan to brainwash an entire generation," he once told an interviewer.

Essentially, he's a hoofer.
photo: Hassan Kinley
Essentially, he's a hoofer.

He’s not only concerned with correcting the popular conception of tap, though; he actually wants to make the form popular again, thrust it back in the mainstream, where it was in the '30s, when it acquired those limiting associations. He wants to bring it into rock arenas, Yankee Stadium, TV, and the movies. Other art forms, he points out, happen every night. Why not tap?

A commercial for Nike, a TV special from the White House, the opening credits for Monday Night Football—Glover's recent activities all imply the same message: Tap works anywhere. In his ABC special, he jammed with Stevie Wonder and Puff Daddy and gave a tap sermon in a Harlem church. He's infiltrated tap into albums by Prince and Abbey Lincoln and into Spike Lee's Bamboozled, tapping in blackface.

Such exposure should please an evangelist. Instead, Glover is troubled. "Tap is in a frantic place," he told Dance Magazine last year. "A lot of people want to do it. Those who see that it's popular can take advantage of this." For the past year, he's been touring with Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, the 1996 Broadway show he choreographed and starred in. In interviews, Glover has explained that since he didn't perform in the original national tour, he felt he owed audiences what they expected the first time. That first tour was "corrupted," he said, and he wanted once again to get out the "information," a word that seems to mean many things: the history of tap and African Americans as put forth in the show, the underappreciated achievements of the mentors he names in it, and ultimately tradition.

He seems most worried about "experimentation," and he objects when critics claim he’s redefined tap dancing. From Glover’s perspective, his hip-hop image (the dreadlocks, the baggy pants) is inconsequential. What he does isn't "rap-tap." It is, essentially, just hoofing. And he's not merely "holding down" the art; he's "protecting" it. Tap, to him, is sacred.

His famous remoteness from the audience reflects this attitude. Though it derives mainly from intense concentration, it's also a choice. Disgusted with the compromises earlier generations of black hoofers had to make, he equates entertaining with a loss of dignity. Glover can be charming as hell, but he won't "sell" anything. (This attitude extends to the press. His manager wouldn't return phone calls from the Voice.) The tap dancers who taught Glover were a second family to him—he's compared the tap clan to the Gambino's—and he's particular about who can join the club. "I'm not going to give anyone that feeling, like, come on in, yeah, it's open," he told the Los Angeles Times. "You have to want it." As much as he's committed to bringing tap to the people, he also believes the people have to come to tap.

So far, he's been surprisingly successful in having it both ways. His insistence that real tap happens from the waist down has redirected attention not just to the feet, but more importantly, to the music they make. Critics and audiences across America now understand that Glover is a jazz percussionist, expressing himself in rhythms and tones. His efforts have expanded tap's perceived range: where it can be performed, to what kind of music, giving voice not just to joy, but to rage and melancholy. And by inspiring a generation of imitators, he's effectively destroyed the idea that tap is a dying art.

These are extraordinary accomplishments, but artistically, Glover seems to be treading water. While the numbers he's choreographed for Ti Dii, his current company, have been lively and rhythmically intricate, they haven’t built on the breakthrough achievement of Noise/Funk—tap that communicated as narrative and as metaphor. The show's historical span required him to access a wider spectrum of the tradition than he has since. Perhaps he needs a story, a libretto, even one as shrill as Noise/Funk's. Or a collaborator. Rennie Harris, another choreographer concerned with transcending the limitations of a vernacular form (hip-hop), would be a tantalizing choice. Months ago, USA Today reported that Glover was signed on for a musical with Michael Jackson. Don’t count on that.

Ti Dii does mark one important development: Women make up half the company. Glover's first group was all-male; his second included one woman. The best feature of the recent Noise/Funk tour was the addition of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. When Glover traded phrases with her, or partnered her in a new, all-too-brief tap Lindy, you could see he'd met his match and was grateful for the challenge. Glover's choreographic use of gender difference hasn't yet grown beyond cute (here come the ladies!), but the inclusion of so many hard-hitting women shows a willingness to find talent wherever it appears. The company is also mixed-race.

Glover's greatest gifts, of course, lie not in choreography but in solo improvisation. And it is an improviser that he continues to mature. Hines taught him that tap dancing was drumming; these days he compares himself to a horn player and dances to the music of John Coltrane. Like Glover, Coltrane started out as a faithful apprentice only to emerge as a revolutionary, pushing many of the same boundaries—density, intensity, duration. Even when farthest out, Coltrane held fast to his roots. If, as Glover has remarked, the good kind of experimentation is "in the music," Coltrane showed the way, but that approach is unlikely to fill arenas.

"Improvography," the title Glover's chosen for his evenings at the Joyce, is apt. Hines coined the word to label his own mix of set steps ("pocket steps," hoofers call them) and spur-of-the-moment invention. The title, then, is an homage to a father figure, a description of method and a recognition of the challenges that face Glover as an artist.

Hoofers used to distinguish between the "closed style" they shared with each other in back rooms and the "open style" you needed to make it big. Such distinctions became irrelevant when the work dried up, but didn't disappear. In a sense, Savion Glover's career is an attempt to defy the old formula. One hopes that someday he'll be able to ignore it.

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