Theater archives

Trading on the Tap Floor


Dancing feet on 42nd Street will multiply in July as hundreds of hoofers arrive for “Tap City,” the second annual New York tap festival. For the tap “community,” the event is a family reunion — a chance to network, reminisce, bicker, and show off. For the rest of you, the week-long series of performances, opening July 8 at the Duke on 42nd Street, will demonstrate what the community takes for granted: a range of expression much wider than the forced gaiety and clichéd movements visible in the revival of 42nd Street playing a few doors down. As the 70-year-old veterans and teenage upstarts at the Duke will make clear, tap is in no need of revival. What it does need is a home.

Tap dance originated on 19th-century American streets, but it grew up with vaudeville and jazz. By the 1930s, when the world fell in love with it through Hollywood musicals, tap was everywhere. A few decades later, it had practically disappeared. The country had changed, nightclubs and theaters had gradually closed, and most dancers were forced to find other work. Still, the form did not die, and in the late ’60s it resurfaced on Broadway and in the occasional film, mostly as an object of nostalgia. Revivals of shows from a more joyful time required the earlier era’s dances.

In the ’80s, a younger generation found new venues on the modern-dance circuit and at tap festivals that mixed classes, panel discussions, films, and performances. These gatherings became annual occurrences in Denver, Portland, St. Louis, Chicago, Boston, and Austin, in Rio, Vienna, Helsinki, Tel Aviv, and Moscow. But except for Jane Goldberg’s groundbreaking 1980 “By Word of Foot” (and a few diminishing reincarnations), New York had no festival. This was strange, considering the city’s central role in tap’s history, but understandable given the difficulty of finding space and funding. In the early ’90s, the small Woodpeckers studio served as a center, but after it was forced to close in 1995, administrator Tony Waag, also a dancer, started dreaming of a permanent home for tap here, similar to the School of American Ballet or Jazz at Lincoln Center. Last year, drawing on the star power of Gregory Hines, he assembled sponsors and turned New York into Tap City. For a week last July, nearly 500 students from 20 countries participated in over 100 classes. Ninety performers and a small army of youngsters demonstrated a striking diversity of styles.

This year’s festivities begin with a tap jam on Sunday, July 7, followed the next day by “Tap Future,” a concert of young dancers. On July 9, a “Tap Internationals” evening will provide the best indicator of how the genre is changing.

Tap broke through in the ’90s with the emergence of Savion Glover as a virtuoso star. His fresh, contemporary style inspired a new generation. The dancers he influenced were by no means confined to a single race, but his hip-hop attitude drew young African Americans back to an art long tainted by Uncle Tom associations. Their return did more than cheer the old black masters: It shook up the entire form. “Tap Internationals” promises to show how tap is again being invigorated. It’s everywhere again, but in a new, global sense.

Since the ’30s, the films of Fred and Ginger and Eleanor Powell have seduced dancers worldwide into copying their steps. For almost as long, expatriate tappers have taught their styles abroad. At the 2001 festival, Germans Kurt Albert and Klaus Bleis paid tribute to Kansas City dancer Carnell Lyons (who moved to Germany in the ’50s) with a showstopping number, twirling waiters’ trays — as Lyons once did — while they tapped.

The international community grew rapidly as more American tappers traveled abroad to perform and teach. The American Tap Dance Orchestra (ATDO) found Russian dancer and actor Alexander Ivashkevich (who performs July 9) during a 1992 tour of Estonia. When Ivashkevich was growing up in Soviet Ukraine, tap was forbidden — too bourgeois. He learned what he could from films and Russian teachers; when ATDO arrived, he says, it was as if they had come “from God.” He spoke almost no English (“yes, no, and Coca-Cola”), but ATDO dance captain Barbara Duffy encouraged him to study in the States. In New York he washed floors and ushered in exchange for classes at Woodpeckers. By the late ’90s, ATDO director Brenda Bufalino had met enough dancers like Ivashkevich to start an International Tap Dance Orchestra (which Albert and Bleis joined).

The festivals help international tappers absorb as much as they can on short, intense visits. Some have started festivals in their homelands, inviting their American teachers. Last year’s “Tap City” revealed that influence is starting to flow the other way. Tap dancers from around the world have developed distinctive styles, which they now teach to Americans, watching them stumble through unfamiliar movements. Brazilians, in particular, are doing marvelous things, adapting tap technique to Brazil’s bounty of rhythms, letting their hips sway samba-style. While Glover and his imitators direct their intensity inward, most Brazilians flirt unashamedly with the audience. They make tap sexy, a feat that, among American dancers, only Gregory Hines seems able to pull off.

The tap community is now so international, in fact, that many of its foreign-born members hardly seem foreign anymore. The “Tap All-Stars” event on July 12 will feature French hoofer Roxane Butterfly and Austrian-born Max Pollak, two dancers whose improvisational skills give them as much right as anyone to the mantle of their mentor, Boston-based Jimmy Slyde. Pollak, who also studied with Lyons in Germany, and whose accentless English matches his accurately idiomatic dancing, takes the mixing of cultures a step farther. A student of Cuban music, he’s trained himself to tap within the complex, interlocking rhythms of traditional rumba and often travels to Cuba carrying hundreds of donated tap shoes, in order to teach as many eager students as he can.

The “Tap City” gala planned for July 11 offers not only the star power of Hines and Glover and the consummate mastery of veterans Slyde and Prince Spenser, but also Sarah Petronio, who’s American when in Paris, where she has taught for 20 years, but here is thought of as French. Also performing will be Tapage, a French-Japanese duo who mix their cultural heritage with their experience in ATDO. Last year, they danced to Mexican modernist composer Revueltas’s Sensemayá, an exercise that could have been pretentious but looked stunning, bringing tap as close as it’s ever come to the sublime.

Tap’s globalization is an inevitable consequence of passing the genre from person to person. “Make it your own” is the mantra. The July 13 performance, “Tap Masters/Tap Mentors,” honors this tradition, with dancers paying homage to their teachers. Last year’s “Masters/Mentors” contained the festival’s most touching moments: Marshall Davis broke into an unannounced solo in honor of the late Steve Condos, making a flurry of accents sound something like inconsolable grief. Ted Levy, swinging harder than one would think possible, danced for Buster Brown, the only master to be honored again this year. Brown, sprightly and generous to the end, died in May. But in the many tappers who will perform his “Laura” on Saturday, his dance lives. And not only in them.