Shock and awe are terms more tastefully and accurately applied to the emotions many New Yorkers felt on certain May nights in 1969, when Leticia Jay presented some of the greats of tap—men whose careers had flourished decades earlier. In the hot little Bert Wheeler Theater embedded in a West 57th Street hotel, we marveled over hoofers like Chuck Green, Rhythm Red, and Sandman Sims. Still nimble, happy to be in the limelight again, they made the wooden floor sing in ways most of us had never heard before.
The tap revival developed slowly but vigorously. Yet in the tremendous film, No Maps on My Taps, released in 1979, tapper Sandman Sims lamented the fact that young African Americans weren’t exactly lining up to learn the form their ancestors had perfected in this country, foot-in-hand with jazz.
A decade later, the musical Black and Blue lit up Broadway, and Gregory Hines started expanding the boundaries of the form, inspiring a snazzy-footed little kid, Savion Glover, who grew up to give us Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk and further push the envelope. Those hoofers from Sims’s generation still with us can marvel over the number of multiracial tap festivals occurring worldwide, and the number of young black Americans lacing up their sonorous shoes and seeking out the veterans.
Four of the youngsters now grace the Jazz Tap Ensemble, founded in 1979 by Lynn Dally, who melded the compositional chops she’d gained in modern dance with lessons learned from tapping with Honi Coles, Jimmy Slyde, the Nicholas Brothers, and other legends. JTE’s latest program at the Joyce features choreography not just by Dally, Slyde, and the late Hines, but by young hotshots Channing Cook Holmes, Ayodele Casel, and brother and sister Joseph and Josette Wiggans.
It’s a turn-on to watch them—and hear them—weave sound tapestries with their feet, usually in synch with the excellent jazz quartet led by the company’s musical director, composer, arranger, and drummer Jerry Kalaf. And for this season, nimble-voiced singer Kate McGarry joins Kalaf, Rich Eames on piano, Brian Scanlon on saxophone, and David Dunaway on bass, to further tease and enrich the musical texture.
The Wiggans siblings are gifted with long limbs; Joseph’s legs eat up space when he crosses the floor emitting a fusillade of sounds. Perky Josette is more contained, more consciously elegant, but her legs too fly. Casel, small and strong, hangs loose; her Delilah is especially juicy. Like Glover, with whom she has performed, she saves her smiles for ensemble line-ups and hunkers down into her dancing. Holmes is an easy-going powerhouse and rhythm master. Dancing alone, together, or in duets, they’re a delight to watch—showy when the number demands it, but mostly intent on their steps and taking serious pleasure in their dancing.
Even those familiar with flaps and shuffles, toe and heel digs, slides and scuffs, spins and jumps, and all the accumulated vocabulary of possibilities whoop for the intricacy, the speed, the variety of sounds, and the artistry on parade. The crisp, fluid Interplay, composed for JTE in 1995 by Slyde (with Dally and Derick K. Grant) seems spare (nicely so) when compared with some of the fancy stuff going down. Sometimes virtuosity makes the texture almost too dense (I felt that a bit during Josette’s “How My Heart Sings”). The most exciting numbers thin the mix occasionally with simpler steps, pauses, and repeating chains before plunging back into dazzling complications. Dally, veteran choreographer that she is, shapes a Monk trio “Misterioso” (part of the suite In Walked Monk) for Holmes, Wiggan, and Wiggan with elegant counterpoint and and shifting space designs.
In an evening composed almost entirely of high points and no low ones, I’d like to mention Holmes’s marvelous bout of “improvography” to Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg’s “April in Paris” with McGarry and the other musicians. In a solo like this, he shows that listening to the music and letting it be heard is as important as dancing. Holmes doesn’t simply layer his sounds on top of the tune, he weaves them in—his feet a percussion instrument jamming with Kalaf’s cymbals and toms, whispering with McGarry. He and Joseph Wiggan also perform a sensational a capella duet, beginning their challenges in the dark from opposite sides of the stage. One appears dancing; as he exits, the other pops out into a spotlight. In this playful dialogue, one guy starts his “sentence” on the other’s last “word,” and the whole piece escalates—including hand work on a small drum as well as elaborate foot conversations.
Tap is on the move, in more ways than one. The virtuosity ante has been upped. Yet the most satisfying aspect may still be the musical one: creating a rhythmic strand that enriches the heard texture and makes sound visible.