Dancing like a Girl: The New Tap Women Are Putting Femininity Back on the Boards

Article excerpt

In 1997, I sneaked into a rehearsal for Savion Glover's newly-formed company, NYOT's (Not Your Ordinary Tappers), and lay on the floor between two rows of seats in the theater to listen. I just assumed that the female voice amidst the conversations and laughter from the stage was someone from the technical crew or the press or maybe even a dancer's girlfriend. Seated in the audience later that night, when Ayodele Casel took the stage with Glover and the rest of the male ensemble, I realized how wrong I had been. The female voice was Casel's and it was suddenly speaking loud and clear through every heel drop, shuffle, and wing.

Whether she intended it to or not, Casel's tap dancing voice resonated far and wide. Her dancing with NYOTs was similar to the men's: crouched stance, leg movements that reached away from the body, and generating forceful sounds when hitting the floor. It didn't seem like a big deal to her at the time, but in hindsight, she sees how significant her presence was. It came right on the heels of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Glover's Broadway musical that turned the public's attention back to tap while introducing them to a new style, referred to in the show as "hitting." Noise/Funk, which ran for 1,135 performances and toured the nation for years, featured only male dancers in its cast.

"Once NYOTs came," Casel theorizes, "and Savion Glover had a woman addition to his group, people took notice. All of a sudden it became, 'Girls can do this, too!'" Nearly 10 years later, the girls have proven this many times over. Now they're discovering they can do a lot more than just dance like the guys.

Or as a guy. In terms of women hoofers at that time, one may have been overlooked for a moment, but certainly not because of her technique. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards wasn't such visible proof that a woman could dance as well as a man because she was dancing as a man. In order to step into the Noise/Funk role on Broadway, she had to "man up" by wearing men's clothing and assuming a more rugged attitude and posture. But in the revival tour (2002-03), she played female characters. "We were present in that history," says Sumbry-Edwards. "We were on the train, too!"

When asked how it felt to finally dance the choreography as a woman, Sumbry-Edwards sighs with relief. "It was a huge weight off my shoulders." And who needs that extra weight when you're rocking the high heels? In several performances since Noise/Funk, including Flight of the Bumblebee with Jazz Tap Ensemble, Sumbry-Edwards has garnered attention for "killing it" while wearing a skirt, heels, and a smile.

"That woman can do anything and she can do it in heels, which takes an incredible amount of technique in its own right," remarks Acia Gray, a tap dancer and artistic director at Tapestry Dance Company in Austin. After spending the first 10 years of her career tap dancing in drag, Gray is happy to see heels come back from the days of chorus girls at the Cotton Club. Yes, high heels are a different instrument when compared to the flat tap shoes dancers usually wear. And yes, many women fought long and hard to come down from them and be taken seriously as both dancers and musicians. Many emotions and opinions are wrapped up in this footwear comeback, but the heels now serve a higher purpose. Whether it's for the look, the sound, or the fun, whether a fashion, political, or historical statement, the shoes cannot be ignored. The high heels are tangible evidence that women are exploring what it means to be a woman within the art form.

Whether it was dancing in drag like Sumbry-Edwards and Gray or adopting masculine traits because the only role models available were male, women in the 1970s and '80s did what was necessary to get to the next level in rhythm tap. While women were burning their bras in the street, Brenda Bufalino, Lynn Dally, Dianne Walker, and others were lacing up flat taps in the studio. …