Tap Tips from the Old School. (Young Dancer[R])

Article excerpt

You are tapping in your bedroom, in the bathroom, even the shower. You are practicing your paddle and rolls at the subway station, at the bus stop, waiting for the train. You have pictures of Gregory Hines and Savion Glover hanging on your walls. You are most definitely one of today's tap dance kids.

There are a lot of you out there. So when the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day decided to gather some of the top tappers aged 21 and under for a one-night-only show in March at Manhattan's Town Hall, it wasn't too difficult to find fifteen young dancers for the bill.

Ever since the movie TAP, starring Hines and Sammy Davis Jr., and Glover's Broadway hit Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, the image of tap has changed. To use a word coined by Glover, it's "hittin'"--aggressive, loud, and fast as opposed to light, laid-back, and mellow. But it's also down to earth, less about entertaining and more about playing the feet than the style Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire practiced. Many of the tappers in 21 Below! have an aggressive, modern edge and cool Miles Davis-like detachment. And yet in this show they were improvising to old jazz standards--no funk or hip-hop--and are going back to the masters to uphold, to learn, to heed. It makes for an interesting mix. Young tappers want to understand and, in some cases imitate, their elders but find their own sound, too. As Constance Valis Hill, a tap dancer, writer, and scholar, told a young journalist to my right during intermission, "Tap is the cutting-edge art form!"

Savion Glover, who is an inspiration to many of the 21 Below! dancers, was originally scheduled to host the show but couldn't because of a scheduling conflict. He was replaced by Jennifer Holliday, who starred in Broadway's Dreamgirls. Her appreciation for old jazz and hoofing and her singing voice made her a perfect emcee. She improvised to the live music of the Frank Owens Trio during two of the tappers' numbers.

Holliday wasn't the only celebrity present, however. One of the last of the old-time hoofers, Buster Brown, was a special guest. (At the close of the show all fifteen performers danced a shim sham in his honor.) Many of the dancers in 21 Below! have had a chance to get their "chops" at Brown's weekly jam sessions, held every Sunday at a club called Swing 46 in midtown Manhattan. Tap dancers come to these sessions from all over South America, Europe, Canada, Japan, as well as the United States. There is a supportive, enthusiastic feeling in the room--no "cutting sessions" of the old jazz age where dancers competed at being the best.

One of the regulars at Brown's weekly sessions, and a dancer in 21 Below!, is 15-year-old New Yorker Michela Marino Lerman, who, wearing Capezio K 360s "built up" to make louder taps, practiced her improvisations to old jazz before going onstage. At 21 Below!, she and Holliday jammed together to Duke Ellington's "Come Sunday," a tune that was first tapped to by the legendary Bunny Briggs. Lerman also danced an adventurous rendition of "My Favorite Things," inspired by John Coltrane's version, that moved from waltz to swing-time rhythms. …