Tap Roots

Article excerpt

Savion Glover

It's a shame that Savion Glover is trying so hard to hide from the world, because he's the greatest tap dancer who ever breathed. Glover is touring the United States and Japan through June 2003 in his show Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, which won four Tony awards when it was on Broadway in 1996; but he has significantly reduced his dance time in it, giving over the important role of 'Da Kid to an adequate but unexceptional 12-year-old tapper named Cartier Williams, a member of Glover's tap ensemble, Ti Dii.

Noise/Funk attempts in two acts to tell the entire history of the African-American experience with songs, tap, voiceover narration, projected photographic stills, a drum-heavy orchestra and other percussion (pots and pans, etc.). All these elements are meant to come together synergistically into something called "'da beat"--a driving force apparently (in the show's mystique) unique to African-Americans. In the show, Glover and co-creator/director George Wolfe make fun of such tap legends as Bill Robinson (who appeared in many Shirley Temple movies) and the Nicholas Brothers for having sold out to white Hollywood with their "flash and grin" style. Of course, the ensemble tappers aren't able to replicate the genius of these famous dancers, so the mockery falls particularly flat. (For a beautiful homage to Robinson, see Gregory Hines's film Bojangles, available on video.)

Glover embodies so many contradictions that he draws energy from their mutual combustion: He looks and dresses like a child, although he's 29; he loathes performing, yet he plays an audience like a piano, knowing exactly which effects will elicit the most applause; he believes tap is music, that it should be heard and not necessarily seen, yet, with his beaded dreadlocks that fly around his head as he turns, his brightly colored baggy cutoffs that accentuate the extreme length of his legs, and his height-enhancing woolly Rastafarian hats, he puts on an eye-popping display. He says everything from the waist up doesn't matter in tap, yet his upper body moves with exquisite balance and counterpoint to his lower half: He often dances hunched over, with rounded arms and cupped hands like an angel's wings canopied over, framing, as it were, the miracles he's doing with his generous feet. His reedy shins and calves, microphoned ankles in bunched white socks and loosely held feet in black tap shoes suggest a heraldic falcon's talons, which alternately fly from and hammer into the floor. Glover is so at one with his shoes that you are always aware of his toes, front pads and heels, each part creating different percussive sounds. His shoed feet are prehensile. Glover works the floor and the air much as a great pianist works the keyboard: Energy, tone and inflection emanate from his body's center--the base of his spine--through his limbs, then extremities. It's all touch.

In late November, I went to the Providence Black Repertory Company in the beautifully restored downtown of the port and capital of Rhode Island (the first state to prohibit the importation and trading of slaves, in 1774) to see Glover give what was billed as a half-hour lecture demonstration. (Why only a half-hour? I never found out.) The event was by invitation only and the place was packed, downstairs and on a balcony with a view of a small, banked, empty stage. I was happy to see so many young people but not surprised that there were hardly any whites, judging by the "invitation only" format and by the fairly ugly Afrocentric message intoned throughout Reg Gaines's wordy--to the point of drowning out the tap--libretto to Noise/Funk. …