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Flash Review 1, 5-29: Tap Extravaganza
Collapsing Pianos, Legendary Tappers, Dha Fuzion, Jackie Chan, Jeni LeGon, Savion
Glover, Jimmy Slyde, and a Black Boa
By Jenai Cutcher
Copyright 2001 Jenai Cutcher
In "Tap!," a book by Rusty E. Frank,
Jeni LeGon says, "Tap's how I got started, why I got started, and it's how I intend
to end -- it's simply the love of my life." LeGon made that very clear Sunday
night at Town Hall for the 13th annual Tap Extravaganza. An annual celebration
of National Tap Dance Day, the extravaganza is both a showcase of performers and
a vehicle for presenting the Flo-Bert Awards, of which LeGon and Delilah Jackson
were this year's recipients. A new award introduced this year, the Honi (for Charles
"Honi" Coles), went to Jimmy Slyde.
After opening remarks by the co-chairmen
of the National Tap Dance Day committee, Al Heyward and Carl Schlesinger, the
Frank Owens Trio (Frank Owens, Lisle Atkinson, and Bernice Brooks) got the show
going with a tribute to Elvera Davis, mother of Sammy Davis Jr. The trio served
well as the evening's house band.
Following the Delaware Valley Jazz
Company, a group of 10 teenage girls who presented an award-winning competition
routine, tap cover boy Michael Minery delivered a solid solo performance. Throughout
his piece he explored a large range of tonality by employing every surface of
his shoe and exhibited an articulate rhythmic and musical voice. In terms of choreography,
Minery represented well the vocabulary of rhythm tap as it has progressed for
many dancers of the younger generation like himself.
Minery's performance contrasted nicely
with the four women comprising the Roy Wilkins Senior Center Dancers, who strutted
their stuff in white top hats and tails. Ranging in age from 60 to 80, they evoked
the essence of classic tap, working the shim sham and time steps with grace and
groove. Mildred Bishop, Catherine Gumbs, Marilyn Mosely, and Irene Thomas were
joined by Stanley Knight for an a capella solo bit. Although he could clearly
lay it down, Knight joked in the middle of his solo that he was "not gonna last
long." He begged off and the women brought it home with flair.
Cultural historian Delilah Jackson
received the first award of the evening. It was presented to her by film and radio
producer Jean Bach, who testified that Jackson's "knowledge of black history extends
throughout the century," and has been instrumental in preserving tap as a cultural
and artistic form.
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards closed the
first half of the program with an intelligent rendition of "The Girl From Ipanema."
Sumbry-Edwards began dancing with the masters at age eight and made her debut
on Broadway in "Black and Blue" at age 12. After touring with Lynn Dally's Jazz
Tap Ensemble, she returned to Broadway as the only female dancer in "Bring in
'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." Her performance here seemed to draw on these various
influences, combining the shim sham with some heavy hitting, cool with funk and
sass, and always charisma. Sumbry-Edwards is an assured dancer and musician who
commands the stage with an unobtrusive and honest demeanor. She mixes it up, knows
how to work the space, knows when to hold back and when to let it go, and appears
to be dancing equally for the audience and herself.
The second half began with a tribute
to the late Harold Nicholas following references by the Frank Owens Trio to Nicholas
Brothers standards like "Kalamazoo" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Photographs and
film clips reminded the audience of Mr. Nicholas's career, his legacy, and most
importantly, the twinkle in his eye. Harold Nicholas passed away just weeks after
last year's National Tap Dance Day festivities.
Following a commissioned theatrical
tap piece by Bob Audy, the piano collapsed. Whether this was merely an unfortunate
coincidence or someone's supernatural reaction is anyone's guess, but it did allow
some time for Heyward to distinguish certain guests in the audience such as Barry
Harris, Ernest "Brownie" Brown, Phase Roberts, Norma Miller, current "42nd St."
production choreographer Randy Skinner, and "Singin' in the Rain" director Stanley
Akim Funk Buddha and Chikako Iwahori
took the stage next (luckily, they did not need the piano) with excerpts from
"Dha Fuzion," an amalgamation of tap, martial arts, rap, singing, and more, with
aspects of Jackie Chan movies, call and response audience participation, and spiritual
influences. As the most experimental performance of the evening, "Dha Fuzion"
incorporated too many assorted elements to establish a clear statement, which
seemed to be the goal. It is, however, exploring some exciting material and Buddha
and Iwahori are on the right track for incorporating additional forms of movement
with tap. Funk Buddha added Balinese body popping to his torso during a tap solo
and Iwahori worked well with a sword and fan, simultaneously sending concrete
taps into the floor. The potential for tap to move in new directions is present
but awaits a bit more refinement on the part of these young choreographers.
Sorely missed from the night's revelry
was tap legend Buster Brown. As he was resting in the hospital, friends from his
Swing 46 Tap Jam taking over his spot in the show and sending him a Get Well version
of his trademark "Gotta Go Tap Dancin'," it became all the more evident why gatherings
such as this should take place. The stories that masters like Brown, Slyde, LeGon,
and others can share through speaking and dancing are what make the art form and
its past, present, and future so rich. Respect for them emanated from every corner
of the theater and hopefully the desire to pass on the tradition will, too.
The best examples of this education
came at the end of the program, beginning with Dianne Walker's words about Jeni
LeGon. As a performer in the segregated environment of the 1930s and '40s, LeGon
was a minority twice over as an African-American woman, but still managed to be
the first African-American to sign a contract with a major motion picture studio,
and danced in a film with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. As Walker eloquently stated,
she "allowed her artistry to overcome her adversity," and her spirit and dignity
still shine through to this day.
Overflowing with vibrance and joy,
LeGon looked like a kid on Christmas as she received her award and proceeded to
bring the house down in a duet with Walker. It was an untouchable and invaluable
exchange of entertainment and tradition and vitality, a moment made to elicit
overflowing pride for anyone claiming even the slightest bit of a connection to
The sexy Mable Lee separated the
award presentations with another classic example of pure entertainment. This eccentric
performer, whose career originated around the same time as LeGon's, bumped and
grinded in head-to-toe sparkle accented by a black boa, concurrently radiating
sensuality and humor.
The Honi award for Slyde was co-presented
by Coles's widow Marion, Savion Glover, and Glover's mother Yvette. Although the
verbal aspect of the segment was a bit disjointed, Savion Glover struggling for
words to express gratitude to Slyde, the message became clear in a duet between
the two, working in the language they both know so well. Improvising and imitating
and feeding off one another, their dance looked like an old game the two used
to play. In accepting the award, Slyde said, "I'm thankful that you remember and
continue to remember," and repeated that sentiment while dancing with Glover.
As all the participants gathered
back on stage for the traditional closing with the shim sham shimmy, LeGon announced
that they would perform her version of the step because "for years and years and
years there ain't been no shimmy in it." With drumsticks in hand, she directed
dancers and musicians in the most rousing version of the shimmy in a long while,
aided in part by Brownie Brown, who was literally pulled up on stage from the
If the audience had not realized
it before this point, there could now be no argument that shows produced by the
tap dance community are wondrous phenomenons. With missed lighting cues, open
microphones backstage, and crashing pianos, they are somewhat poorly organized,
but with emotional story-telling and history-in-the-making performances like those
described here, they are also beautifully improvised. Despite the flaws, and perhaps
even including them, hoofers know how to have a good time and honor their own.
The respect and dedication for the form and those that helped perpetuate it is
overwhelming and something every member of that community should treasure and
express with pride. As Slyde said, "National Tap Dance Day, National Tap Dance
Week, National Tap Dance Year!"
Jenai Crutcher learned to write about
dance by hanging around the dance department at Ohio State University and refusing
to leave. Upon graduating, she spent eight months covering news and arts events
for Columbus Alive, an alternative weekly newspaper. She recently moved to New
York City, where she feels right at home.
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