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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 Donen.

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 tap dance.

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 house.

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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