Tap Stars Reunite — and More October Dance

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“Lotus” tappers in action. Photo by Earnie Nicholson.

Dance — like music, like theater — is an enrichment. A generous dose, in three of its manifestations, is about to hit D.C., lighting up the spirits of area performing arts audiences.

Narrative ballet and dance will appear in the guise of Matthew Bourne’s production of “The Red Shoes,” at the Kennedy Center Opera House from Oct. 10 to 15. You may remember “The Red Shoes” as an art-house and popular film starring the elfin Moira Shearer, who dreams of becoming a ballet star. Now in the role is Ashley Shaw, a star of Bourne’s New Adventures company. 

It’s also time for a different and diverse local enterprise, the ninth annual Velocity DC Dance Festival, taking place Oct. 6 and 7 at Sidney Harman Hall.

Work by 19 dance companies and individual artists will be presented at two Saturday evening performances and a Sunday matinee, expressing the range of dance offerings, styles and genres. The productions are co-presented by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and Washington Performing Arts.

Participating in the festival are Company Danzante Contemporary Dance, El Teatro de Danza Contemporanea, Farafina Kan, Gin Dance Company, the National Hand Dance Association, Orange Grove Dance, Prakriti Dance, Rachel Shaver, Priore Dance, S.J. Ewing & Dancers, SOLE Defined, Therese Gahl, Urban Artistry, Heart Stück Bernie, Lucid Beings Dance, Capitol Movement, City Dance, the Washington Ballet Trainee Program and the Xuejuan Dance Ensemble.     

And then there’s tap.

For one night only, Saturday, Oct. 7, you can see the past, present and future of tap, tap dance and tap dancers, when six award-winning artists and performers — all of whom were part of the cast of the revolutionary Savion Glover production “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk” in the 1990s — reunite in a special performance in the Kennedy Center’s newly renovated Terrace Theater.

A tribute to this uniquely American genre, rooted in American history, the blues, gospel and jazz, the show, “Lotus: Stars Reunite to Celebrate the Art Form,” is directed by Joseph Webb, a tap artist, choreographer, actor and educator. Along with Webb and another D.C.-area native, Baakari Wilder, the cast includes Omar Edwards, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith.

What is it about tap? While its roots go back to vaudeville, minstrel shows and old Hollywood, tapping — to do it and excel at it, to watch it and go with it — has always had universal appeal. 

Joseph Webb.

“It’s like jazz,” said Webb. “The trick with it has always been to make it look it easy, while it’s actually really difficult. When you have a group tapping together, it works like a good jazz quartet. One person might start with a particular thing and then the others pick up on and work off it. It’s tight, but it’s improvising.

 “The thing that separates tap from other forms of dance is the noise. It’s syncopated. In fact, a lot of tap artist see themselves as musicians, not dancers, or in addition to dancing. You don’t just watch tap, you hear it. And that’s part of what makes it so enticing. It’s a percussion instrument.”

 For some reason, this writer is transported every time he’s in the presence of a tap performance — whether live, in the movies or on video. And the terminology of styles, types and moves is vividly descriptive and pungent, resurrecting the whole world of tap: the shuffle, the shuffle ball change, the hop shuffle, the flap, the flap heel, the pullback, the shim sham shimmy, the Lindy, the Cincinnati, the paradiddle and single- and double-toe punches.

It’s stars are legendary. The Nicholas Brothers got a whole new audience in the 1940s in the black-and-white film “Stormy Weather.” Tap’s popularity expanded even more when the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly took up the form. 

“My mother got me into dance classes when I was about 5 or 6,” Webb said. “So there was ballet, but there was tap, too. And I watched all those black-and-white 1930s movies, and later, you know, there was Gregory Hines and his brother Maurice.”

Glover’s production accentuated a new style of tap, one in tune with popular music, including hip-hop. “Yeah, I’d say that,” agreed Webb. “But I think tap is closest to jazz. You could say it’s a form of jazz.

 “I think there’s a fascination with it. It’s a joyful thing that looks smooth and easy. It always makes you feel good. I’m 38 now, and I’ve seen masters, the old guys, in their 70s, do it the way it should be done. People who do tap choose to do it. It’s a lifelong journey.

“I’d like to maybe see other things come from this particular event,” he continued. “We all kept up with each other, see other, stayed in touch, so we thought that this was a great way to honor tap itself. I have to say it was an amazing time. I was going to school in the daytime and coming to this big Broadway show at night. And I was only 19.”

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