Tuesday, July 16, 2013

My recent tap excursions

Well, it's been an interesting few weeks gone by with tap, ending this last weekend with "Tap It Out", the close out event of Tap City: The New York City Tap Festival.  So, let me start by going backwards and begin my little coverage of these events with last Saturday

Saturday, July 13th
Andrew Nemr, co-founder of the Tap Legacy Foundation and Artistic Director of the tap group
Andrew Nemr, with
 Craig & Susanne Sparks dancing
CPD/Plus, performed 3 sets between 12 pm and 3 pm with a trio of musicians at Ritz Plaza Park  on 48th St.  I caught the first set which was a nice blend of taps and music.  The environment of the small
tucked away park and the gentle breeze of a summer day made for a relaxing scene.  It was truly a music event with Andrew as the fourth musician on taps.  In fact, it was billed as the Andrew Nemr Quartet.  A little swing thing got going at one moment and a couple came out on the "floor" to do some swing dancing as the music played.  At the end of the set I headed to my next outdoor tap event, that was near by.

Tony Waag and dancers
Tap City is the annual New York City Tap Festival produced by Tony Waag and the American Tap Dance Foundation.  The festival runs for about a week with classes and events culminating with "Tap It Out" in Times Square where a bunch of dancers (who had been rehearsing and learning their moves all week long) tapped outside led by Mr. Waag.  It was fun seeing the faces of people of all ages and skills smiling, and sweating, as they did a couple of a cappella routines to Tony's conducting.  It was enjoyable to see something that was not about virtuosic performance but rather about people having a good time, whether dancing or watching.  All those people can say they literally danced on Broadway!

Wednesday, July 10th
I have written before about the weekly tap jam run by Michela Marino Lerman at Small's Jazz Club on 10th St. in Greenwich Village.  This was the fourth anniversary of the jam and the place was packed, probably because of the fact of Tap City going on, so many tappers were in town to drop by.  It was so crowded that I decided not to dance and just hang back to watch and take in all the action.  As I sat in the back I also used the time to catch up a bit with Michela's parents, Jim and Terry, two people who love good music, love tap and continue to support their daughter's creative endeavors.  She is continuing the legacy set down by Buster Brown years ago and as I watched the evening move along, for the short time I was there, I reflected on first meeting her and her parents when she was 11 and seeing her now at 27, with many possibilities still ahead, I wonder where her journey will take her.  It's a thought I have about a lot of the younger dancers out there today.

Tuesday, July 9th
Speaking of Michela, I had seen her the night before at the awards ceremony that was part of Tap City. Awards were given to Sally Sommers, Barbara Duffy and Dean Diggins.  Awards were also posthumously to Paul Draper, Ernie Smith and James "Buster" Brown.  I had the honor of presenting Buster's Tap Dance Hall of Fame Award, which Michela accepted on behalf of Buster's family.  I am always learning more and more about people in the world of tap and never knew of Dean Diggins before.  It was interesting to learn of his background and relation to Paul Draper, whose Hall of Fame Award he accepted, in addition to getting his own award.  There were dance numbers and video clips for the other honorees, which at times I felt went on longer than necessary, but overall was a pleasant evening that brought a lot of people together.  But I have to say this, when you're giving a acceptance or presentational speech in an evening where a number of people who are going to talk...get to the point and keep it short!  These things can too easily drag on and because counterproductive in the effect it has on an audience.  Okay, I've spoken my piece....it's the stage manager in me.

Wednesday, June 26th
What can you say about Savion Glover?  I'm really not comfortable in calling someone a genius or the very best in their field, but suffice it to say Savion stays on point and does what he does his way and
keeps at it ...his way.  His show "STePz" at The Joyce was just outstanding and the tightest of all of the shows I have seen him do at that venue over the years.  He was joined by Marshall Davis, Jr. and three stellar woman dancers, Ayodele Casel, Sarah Savelli and Robin Watson.  All the numbers were done to recorded music and it covered a range of genres and time periods from Miles Davis to "Mission Impossible" to Stevie Wonder to classical music.  Savion and Marshall had their moments together that showed a partnership and kinship on stage that I don't often see.  It was particularly evident when they each danced on a separate set of stairs placed on the two sides of the stage.  At times they were in tandem with each other on each set of stairs and at other times they sort of challenged each other back and forth, doing some moves up and down those steps that were unbelievable.  But the moment that got me the most was Savion's solo to Sammy Davis, Jr's recording of "Mr. Bojangles".  He just covered the stage with steps and memories and references to dancers past that many of us knew.  I couldn't help thinking about Sammy, Gregory, Jimmy, Buster and Harold as I looked at the stage.  What also was evident through the evening were other references to dancers who have passed on, through steps and vocal riffs some of the dancers did on stage.  Ayodele, Sarah and Robin each had moments to "show their stuff" and it was nice to see the uniqueness of each shine.  I had one of those $10 seats in the first row, which I like because I may not see the whole stage (when they went upstage I didn't see the upstage stairs at first that some danced on), but I could see their faces up close and see all the little interactions they all did with each other.  There were moments when Savion would pass someone and slide his hand behind his back to slip another dancer "5" as they passed.  When some dancers were not in a number, there were times when they would still be on stage to the side checking out what was happening while quickly adjusting their outfits.  I could see and feel the community that was on that stage and it felt good.  They all seemed to be having a good time and had each others "back".  I came away inspired.  A friend of mine who saw the show said she couldn't stop smiling for a while after the show was over.  It was genuine.  If you missed it, you have a chance to see it again this November.  The show will be at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College on November 2, 2013 (http://www.brooklyncenteronline.org/)...GO!!

Post  June 26th "STePz" show  hang in the lobby of the Joyce.

What I missed
Because of the heat, I didn't get to Laraine Goodman's "Tap and Roll" out door tap jam on July 6th, I didn't see Ryan Casey's show, "Transitions", also on July 6th and I didn't get to see "Michela and Friends" at the Harlem Meer on July 7th.  Can't make 'em all, but one can try!

All photos by Hank Smith

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thoughts on Harold Cromer

When my dad died, over 20 years ago, I remember thinking nothing would be the same again in my life.  The first of my parents had passed on, I lost part of my world.  When my mom followed 10 years later, I felt I had no core or "North Star" to be my base or guide.  I obviously am not the only person to experience this, but I've been feeling a similar response to the transition of Harold Cromer this past weekend.  He was the last male link I had to a certain era that has been long gone, an era of history and show business.  I also realize that I have been so emotional for the past few days because Harold, like my father, grew up in a part of Manhattan called Hell's Kitchen and he had a particular New York City accent (I think most people would not have noticed) from long ago that my dad also had.  So there were times when talking with him was like talking with my father.

Harold Cromer was the fifth African American male tap dancer who had an influence on my life and art.  The first was a man whose name I only remember as Mr. Dow.  He was my tap teacher at Mable Hart's Dance Studio in Harlem in the late 1950s, where I learned to tap dance in my late adolescence.  I did it only as an activity, like some kids were doing in learning piano, and had no interest in doing it as a living but always loved it to see and do.  Time went by and I went to college, studying TV production so I could direct variety shows (a popular TV genre in the 50s, 60s and 70s).  I actually began college in Pre-Engineering, but that's another story.  Now the thing is, I was a closeted performer who wanted to be near variety productions but fearful of being IN them.  Well, eventually I did wind up performing mime (another long story) while working in TV and in my late 20s decided I wanted to get back to tap.
In the 70s I discovered Tony White and studying with him got me back to tapping.  By this point, I had a knowledge of African American performance history and soaked up what Tony knew beyond just teaching steps.  The third person was Charles "Cookie" Cook, who started teaching at a place called Clark Center.  Tony was a mentor, but Cookie became even more of a mentor and introduced me to The Copasetics.  So, in my 30s I got to perform tap with Cookie and others of his students in some shows we did.  I also continued to soak up stories from Cookie as I had done with Tony.  By the late 90s the man I got to know very well, more as a colleague than a mentor, was James "Buster" Brown.  He was the one who really helped me gain confidence to be on the stage and really do my thing, which he also did for a whole bunch of people!  It's during this time that I began to "get out there" and develop my style as a performer and entertainer, in my late 40s into my 50s.  After Buster died, Harold took over the host job at the Swing 46 tap jam, that Buster had started, and this is where I got to know Harold.

Now, all of these guys had distinctive personalities and Harold, needless to say, had a real particular one.  He could drive you nuts sometimes....or a lot of the time.  He was adamant about a lot of things, often said exactly what was on his mind, without censorship, and would say it on and on and on!  I admit there were times when I could handle but so much of "Harold time" and some of his humor, but the thing is he just had points and information that he felt really needed to be out there.  Particularly in regard to the image, depiction, history and representation of African Americans.  He knew a lot!  So, the challenge would be to put up with him sometimes because there might be something worthwhile coming out of his outbursts.  He had done a lot of things in show business and had seen a lot and a big reason I'm going to miss him is because I could come up with a name of an actor or performer that most people know nothing about (yeah, I'm a bit of a show biz geek/nerd when it comes to certain trivia) and Harold would not only know who I was talking about, but probably had personally known the person, too.

Some of us would often hang together in the Westway Diner on 9th Ave., which was convenient for Harold since he lived a block away at Manhattan Plaza.  He always liked company and eventually a tradition developed of some of us tap folks gathering with him at Westway on New Years Day.  Actually, it was usually just me, Toes Tiranoff, Megan Haungs and sometimes Traci Mann who would show up to be with Harold.  That Westway "hang" thing, which began with Buster after Swing 46 sessions, was legendary in what would go on.  We sometimes developed shows that we wound up doing at Cobi Narita's "Cobi's Place" while sitting at a table eating.  One show we did included Harold and I singing Cole Porter's "Well, Did You Evah?", which came about from a conversation he and I had a Westway "session".

There are too many memories to try and relate here, plus I already may have run the risk of going on too long to hold your interest.  I'll just mention one memory about the college where I teach, Bloomfield College.  Harold came a few times to be a guest in my class, "African American Performance History", thanks to the assistance of Hillary-Marie Michael, who was always able to get him there.  We usually had a good time during those visits, where we would talk and I'd show pictures and videos I have of him.  In 2008, The College gave him an honorary doctorate and from then on he was Dr. Harold Cromer.  He gave a speech at commencement that a few of my colleagues on the faculty still talk about as being inspirational and unforgettable, even though at the time I was very concerned would be too long!  But Harold seemed truly moved to receive it and I'm happy that I had something to do with him getting it.  In true Harold form, when he was given the degree and the Dean put the sash over his head, to go around his neck, he joked that for a moment he wasn't sure what was happening (alluding to lynching imagery).  It was a great day, with a number of tap folks showing up for the occasion.

I just needed to write something to help process his passing.  Many have been touched and affected by him and more information will be put out there about him.  Below are some clips of and about "The Captain"

Harold with The Hoofers (Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde & Lon Chaney)

Harold rehearsing his choreography, "Opus 1"

Harold receiving honorary doctorate from Bloomfield College, 2008

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Harold Cromer stories

I'm still processing the news of Harold's passing last night, and will have a post up with my thoughts/memories/feelings about him.  But I'd like you to contribute a story or anecdote about Harold for all to see.  Just click on "post a comment" and share something.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The year so far...

Well, no new postings since last September.  You can see that September to May is basically one school year (college-wise that is!) and that's the reason for no posts.  I just get too busy with the responsibilities at Bloomfield College, where I teach, to keep up with the blog.  But hopefully after next year I can stay on top of it more.  Yeah, it will be "retirement" time for me....well, from the college, but not from life!!

May just ended a few days ago, a month traditionally filled with a lot of tap activity, mainly because of National Tap Dance Day.  It also sort of ended the first half of a year of fascinating tap dance performances and events in the local NY/NJ area.  So, here's my brief take on Tap 2013 so far, at least what I got to see or participate in.

Michelle with Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards
and Dormeshia's daughter, Ebony, post-show at
St Marks Church
January:  The year kicked off with Michelle Dorrance & Dorrance Dance at St. Marks Church in the East Village.  The full evening piece, " SOUNDspace", was quite inventive with a large cast of performers.  The floor of the church is not conducive to using metal taps, so the dancers performed in
socks, bare feet, and shoes with leather and/or wooden soles.  It gave for a nuanced sound.  I like Michelle's work because it goes beyond just straight tap dancing and she has a nice sense of humor and adventure.  This summer she's being given the 2013 Jacob's Pillow Dance Award of $25,000 to acknowledge her artistic work.  Well done, Michelle!

February:  My good friends, Michael "Toes" Tiranoff and Megan Haungs, arranged a show at Zeb's
Toes and Megan rehearsing 
in mid Manhattan called, "A Love Supreme:  A Celebration of the Spiritual Music of John Coltrane".  It was a big line up of singers and dancers who performed with the back up of The Sugar Hill Quartet, led by Patience Higgins.  Toes and Megan have been in San Francisco for a few years attending and performing at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.  Their experiences there, incorporating tap in the services, inspired them to do this show.  In fact, they have both been appointed Ministers of Tap Percussion Dance by the Church and Megan is now starting something called, The Sacred Tap Dance Project.  The spirit of tap stays alive!

Khalid Hill and Jason Janas
warming up backstage of
"Rhythm is Our Business"
 March:  The American Tap Dance Foundation mounted two shows, "Rhythm is Our Business" and "Rhythm in Motion", at The Theater at the 14th Street Y.  I had the pleasure of performing in "Rhythm is Our Business" and it was a great experience.  It was just a basic straight out show of
entertainment, about one hour long, that gave the audience a good ole time.  Directed by Derick Grant,
with choreographic contributions of Dormesha Sumbry Edwards, it had chorus line dancers, comedy, killer tap numbers and headlined by the one and only Mable Lee.  At 91, she is literally still kickin'.  The musical director was the great Frank Owens.  "Rhythm in Motion" was a collection of contemporary tap pieces that had a wide range of material.  Some pieces were weaker than others, but I was particularly moved by a solo number that Kazu Kumagai did that was sort of a meditation of recent events in Japan.  The two shows demonstrated the breadth of what tap dance can be.

April:  Jane Goldberg presented an afternoon of "Rhythm and Schmooze" as part of the Karen Bernard/New Dance Alliance's "Performance Mix" Festival.  In addition to Jane's dancing and words, there were the outstanding Michela Marino Lerman, Roxane Butterfly and Cheryl Johnson.  Another instance of variety in tap.  Some storytelling, some improvisation, and some staged dramatic movement.  The main theme seemed to be the relationship to music and motion, whether the music was live, recorded or music of words.  Jane has been at this for a while, dancing, writing and dialoguing about the art form.  She still is often referred to as the "Tap Goddess of the Lower East Side"...although she hasn't lived there in a while!
Jane Goldberg, Roxane Butterfly, Michela Marino Lerman,
Cheryl Johnson.  Photo by Joy Nagy

May:  The Queens Tap Extravaganza was held on May 11th at Flushing Town Hall, produced by Traci Mann and Al Heyward in conjunction with Cobi Narita.  The line up was essentially the same "usual suspects" that wind up doing the show each year.  It was fun to do and honors/awards were
Pre Queens show moment;  Bernice Brooks,
Michelle Dorrance, Frank Owens
given out to a few people, including Michela Marino Lerman and Tony Waag for their work in tap.
  On May 25th, which is National Tap Dance Day, the NY Tap Extravaganza was done, with some of the same performers doing their thing.  

Dianne Walker talking
about Buster at Swing 46
But the big event during May this year, as far as I'm concerned, was the James "Buster" Brown Centennial Celebration, held the weekend of May 17 - 19th.  Buster was an important person in the tap world, mainly as a supporter of anyone who wanted to dance.  Beginning in 1997, he ran a sort of tap jam at Swing 46 on 46th St., that became the place to be on Sunday nights.  He passed away in 2002 and would have turned 100 this year, so the weekend was to celebrate him with classes, film, video, discussions and a final "reunion" at Swing 46.  It was spearheaded by Michela Marino Lerman, one of Buster's proteges, with support from Tony Waag and the American Tap Dance Foundation and the wonderful Cobi Narita.  I can't begin to describe all that happened, but the final performance at Swing 46 was great and emotional.

Upcoming:  Savion Glover is coming to the Joyce this month for a three week engagement.  July will bring American Tap Dance Foundation's Tap City, a festival of classes and performances in NYC, which will be kicked off with Laraine Goodman's tap jam, "TAP & ROLL" at The HUB in the West Village.   In August we have the NJ Tap Festival, and there will be more tap activity this summer across the country and 'round the world.  Check "Tap related websites" for more information.

All photos by Hank Smith, unless otherwise noted.