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Tap dance is a misunderstood form that we should really celebrate
- by Sophie Herbert
What do you picture when you think of tap dance? I imagine a brief section of the opening credits of the Netflix comedy series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: a row of little girls in gold bowed tap shoes, hair in bunches, smiles superglued on to their faces as they move in unison à la Riverdance. Tap is joyful. Golden-era movie cheerful. You tap because your feet simply won’t stop moving.
I would wager that this is what most children encounter in their Saturday morning classes across the country. It’s certainly what you got in my corner of rural Somerset. Go and see 42nd Street in the West End and that is exactly the type of tap dance that you get; beautifully articulated feet and arms, upright stance, smiling face.
The charity gala for London Tap Dance Intensive (LDTI) was essentially nothing like what I have described thus far, greatly expanding my understanding of what constitutes tap dance. If, when handed the marketing material for the gala, I was nervous about watching something twee that had been cobbled together over the course of the 3-day festival, complete with an audience of proud mummies and daddies, I needn’t have been. In actuality, it was how I imagine the great jazz clubs in New Orleans to be – amazing, talented artists whipping out the best of their tricks and skills, heckling and whooping each other, celebrating the art they love.
Held at the London Cabaret Club, the stage was occupied by a fabulous live band, the dancers on a raised, catwalk-style platform in the centre of the room. The dancing was largely improvised performance, the band working with, against and around the dancers. The setting and the line-up gave it an informal, vaudeville feel that accommodated for the ‘rough around the edges’ planning. A handful of rehearsed and choreographed, in the classic sense, pieces were also in the mix, including an amazing swing dance from a group of students at The Brit School and some first class Argentine tango.
Each dance was up to five minutes long, sandwiched with introductions from our comperes for the evening, LTDI co-founder Kane D Ricca and the lovely Adam Garcia, the latter unable to dance that evening due to an injury sustained teaching a dance class at the festival: “I am literally that committed to teaching my students full out”. These introductions were hugely useful for providing context – I now understand that the majority of what we were watching constitutes ‘rhythm tap’, a distinctly separate style to the Broadway style I grew up with. Rhythm tap is primarily about acoustic, as opposed to aesthetic. It is more grounded and uses balance and weight to create a bigger sound. In fact, it is closer to the ‘original tap’ that evolved from dance styles African slaves brought to America.
The improvised pieces started, generally, with a call-and-answer dialogue between the ‘percussionists’ – drummer and dancer, gradually segueing into something more fleshed out and fluid, or into a jazz standard. It goes without saying that this is only visually and acoustically interesting if all involved are accomplished improvisers as well as performers. It was electrifying; special shout-out to the drummer, who was on fire.
Organised by Ricca and Sarah Ivory, the festival and gala were a true celebration of a perhaps misunderstood (well, certainly by me) art form, bringing together world-renowned artists to entertain and educate, whilst raising for the mental health charity MIND’s Heads Together campaign.
Photo credit marce-w (Flickr)