Here’s a little schedule update, including my first two ‘home’ workshops in Liege at our Claquettes Club, a special May weekend with Guillem Alonso, and a few tap festivals where I join some ‘movers and shakers’ in the tap dance world….
Questions or suggestions? More information? firstname.lastname@example.org
Claquettes Club Events Winter/Spring 2016
February 20-21: My first workshop in Liege!
Intermediate + level: new choreography
8 hours instruction
Price: 150 € (minimum 5 participants, maximum 20)
April 23-24: Advanced-Professional Composition weekend
First in a series of mentoring weekends for advanced dancers seeking input.
I am looking for 10 dancers interested in creating new works.
–8 hours in-studio work on improvisation and composition
–Showcase: an opportunity to present new ideas in a supportive environment, and receive critical feedback
Price: 175€ (registration limited to 10)
May 28-29 International Tap Day with Barcelona’s amazing Guillem Alonso!
Two-day workshop with classes for all levels.
Schedule and information coming soon at
Upcoming Festivals and Workshops
Jan. 2-5 TAPTASTIC! Wilhelmshaven, Germany
Europe’s first festival of the new year brings me together with a bunch of fantastic dancers– I love being the ‘old-timer’ in and among superlative dancers from the US, the UK, Spain, and Switzerland!
All information on the website: http://www.taptastic.de
January 16 Masterclasses in Antwerp, Belgium
Fun-filled day of classes for kids and all levels of adults, organized by Suzanna Pezo
email email@example.com for schedule and pricing
May 10-16 Limoges Tap Festival
This bi-annual festival brings together exceptional faculty from the US, France, and Germany in a spirited celebration of tap dance in performance and in classes….
Come join the fun and work on your French!
For information check facebook or http://www.prisedestep.com/festivals/festival-2016/
August 1-7 Beantown Tap Festival
Save the dates for a fun summer tap dance week, organized by old friend and dance partner Julia Boynton, located in historic Somerville, MA!
Information coming: http://www.beantowntapfest.com/
As hordes of beginning tap dancers begin to splinter the fantasy floor in our brand new tap dance studio the Claquettes Club, it occurs to my wife and I that perhaps our strategy lacks nuance: invest hundreds of thousands of euros to create a tap dance palace, advertise like mad to find dozens of people who have never tap danced before, and turn them loose on the virgin French oak.
The first few weeks of classes, it was impossible to actually focus on teaching. Having finished the floor less than 24 hours before the first class, neither Steph nor I had actually danced in the new space. So while teaching shuf-fle step to more or less 50 rookies between the ages of 20 and 78, I watched each new dig mark and scuff with horror; listened to the wicked echo of taps off large walls and high ceiling; moved speakers around to try to balance the music with the dance; chased people in their street shoes off of the floor; vacuumed, swept, and damp-mopped; and wondered why a whole section of the floor behaved sometimes like a diving board.
Worried? Neurotic? Obsessed? Exhausted? All that and so much more: happy beyond belief that we had managed to transform the neglected, junk-filled building with the leaking roof into a cosy, inviting place in time for opening the 2nd week of September.
Compromise is everywhere in our Claquettes Club: an unexpected roof replacement that killed the budget for a spectacular lighting plan, leaving us in a fluorescent haze for the indefinite future; the doors needing replacement simply freshened with paint and given new, cheap hardware; spaces in need of further transformation. And still: the Club is fantastic.
After months of observation, unblocking various sediment-filled pipes, copious use of silicone sealant and construction mousse, as of 2 weeks, our building is dry. The new roof above the studio has allowed the permanently humid walls to dry, and the gorgeous floor and the grand piano are no longer threatened. An old fresh-water cistern that was slowly leaking into the basement was emptied by a large man needing a hip transplant into a tanker truck, and within days the basement was no longer wet.
WE DID IT! With a skillful carpenter, stealthy plumber, and wry electrician, friends helping with light demolition and small construction details, and hundreds of hours put in by me, Steph, our students, and friends, we took possession of the keys at the end of May, and opened on Sept. 7.
And then the most amazing thing happened on that Monday 4 weeks ago: people showed up! Suddenly at 6:05 there were 10 people standing in front of us, ready to learn how to tap dance. We zombies stared at them as though they were martians. Then Steph said to me, ‘what do we do?’, and I said, ‘Get their names and email addresses. Collect the money. Let’s dance!’
Truly hilarious was Stéphanie, on the schedule for Monday nights and so teaching our inaugural tap class, realizing 15 minutes into her class that she had no plan at all about what to teach, announcing, ‘and now Josh will take over’; to which I replied, ‘are you changing the plan’, which she affirmed by nodding as she walked off the floor. Which is how I found myself teaching in our glorious space for the first time, no plan either but nearly 30 years of tap dance instruction in my back pocket, no shortage of ideas, a huge grin on my face.
People kept coming, all month, for our 5 euro classes. We opened the doors with a one-month promotion, a gift to our 30 students making the move to the new space, and an enticement for the community to come check out some classes. We borrowed shoes for the beginners from a supportive colleague in Liege, we ordered shoes from Victor Cuno’s Swingtap store in Paris, we checked every screw in every tap going on to our new floor, we shuffled, heeled, and toed, and nightly we collapsed.
The first month has been incredible: Between 70 and 80 people each week passed through our doors to begin or to continue their tap dance journeys. We head into month 2 with a schedule of 8 weekly adult tap classes, a spirited seniors class on Thursday mornings, a parents and small kids class on Wednesdays, and the beginnings of a children’s program on Saturdays taught by our friend Joachim.
Occasionally we even see our son, nearly 23-month old Félix, whose pronunciation of ‘Claquettes Club’ conjures a serious drinking problem. Thank god for his grandparents here and extended family, who love him, take care of him, play with him, and fill in more than capably while we are killing ourselves to get the space open and running smoothly.
Nearly 150 folks came through our opening party–the space overflowing with flowers, champagne, and delicious snacks made by Steph’s sister and the wife of one of our tap junkies (who herself couldn’t stand it anymore and came to class afterwards!). Celebrated Belgian jazz pianist Charles Loos donated his time for the afternoon, as did a very fine local bass player. After only two or three lessons, random and spirited ensembles of our true beginners performed Stephanie’s first choreography three times over the course of the afternoon, 30 seconds set to ‘the Entertainer.’
We chose two of our ‘greatest hits’ and two tap dances of historical significance to open our space: Pete Nugent’s classic 1950’s ‘Breezin’ Along with the Breeze,’ a gift of a tap dance pulled from the memory banks of Nancy Howell; and Carnell Lyon’s Paddle and Roll, the genre-defining piece. With Gregoire and Sharon showing up for an impromptu Astaire and Rogers dance, we managed to initiate our floor with a good portion of highly entertaining tap history. I improvised alone with the band–something I have loved to do for 30 years–everyone shim-shammed on the hour, a cabaret troupe animated the afternoon and a real highlight was Steph and four colleagues together for the first time with her boss’ generous permission as ‘the André Rieu All-Stars.’
Thus begins month two: bringing the carpenter back in to reinforce the bouncy part of the floor and to make the stage and backstage clean and safe for public passage; finalizing details to get sound-absorbing theatrical curtains hung; making a plan for the irritating early splinters in the floor; finishing electrical work and bringing a few last details into compliance for the fire code.
With ‘phase one’ of construction nearly complete, we can get back to our ‘raison d’être’: the dancing, and the dancers. Our youngest student just turned 4, our eldest at 78 has already become senior class technologist, sending video files each week to the group. Last week I learned (as did she) that one of our students just got dumped by her husband. An 11-year old took a city bus for the first time by herself to come to tap an extra time each week. A student stayed after class to talk about surviving cancer last year, just in case any health issues should arise.
In three weeks, my dear friend, mentor, and tap guru Brenda Bufalino arrives to fill the Claquettes Club with her wisdom, power, and singular brilliant voice—she has broken in so many floors and inaugurated so many spaces over a lifetime, it was an easy choice to decide on Brenda for our first workshop and concert. Coming along as well are more dear friends who number among Europe’s finest tap dancers– Belgian, German, and Dutch. We will be staging a version of Bufalino’s classic Haitian Fight Song, and I am working to get back her wicked bebop solo, Buf’s Bop.
With our first real rehearsal scheduled for today—after picking up a friend’s collection of folding chairs, and meeting with the electrician, and before teaching classes– now, it is back to the real business at hand: the joyful noise of dancing and making music.
Since she was a 15 year-old prodigy making my choreography look much better than it actually was, Michelle Dorrance has been one of my favorite dancers on the planet. 20 years later, the imaginative, hilarious, technically limitless, award-winning dancer and artistic director of the highly-heralded company Dorrance Dance, is still just as fresh, funny, and brilliant as ever. After 5 days together inside her working brain, I conclude that Michelle is like a drug: you get a little bit of her, and you just end up craving more.
On Sunday afternoon, however, my collaborator is nowhere to be seen, having spent the last night of our project together in Berlin alternating biological explosions with sleeping in the bathtub. Wasn’t it enough that she hobbled off the airplane with a broken foot? It is 3:34 on a Sunday afternoon–one hour into what should be Michelle’s beginner class, 5 hours into my bizarre work day–and I am teaching a soft shoe while trying to figure out who can finish my class as there is not doubt that MY stomach is about to erupt again.
As a man dying of thirst in the desert will conjure an oasis, she appears like a mirage: Michelle staggers into the dimly-lit room at the very moment I know my teaching day must end. I thank the students for their patience, tell them Michelle will finish the class with the soft-shoe break they have requested (she, staring blankly, asking ‘What break? The Gregory break?’ I am already walking out of the studio saying, ‘Any break. Figure it out. You’re qualified’). On the 5-minute walk back to the apartment I scour the landscape for good places to puke publicly; thankfully the eruption comes only after I am up the stairs, through the door, into the bathroom.
We have gathered in Berlin at Anina Krüger’s Blue Tap Studio for a first-time collaborative four day workshop, and the 4th incarnation of my All Tap Dancers Band. An amazing, skilled, lively, curious two dozen dancers from Germany, Romania, Canada, Sweden, Holland–and notably a raucous and patriotic Norwegian contingent–have signed on for the grand experiment.
Producer, dancer, friend and bass player Anina Krüger hosts the event at her inimitable studio Blue Tap; I cannot thank her enough for the opportunity, the support, the months of work and planning that lead up to the weekend. She supports tap dance in so many ways—especially by having one of the best floors and coolest working spaces anywhere, and as we approach 20 years of working together, I appreciate her–and her fantastic crew of dedicated volunteers–more and more.
Best friend and long-time collaborator Rose Giovanetti (taps/ukulele/vocals) comes from Boston; my German brothers Kurt Albert (taps/percussion) and Klaus Bleis (taps/drums) arrive with cars full of equipment; a special mention must be given Klaus, who has organized the music for the band and who drives all over Berlin upon arrival, gathering sound equipment and making a late-night trip to the airport to pick up the hobbling Dorrance.
My wife Stéphanie takes a few days off from her day job (playing piano in arenas packed with thousands of people) to play ukulele, including a beautiful solo; melody and improvisation on the violin; sing and arrange vocal harmony; tap dance; and oh, yes, play piano for me on Tea for Two. (Steph’s dizzying array of musical talents can sometimes induce a reaction much like the stomach flu.)
A year ago, when Michelle and I first hatched the plan to co-teach a workshop, we didn’t imagine injuries or viruses. We were looking for an excuse to spend some time together in the studio. We have known each other some 30 years, since Michelle was just the little girl whose mother taught me ballet and cast me in my first modern dance performance, back in Chapel Hill, NC. At the Ballet School, tap classes were taught by the guru Gene Medler; the rest, as far as Michelle’s career goes, is history.
At some point in my annual journeys back home to the NC Rhythm Tap Festival, I began bringing the teen-aged Michelle onstage for a duet. Hastily planned between classes and shows, usually in a parking lot, we would come up with a tune and a little arrangement, go on stage and play together. We staged a high-heel challenge, we sat on the edge of the stage and played a love song: we jammed, we danced, we laughed. In Dusseldorf in 2005 we worked out a ukulele/harmonica duo, and accompanied each other on a blues while the other tapped. Marginal music, exceptional tap dancing: a model for the All Tap Dancers Band.
The broken foot kind of spoils our plan to simply trot out Michelle–a singular artist in the history of the form–every few numbers in front of the band and wait for raucous applause. Even more painfully, she sits though hours of dance rehearsals of the aged hoofers: we her colleagues average now exactly 50 years old, and running through the dances takes longer and longer, with poorer results. Truly gracious, she sets about learning ukulele parts, working up vocals on Tonight You Belong to Me, resting her foot and wryly observing middle-age in process. She grunts some disapproval at a sloppy transition on my Capella Josh.
Dorrance and I agree that dancers learning tap dance today suffer from a real lack of diversity in training. So much work of the under-40 crowd remains derivative, and imitative; and while there are a great many dancers who can slide, hop up and make 14 sounds, and break the floor with powerful maneuvers, there are a relative few dancers with any stylistic range, and even fewer who understand the fundamentals of swing in music or technique. Day one, lesson one, I lead the dancers for 30 minutes of real soft-shoe, to orient our work immediately away from the overwhelming modern phenomenon of thoughtless floor-whacking.
In our tag-team workshop the dancers learn Paul Draper’s rigorous ‘Tea for Two’, a technically demanding soft-shoe with a one-tap-at-a-time aesthetic that no longer exists; some killer up-tempo swing material featuring ‘relaxed’ and ‘articulated’ technique as brilliantly explained by Michelle; and an excerpt of her choreography to Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place, a freaky tune in 10. I find her explanations of technique illuminating, and she learns most of Tea for Two as a chair dance. On the last day of the workshop, as Tea for Two, uptempo swing, and Radiohead 10/4 funk run through the feet and minds of the dancers, I think: that is as diverse a tap experience as you could ever ask for.
When the broken-footed Dorrance unleashes her swing material at tempo, the dizzying speed has us all shaking our heads. Is that where the nausea began? More than a few people consider break their own feet if the results could only be like that. It takes me back to my early days, when the young and still charming Savion Glover, aged 15 and broken-footed, was performing in my Cambridge series with his mother chiming in every so often, ‘Light tapping, sweetie. Light tapping.”
The All Tap Dancers Band will never win any prizes, but it sure is fun. We are joined for the 2015 Viral edition by an exceptional pianist, a Finn living in Berlin, Jarkko Riihimäki, who qualifies for the gig by performing a shuffle step that he learns about 20 minutes before showtime. So, we all tap dance, we all play music, and this edition features a lot of my own choreography: waltz to Tenderly, Cappella Josh, the quirky Limbo Jazz, and Walking My Baby Back Home.
We open the second set playing Watermelon Man for a quartet of improvising tap dancers. Jonas Nermyr, co-producer of the wild Stockholm Tap Festival; Janne Eraker, recently awarded a three-year artist’s grant from the Norwegian government; Avalon Rathgeb, the notable Brit who can seem to be in every European city at once; and home-girl Tina, capably representing Blue Tap. While the quartet works the floor, the All Tap Band destroys the tune: the rhythm section misses a few bars but plows ahead as the 4 ukuleles strumming madly get lost, have a discussion, drop out, and get ourselves back together. A band of tap dancers playing behind a group of tap dancers, one highlight only rivaled by the New Orleans-style simultaneous kazoo solos that punctuate Anina’s solo.
Rose spends a lot of time in the bathroom: before she gets violently ill, and before she spends the last day in Berlin tending to the weakened Dorrance, she spends three days in the shower room in Blue Tap, i-phone pressed to ear, memorizing/droning her harmony part on Tonight You Belong… Something about the sound of a woman seemingly trapped in a tile resonance chamber, coupled with intermittent and desperate three-part harmony rehearsals, makes the song our anthem, with endless variations: ‘I puked (I puked) and I flushed it a-all down, watched it swirl around, fell onto the ground….’
Michelle and I, in the Berlin apartment after the final viral day, can’t stop laughing. We sit in our reduced state eating crackers, sipping coke, and catching up on everything. It’s our longest uninterrupted conversation; neither of us has any place to go, any energy to do anything, any need but recovery. I tell her that at times in the stomach virus teaching session I found myself rubbing my body and head in odd unconscious ways; she confesses that during her last class she ended slumped in a frog-like lean against the mirror, encouraging people to answer their own damned questions.
Maladies notwithstanding, our first-time collaboration was a success, and a whole lot of fun: the students graciously accept the ’emergency’ situation of the last day’s teaching, and miraculously Michelle and I cover all the scheduled hours. We are already planning the next project, and hoping to make a dance together. Meanwhile we have a story of survival and triumph on the road that will never be forgotten. My next fix of Michelle Dorrance cannot come soon enough.
Verviers (Ver-vee-ay), a town 20 minutes from where I live, is best known as the home of tarte au riz, (tart-o-ree) a traditional Belgian cake that combines rice pudding, a dash of cinnamon, and a delicious crust. You can get a tarte au riz in most every bakery; but locals will tell you there is something special about the proper tart, from Verviers. It’s a little bit moister, a little bit better: the real thing.
While I was teaching tap dance here in Liege on Thursday night, the police were working hard all over Belgium, and in Verviers apparently interrupted a major terrorist operation ready to explode at any minute. The cops killed two suspects, wounded and arrested a third, and by the time I was done with my tap classes I had three messages waiting for me, wanting to make sure that me and my family were OK.
I love hearing from my friends, for whatever the reason, but since the odds are way greater that I will perish in my car than at the hands of a terrorist, I wonder why no one calls or writes when I get home from my trips to tap class, or the grocery store, or most recently a school performance last Tuesday. Both Stephanie and I were sick, the show came early on a morning following two nights of horrible insomnia, and neither she nor I had any business driving. But drive we did, sleepy in the morning and sleepy in the mid-afternoon when we made it home. There were no messages congratulating us on being alive when we dragged ourselves back in the door. (Thanks, Dad, for the reminder about auto-safety…)
After the horrible assassinations at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, the search for the killers recalled the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The day that greater Boston was ordered to ‘stay inside’ (thank goodness I have forgotten the official name for this) was terrifying, or at least extremely unsettling. I had a screaming fight on the phone with my best friend, who was determined to go about her business as usual. I called her every bad name in the book, convinced of my righteousness and my acting as a ‘good citizen’.
When it turned out that one gunman was dead and the other had spent his day hiding inside a boat, I felt stupid: we had all stopped everything so that millions of dollars in military and police equipment and personnel could be engaged. Even worse, the bomber got caught because we were all allowed to go outdoors again, and the guy whose boat he was in, saw the trail of blood, and called the cops.
So as the story in Paris was unfolding last week, I went off to Friday’s French class, and found myself having a little flashback to the Marathon bombing. Shockingly, my French teacher did not give a rat’s ass about two terrorists holed up in a printery in Paris. She dismissed the whole thing. ‘What?’ she asked with a little extra innocence, ‘some people with some ideology blew up some other people because of their ideology? And why am I supposed to care about that? ‘
I was horrified, righteously convinced that she was missing a big moment in history. But then the guys committed ‘suicide by cop’ and their accomplice got killed after taking his set of hostages, and the world began to mourn, grieve, and identify with Charlie Hebdo. Stories, testimonies, radio, TV, press galore, a world united by the unquestionable right of a free society to blaspheme.
Belgium, it turns out, has Europe’s highest proportion of radicalized citizenry; that is, Belgian citizens who have committed to wage jihad. The threat of imminent terrorist attacks is real. European countries have already begun to pass laws that recall the USA Patriot Act, which in the quest to ensure freedom completely trampled over the average citizen’s civil liberties. A free press is unquestionably vital to democracy.
But so far no one has come up with an organized plan to send 10 year-old girls into their tap classes in order to blow up atheist hoofers of Jewish origin. I might live in the hotbed of radicalized Islam—the terrorists and I get great social services—but I am still a lot more likely to die en route to teach a time step, or to pick up a tarte au riz, than because I live 20 minutes from Verviers.
Disturbingly, I find myself on the wrong side of the free speech argument.
I believe deeply that people should be able to say, think, write, draw, and dance however they please. But I also know that inflammatory rhetoric and nasty words have consequences. Someone could have spared me a lot of pain and professional repercussions if they had just taped my mouth shut during my 20’s and taken away all my writing utensils. Should the consequence of free speech be death? Never.
But, just because you CAN say something, does that in any way mean that you SHOULD? I do not think that publishing images of Muhammad is a particularly meaningful way to spend one’s time. And, in the context of a war on terror and a jihadist movement, now featuring executions, beheadings, and death threats, what is the value of inflaming terrorists, or just insulting the great majority of plain-old Muslims who really don’t appreciate the imagery either?
Has our need to defend free speech come to mean, ‘Entitled wealthy people with advanced degrees have a responsibility to piss on people we don’t agree with?’ Where on earth is the humanity in that?
Anyway, just a week removed from the bloodshed, I was more excited than usual for tap classes. In the context of real tragedy, little things like a weekly tap class can really lift, focus, remind, and restart the soul. This week, a year into my career reset in Liege, 50 tap dancers came through the doors for classes. I found myself approaching my French teacher’s point of view more quickly than I could have imagined: what on earth am I supposed to do living in fear and worrying about my trip to the health food store? I’m swimming in a sea of bad time steps here, people.
While you may have never heard of Verviers until this week, I know it for two reasons: I taught a masterclass there last year on a floor so simultaneously hard and silent that it may rank as the single worst floor I have every tried to tap dance on; and if you want the best version of a tarte au riz, the closer you get to the town, the better they get.
And because I guess every American has internalized the phrase, ‘you are what you eat’: je suis tarte au riz!
Two articles really caught my eye this week, very thoughtful responses to the terror raids and the public response, and the links are included here. Especially illuminating is the first piece, from Australia, which makes the point I felt but could not articulate: the playing field–as far as social context and free speech– is not a level one by any means.
‘…the pens of newspaper editors were strong not by virtue of their wit or reason, but insofar as they were servants of the powerful and their guns.’
Corey Oakley, redflag.org.au
The second piece cites a writer in the New York Times, Saldin Ahmed, whose op-ed came up with this gem:
‘In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful.”
Saldin Ahmed, New York Times
Hey Tap Dancers! Very happy (and lucky) to announce workshops coming up in Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and the US! Please don’t hesitate to send an email/facebook message my way with questions (firstname.lastname@example.org). Hope to see you at one of these fantastic workshops….
December 27-30, 2014 Barcelona, Spain
Workshop at Escola Luthier Dansa—a GREAT WAY TO FINISH THE YEAR!
4-days of tap dance, body percussion and much more…many excellent teachers, fantastic studios, tap jams…
telephone: 0034 93 451 31 38
January 30-Feb. 1, 2015 Hamburg, Germany
Always a fun, crowded workshop (and this time a party/showcase as well!) at Hoofer’s Studio.
Details to be announced…
For info: www.hoofers.de
February 27-March 1, 2015 Rennes, France
After some years, happy to return to Tap Breizh, along with Sharon Lavy, and Ruben Sanchez!
March 14-15, 2015 Nurnberg, Germany
Two-day workshop in my German ‘home away from home…’
Info: Klaus Bleis 0049-911-329681
April 2-6, 2015 Stockholm, Sweden
a return to the planet’s wildest tap fest, the Stockholm Tap Festival, with incredible students and professionals from this galaxy and beyond. THE place to network, jam, and party with other tap dancers…
May 14-17, 2015 Berlin, Germany—Blue Tap Studio
Creating and teaching a 4-day workshop for advanced dancers with Michelle Dorrance! We will be spending 16 hours in the studio working on technique, composition, improvisation, and concepts in tap dance. What fun to be sharing a workshop with one of the great tap artists on the planet, who happens to be someone I have known since she was a kid in Chapel Hill, NC (‘birthplace of rhythm dance’).
May 15: The All-Tap Dancer’s Band: Michelle’s debut in this hilarious ongoing project, joined by Little Rose (Boston, MA) on vocals; Anina Krüger, bass; Klaus Bleis, drums; Kurt Albert, percussion; Stephanie Detry, everything else. Live from Bluetap!
Details to be announced…
June 5-7, 2015 St. Remy de Provence, France
very excited to make my first visit to the ‘crêpe meets cramp roll’ weekend, where dancing, jazz, and traditional crêpes all become one… two days of classes, jam session, ‘extra’ class on Friday night…
June 22-28 Kittery, ME
The 20th anniversary Portsmouth/Portside Percussive Dance Festival, a week-long edition of one of the best festivals anywhere. Wonderful teachers, small classes, personal attention… in historic and delicious Kittery, ME. Come join the fun….
The 20th anniversary Portsmouth/Portside Percussive Dance Festival, a week-long edition of one of the best festivals anywhere. Wonderful teachers, small classes, personal attention… in historic and delicious Kittery, ME. Come join the fun….
I am waiting for a discrete moment to say a quick hello to my dear friend—and tap legend–James ‘Buster’ Brown, at his tap jam at NYC’s Swing 46, when he runs across the dance floor and jumps on me. I hadn’t seen Buster in quite a while, and the pure spontaneous joy of hugs, tears, and laughter from an 80-plus year old sitting on my lap is an image I will carry to my grave. OK, so in later years he began to call me ‘Jeff’, but no matter: he was as loving a spirit as I have ever encountered in the world, and his genuine love for anyone in tap shoes–regardless of ability—was a signature of those weekly tap jams.
A rare and very intelligent panel discussion among the faculty at last summer’s Tap on Barcelona festival revived my interest in tap jams. A question was asked about how to build community, and the discussion led to the brilliant Guillem Alonso talking at length about his two decades of putting tap on the map in his hometown, with the tap jam as the focal point. Gathering place, networking, performance opportunity, visibility: for Guillem and the other dancers on the panel there was no doubt, the tap jams had been the spiritual center of the incredible rise of tap in Catalunya.
At last Sunday’s 8th birthday edition of the London Tap Jam, the evening was marked by joy, generosity, playfulness, and the sense that a community was growing up together. Like those jams at Swing 46, there were serious professionals, first-time improvisors, high-achieving amateurs, incredibly skilled teenagers learning the ins and outs of dancing to jazz standards, technical killers of the new generation, a random dancer from the Czech Republic who had heard about the jams and happened to be in town, lots of tight blue jeans and curly hairstyles to go along with the searching and exploring of the dancers. There are dancers who have tasted the quick celebrity of British television, dancers who have just finished runs in musicals, dancers who are going into major touring tap shows, and let’s not forget the ukulele moment!
The spirit reflects the founding trio’s mission of inclusiveness a la Buster Brown: my friend the long-time devotee and tireless organizer Dan Sheridan, super-talented and quick witted Junior Laniyan, and new friend (currently mending a broken ankle) Melody Lander from the beginning wanted to create a space where anyone could dance, everyone was welcome, and tap dance improvisation could flourish. My, oh my, how they have succeeded!
Upstairs at the prestigious jazz club Ronnie Scotts, on the fourth Sunday of every month (except December) the trio sets up the room: they drag heavy bags from a rooftop shed, pull out the pieces, and assemble a stage. They spread blankets on the floor, set out cushions for the devotees who gather down front to most powerfully experience the blazing feet; they hang a banner above the bar, shove down some slices of pizza, open their box office, and let the public in. After the jam they even do some roof repairs on the leaking shed—not the kind of ‘shedding’ that a dancer dreams about.
I have never met a musician quite like bandleader Michéle Drees, a wonderful dreamer (thank you, autocorrect: I did write ‘drummer‘) who believes that for tap dance to succeed it is the musicians who must lead the way. Her Jazz Tap Project, with four dancers and four musicians, aims at getting tap dance to the premier jazz festivals of Europe. I have met musicians who loved tap dance, who were brilliant at making tap dance sound and feel as close to perfection as possible, who tolerated tap dance, who hated tap dance but liked the employment; I have worked for years with the finest jazz musicians from all over the world and met so many variations on the theme but never encountered a musical soul as deeply committed to bringing tap dance wherever she goes.
Especially as some of the younger dancers at the jam were not exactly sure where they were in the song forms, or how many bars had been exchanged with a musician, and there were some terribly ill-timed re-entries into choruses, or melodies: none of that mattered to Michéle or her gifted pianist and bassist. Oh, London bridges did occasionally fall down, but the trio provided nothing but outstanding support and guidance for the dancers, all night long.
Back in 1988 when I was half the faculty at the prestigious Leon Collins Dance Studio (helping rebuild the spirit of the place after his passing) I began tap jams that quickly became a focal point for the New England tap community. A hundred or so people would crowd the basement studio for the jams, which were divided into three parts: a beginner circle, a showcase for choreography, and an advanced jam. Those early xeroxed flyers looked like something produced by the criminally insane: copies of the front of Stearns’ Jazz Dance, or The Baby Laurence Album, cut and pasted onto a piece of white paper with the handwritten jam dates and times; dutifully copied and folded into triplicate, closed by a circular sticker, addresses handwritten and stamps actually licked one at a time, and mailed via U.S. Post.
Then it seemed to me, and to many, in the tap revival, that improvisation was the only ‘real’ form of tap dance. We chucked Fred Astaire and everybody else who ever did the same step twice into the trash, and set about creating a tap dance of pure (narcissistic) self-expression. We taught and learned pieces of choreography, sure, but there was a sense that to really tap dance was to improvise. Now I am not so sure: improvisation is necessary, absolutely, but is it better than choreography? Does one need to be more valued than the other? Can either form actually exist without the other?
I had been broken in at the 1987 Colorado Tap Festival in an improv circle that included Fred Strickler, Barbara Duffy, Margaret Morrison, probably Leela Petronio, and the late, great, drunk tap legend Eddie Brown playing the tap dancer’s riff over and over on the piano, and slowing down more and more with each 8 bars. The only moment I really remember is my debut, sliding into the circle and landing flat on my back—a moment of shameful HORROR amplified by the contorted face of current Dance Magazine Award winner Tony Waag staring down pitifully at the heap of Josh lying on the green tiles. (Thank god Tony doesn’t remember. Give him another award for that.)
By 2001 and the first Tap City Festival, my obsession with all things improvisation was fading, and on the opening night tap jam attended by Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, and luminaries of the New York and International tap scene, I found myself heading for the exits as the jam began. On the way out I met a pianist I knew, heading in to play for the jam. He asked me where on earth I was going, and I said: “If there were 85 piano players in there, where would YOU be going?” And we laughed, and so began my decade of fleeing any and every setting involving the words ‘tap’ and ‘jam’ in relation.
So middle age has its benefits, and as I head toward 50 everything gets less extreme. The Barcelona jam in July was really too sweet to be hateful, and this ongoing London Tap Jam confirms the great value and importance in community building via tap dance improvisation with live music. Nobody needs to choose between ‘this’ or ‘that’: we can have it all.
My cousin Jeremy lives in London with his companion Julija, and they came out for the jam, and enjoyed their first experience of live tap dance. My great friend and tap guru Dean Diggins happened to be visiting from the US on his annual London theatre junket, and he totally enjoyed the energy of the event as well. I met Dean at his hotel the next morning before heading back through the ‘chunnel’ to Belgium, and when he was not downstairs I asked the front desk to call the room of Mr. Diggins.
“Sorry, Mr. Dickens?” asked the woman at the front desk: it is London, after all.
On Sundays, Belgians walk. Along routes clearly marked by colored stickers, in lengths of 5 kilometers (3 miles), 10k, or 20k; old people, young people, families, walking groups; organized as most everything Belgian in a French version and a Flemish version—Belgians walking.
Founded in the late 60’s, Marche Adeps could not be a simpler, or more wonderful, idea. A quick look at the website for this coming weekend shows more than 10 locations to choose from, in Wallonia alone. That means that on a Sunday in late October, there are probably 2 dozen places organized for Belgians to get out and walk.
The routes are laid out in advance by volunteers: you simply head to the welcome point, pick up a paper with directions, and begin to walk. In general, the color-coded stickers along the way make the xeroxed instructions unnecessary. You walk along through a town, along a path, through fields, in a forest, in suburbia, and keep an eye out for the red, yellow, or blue stickers that correspond to to the length of your chosen walk.
The walks loop back to the starting point, generally a restaurant or a school cafeteria, that offer a special Marche Adeps menu: how great is a walk in the country knowing at the end you can have the famous tarte au riz–delicious creamy rice-filled cake– or boulet frites—meatballs and fries—or a fantastic Belgian beer.
On Sunday after finishing a little home-improvement in the morning, we leave the house just after noon, drive 20 minutes, and arrive at the Moulin de Broukay, a former mill and activity center–including a summertime jazz festival–that serves as our starting point. The Marche Adeps website has a ‘stroller friendly’ icon, so Steph, myself, and the not-yet-one-year-old Felix park the car, and walk and roll toward the welcome-table.
Somehow the sight of a guy and his horse pulled up to the first table at the restaurant does not compute, and I neglect to get the photo. But there are horses and riders all over the place, and people on bicycles, and a range of ages from infants to upper 70’s, as we follow the blue stickers on our walk.
The stroller-friendly walk begins flat–along one of what Stephanie tells me are a famous and well-organized series of interconnecting bike paths in the Dutch/Belgian region of Limburg–passing through fields with corn and cows, and then a small village, before turning up a significant, steep, not friendly, hill.
At the top of the climb, the walk continues on a farming road, and the gravel and mud seem at points downright hostile. No matter, on a beautiful, clear, October afternoon, the fields give way in the distance to a massive quarry, and even the electric towers seem majestic.
If you look at the map, Bassenge sits on several borders: at the divide of Flanders and Wallonia, the two largest parts of Belgium (don’t forget Brussels—capital of the European Union, or the small German-speaking region) and within a few kilometers of Holland. This only matters when you say hello to people along the way: you might speak French, they might speak Dutch—and if they speak Dutch they might be Belgian or Dutch–and while it is a little confusing how to say a simple hello, no one seems bothered.
In a country that is largely urban, you are never really very far ‘off the grid’. When I drop Félix at his Belgian grandparent’s house, the nuclear reactors of neighboring Huy loom large a mile away across the river; a walk through the idyllic countryside means that fields, cows and the power infrastructure share space.
We walk past a small store specializing in potatoes—the Belgians love their potatoes fried, but in general, they just love their potatoes and have access to a great variety—with all the varieties named. In utero we had dubbed the fetus ‘bintje’ after the first ultrasound convinced me Steph was carrying a potato; a friend in Brussels immediately emailed a list of potato varieties, and so before he became Félix, he was just another potato.
Anyway, nothing spectacular, just a well-organized walk in the Belgian countryside on a beautiful day, with a shared plate of boulet-frites and a couple of delicious beers, as the bikes, horses, and afternoon walkers pass by.
Before you mock a disaffected teen girl throughout a 75-minute class for appearing lazy, it’s probably not a bad idea to find out in advance that she is the kickboxing champion of Belgium.
The kid had showed up for class with her arm in a sling. When I employed my bad French mid-class to inquire what had happened and how bad was the pain, the only thing I could understand was that she wasn’t in grave distress. She and the other kid stayed on the margins–horrified at the adults getting increasingly goofy and joyful–and kicking their soundless street shoes listlessly front and back. They could not have been more, well, teenager-ish, and I made a variety of jokes and comments in their direction in a failed effort to motivate them. I even had the whole class cracking up about the arm injury resulting from practicing the hop-steps in the break of the Shim Sham. (Only after class did I learn about the whole kickboxing champion thing…)
The kid, who most graciously did not run at me and sever my head from my body, must have really thought I was stupid with the bad Karate kicks I popped randomly throughout the class. My new beginner’s class in the local village of Aywaille (just say, ‘Hawaii’, and leave it at that) follows the local Karate club session, and this Monday followed the annual national meeting of all the Karate clubs in Wallonia. So excuse me for being distracted, but the sight of 50 grunting, sweating, punching machines of all ages was still with me as I faced my 12 beginners learning shuf-fle step.
A super-nice couple has organized the class–they run a theatre program in Aywaille, and have been hoping for a tap class forever. They both take the class, along with some actors and musicians, and random people who were just looking to try something fun. When we met in the summer to organize the class, and I saw the massive gym, my only real concern was sound. So they went out and bought the same fabulous Yamaha portable sound system that I use in my ‘home classes’ in Liege. I have been fortunate to have support from incredible friends and colleagues through the years, but let the record state: no one until now has gone out and purchased a sound system on my behalf.
In the last three weeks, I have taught more shuf-fle steps than in any month of my life. In Liege my program has doubled to two nights of classes, and somewhere around 15 beginners have come though in the last three weeks.
My Advanced Beginners, a hilarious and slow-to-progress group of adults mostly in their late-50’s and older, began last spring, and don’t really deserve the term ‘advanced’; but they have learned some things, and I needed to distinguish them from the ‘beginners’. They freak out when a new step or exercise comes, they moan audibly, they whine: I whip them verbally now with the label ‘debutants AVANCES’, and they laugh. Anyway, they are working on shuf-fle-step-heel, so they are exactly one sound of the foot beyond true beginners, and suffering.
I also floated out an ‘all levels’ class—my little nod to the Henry Letang method of teaching all people different routines at the same time—and in that class I have one woman, super-motivated and hard-working, who started last March. She also takes class with the advanced beginners, and some private lessons, and at 62, Jacqueline has really earned my respect. Over the summer she learned a good chunk of material from one of my DVDs, has developed a vocabulary, knows her time steps, practices at home every day: she is a gamer, and an exceptional example of how great it can be to begin tap dance in your 60’s. (Back in Boston, dear Joan still plugs away: she opened my eyes a few years ago to what a retired woman with ambition and smarts could do in a pair of tap shoes, and now Jacqueline keeps me honest).
Have I mentioned the new guy, age 65, American, plays the harmonica, and has lived in Liege for more than 40 years? He immediately bought a bamboo mat for home practice, came to four classes in the first two weeks, always has his axe in his pocket and has already tapped and played at the same time. Or the super 22 year old university student/dancer/musician who showed up and learned shuffles, flaps, and half the shim-sham in 35 minutes last night? The absolute joy of tap dance at the beginning: that is easy to lose touch with after 30-plus years of dance, and such a privilege to light the spark, and watch the flame begin to burn.
Our teen program in Liege has begun with two sweet, charming 12 year-old girls. To their credit, they do not seem overly horrified by the bad-French speaking guy who teaches them tap; like all beginners there are quietly realizing that the thing about tap dance is it looks so easy, but it’s so hard. Neither kid is particularly musical, so getting a groove going has happened twice, for about a minute; mostly they fall in and out of steps, and time, and giggle. But as I am putting down long-term roots here, I am determined to bring them along, and so we shuf-fle step.
Between three adult beginners classes, one class of teens, an advanced beginners class, and a private lesson with an ‘more advanced beginner,’ my shuf-fle step has probably never been better. Having started each group with the shim sham (first version: SHUF-FLE STEP), I have learned that to the Francophones whenever I say ‘shim sham’, they hear Chim Chim, begin singing ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ and thinking of Mary Poppins. ALL OF THEM THINK MARY POPPINS. So by the fifth time I explained that the step was from the shim sham, I added, and nothing to do with the movie, or chim-chim cheree, although it sounds like that…
My intermediate group at the end of Friday night is like therapy: they can flap! They know cramp rolls! They can put three steps together in a sequence! That class, fun as it is, is also a mixed bag; four ‘old-timers’ some of whom have been dancing since the 1970’s, a pair of 30-somethings, and right now for two months only a young, refreshing, 24-year old–working temporarily nearby–who could not be more delighted by the nutty ‘claquettistes’ who come out at 8pm to get their tap on. Stephanie joins in, when she can, and you can really see the advantages of her having studied with more than 20 teachers in her first five years of tap. Not to mention her lifetime in music.
The intermediates began with a revolt, they were all pissed that I had raised prices and didn’t like the way we structured the payments. So we went home, invented a new system, lowered their class price, and the second week was like a love-in. Although I have been in the business quite a long time– making my living teaching tap for more than 25 years–having my own classes and business structure for weekly lessons in my own (rented) space is a new venture. We blew it, we changed it, everyone is happy.
And now we are jumping off a cliff: this week we said YES to buying a building just a few meters outside of Liege, in the neighboring town of Herstal. Butt-ugly and nearly hidden from view, it has a number of features that bode well for the future of tap dance in Liege: four thick concrete and brick walls that don’t touch any neighbors, enough square-footage to allow for a spacious dance floor and simple entrance with bathroom, changing room, and coffee bar, and a location just thirty seconds walk from the end of Liege’s main bus line—and future tram–easy to access from the main train station. An electric tram in Liege, which will eventually connect 20 kilometers of people to the studio’s front door, is something like the Big Dig was in Boston, and it is only this American who believes it will ever actually get finished.
And so we shuf-fle step, building skills, community, enthusiasm, spirit, and momentum, and hoping that the future of tap dance here in Liege is as bright as a shim sham sheree…
Maybe it was the moon-shaped Globe arena–‘the largest spherical building on earth’–that lit my hotel room, the other-worldly gathering of nearly 300 tap dancers and colleagues from 30 countries, or the Easter dinner turned all-night Star Wars costume party: at any rate, the first intergalactic tap festival just happened in Stockholm, Sweden and a jam session on Mars cannot be far behind.
My festival began sweetly, with 15 people gathered in a gymnasium to learn my worldly tap dance hit, Cappella Josh. They are Finnish, Swedish, Austrian, German, British, Scottish, Brazilian, Swiss; ranging in age from mid-20’s to 75. I have enough festival experience to know that 33 hours later, when they return for the third and final session, their brains will be toast, their feet will ache, and they will be largely incoherent. The next night when we gather to finish learning the choreography, a long-lost friend of mine nearly sleeps on her feet in a far corner of the gym.
For me it is the ‘flashback’ festival, with students I first met 20 years ago in Austria, 10 years ago in Helsinki, last month in Berlin: a Croatian woman approaches me and asks if I was the same Josh who judged her in the North American Tap Dance Championships 15 years ago in Las Vegas and Boston, and thanks me for the cassette of recorded remarks which she found helpful, and still keeps.
Run by a lovely trio of low-key guys—Jonas, Andrew, and Larsa—and housed in a cultural centre in Årsta, just next to Stockholm, the festival defies categorization and summary. A six-day workshop, with masterclasses and regular classes for 6 levels of students, themed classes taught by professional dancers who attend the festival to network, party, and seek inspiration; a nightly performance showcase with jam sessions, a cutting contest where both amateurs and professionals battle for supremacy and free tap shoes, an all-styles dance battle where hip-hop, tap, and contemporary dancers face off, a midnight cabaret, and a faculty concert in a historic downtown theatre; a feeding frenzy with daily lunches in two seatings for more or less 200 people, and an Easter dinner turned aquavit-laced singalong; and throughout a nightly party beginning around midnight and ending between 3 and 6 am.
The trio and their staff of volunteers have laid down 600 square meters (American translation: a whole lot) of flooring in two gymnasiums, a movie theatre which doubles as the lunch room, and the cafeteria and assorted classrooms in a nearby school. A theatre and an actual dance studio have no need for additional flooring, and so the dance classes and events spread out over at least 10 rooms in four buildings.
Full disclosure: if it happened after midnight, I missed it. By all accounts the midnight cabaret was a festival highlight, avant-garde performance art mixed in with tap dancing and all sorts of performance delights. The Star Wars party ended the next morning in full daylight, and featured a light saber battle, the live head-shaving of Paola, Barcelona’s inimitable mistress of anarchy and joy, and a conga line of everyone at the party. Never having been a fan of things that happen late at night involving alcohol, I was happy to escape with my early-to-bed companion the fantastic Sam Weber. We shut down the hotel bar midway through our first beer on Saturday night at 11pm and felt like some wild middle-aged partiers. I was nonetheless very sorry to miss the festival cabaret.
While the faculty was largely American—except for the Spanish genius Guillem Alonso—the students formed a global village. My favorite conversation took place in the hotel lobby, where some dancers from Norway discussed the various difficulties of reading, writing, and speaking Swedish vs. Danish vs. Finnish. I turned to Sam and said, ‘and they’re discussing all of these languages in English,’ and we shared a hearty laugh about just how sad America is with regard to foreign tongues.
I spent my time in the classroom teaching Cappella Josh, and concentrating my 8 technique classes on beginners through intermediate-advanced dancers. With tap technique at such an incredible level, I was happy to stay away from the advanced and professional groups. In general these days, the less people know, the more fun I have teaching. The more people know, and the more their vocabulary is built upon physical and technical degrees of difficulty and ‘tricks’, the less I am interested in working with them.
But give me a group of people working on flaps, shuffles, and time steps—and especially an international group—and I am happy beyond belief. The lower two levels at the festival were super curious and thirsty, and they also happened to be the most proportionally Swedish of the festival. The local scene in Stockholm is still small, primarily beginner/intermediate, and wonderful. Two more advanced Swedes appeared in my choreography workshop, and what a pleasure to teach the 75 year-old Monica the entire Cappella Josh in three lessons over two days. I hope I can be that hip, fit, and able 25 years from now.
To be featured on stage in the historic Sodra Theatre, downtown Stockholm, with an extra-terrestrial lineup of trail-blazing tap dancers is an honor, humbling, and wild. My own ‘greatest hit,’ with ukulele and kazoos, has had finer moments, but the forgiving crowd of tap junkies seems to enjoy it, and I use the only Swedish I picked up along the way: “Hey!” The virtuosity of each artist is mesmerizing, and the group groove and jam at concert’s end is total pleasure. Fearing what might happen in the last encore, I stay offstage as my colleagues finish the show with the fastest version of the BS Chorus I have ever seen.
At some point I walk into a gym after Joseph Wiggan’s class, and there are four little girls dancing what I assume to be his material, like machine-guns. Late for my intermediate class, I ask the girls to move along. They stay put, and keep up the barrage. I ask them again, more forcefully, to leave—tough to do when I realize they speak hardly any English. Unable to kick them out, I realize: they are here for my class! So skilled, so young, so tough.
Returning to the hotel the next night under the glow of my artificial moon-arena, a man with a thick Russian accent approaches and says, ‘How was your day?’ I do not know this man, and assume the worst: the Russian mafia has put out a hit on me. ‘Fine,’ I say, preparing to meet my maker. ‘You teach our daughters,’ he continues, ‘they say you are very good teacher.’
Somewhere, in a galaxy far far away, a three-headed alien wakes from much needed sleep, dreaming up new ideas for next year’s sixth spacey edition of the Stockholm Tap Festival, before heading off to a jazz jam to trade with the band: Joseph, Andrew, and Larsa, may the fours be with you!