I am wearing taps all over my body, and chainmail. Attached by elastic to my right hand is a vintage Capezio Teletone Number 1 toe tap, made back when they were still the best taps produced. My left palm has a Katz toe tap; Katz, the fine British line of taps, is also my mother’s maiden name. On my upper body I wear a chainmail vest, with an old-time Capezio Master tap–the ‘horseshoe’ shape—attached via metal rings over my heart. On my forehead sewed to a wide elastic band is another Katz, a heel tap.
This weekend’s performances of the Warrior are part of the Against the Odds festival produced by the Boston-based Monkeyhouse. Karen Krolak and Nicole Harris have curated a selection of dances by their own dancers and local dance companies, titled Imperfect(ive) Experiments, looking at ‘how people can make physical poetry out of imperfect bodies.’ I offered up the Warrior which represents my attempt a decade ago to get comfortable with my body. Karen, who lost her parents and brother in an indescribably horrific moment only months ago, and Nicole, who nearly died of a stroke at age 30, are two warriors of life and dance, and I am happy to lend my fetish dance to the proceedings.
Mounted on a reinforced dance belt is the piece de resistance, a descending triangle of taps covering my crotch. The collection includes three Teletones and two Katz toes, one Katz heel which basically becomes my cock, and two random taps from the shoes of the dearly departed: a Marbo from acrobat, dancer, and artist Norman Wallace, and a ‘Super Tap’ from my mentor Joe ‘Buck and Wing’ Stirling. Below my right knee hangs a jangle of 6 taps of various origins, including the classic Selva Staccato jingle tap. The best symbol of the whole costume, no one ever sees: mounted on the back of my dance belt, above my ass, sits one last tap: the old Morgan ‘Hollywood’.
15 years ago, hopped up on reefer, I stumbled into a Russian bazaar in Allston, MA, with my dear friend Rose. Only the influence of drugs could explain why the cheap aluminum chainmail called out to me, why I put it on, and why it felt so good. Rose told me I could even wear it out for a night—even then, did I ever ‘go out for the night?’–and a single $100 bill later, the thing was mine, and went straight into my closet. A few years later, I was looking for a gimmick, to win the coveted trophy at the World Championships of Paddle and Roll, the infamously satirical tap competitions that obsessed me and my German friends for a few years. I vaguely remembered having purchased a piece of chainmail.
The costume came together, and the concept for the piece, when I took the disparate pieces of metal in for a consultation with my friend Rafael Jaen, costume god at Emerson College. If memory serves me, my mother and her partner had given me a gift certificate for the consult with Rafael, because in those days I had no idea what to wear on stage. I don’t think they intended me to come out of the meeting with a heavy-metal fetish outfit; but on the other hand they are both radical, free-thinking, brilliant women, and I’m sure they didn’t mind. Anyway, Rafael very sweetly looked at me, my chainmail, my dance belt, and the collected metal, listened to my half-baked notion, and said in his Venezuelan lilt: “The piece is about the conflict between the head, heart, and crotch. So here’s what we can do…”
Once I performed the piece staring into the eyes of my good friend and protégé Marijn Van Veen, who was dying of cancer. At her wedding, which doubled as a fundraiser to pay for her treatment, in broad daylight, I locked into her eyes and never looked away. The Warrior is the only piece in my repertoire with an internal monologue, where the thoughts I have for each section somehow become part of the dance. In different versions of the dance, my interior monologue changes, and that day I was pounding on myself to get her cancer out. It didn’t work.
Entering in darkness, just my footsteps and the clanging of metal audible, nothing visible, I settle into a deep second position plié and roll forward down my spine, so that I am upside down and looking back between my legs. After some silence, my right hand clicks my heart tap, twice. On the third ‘heartbeat’ my right heel thumps into rhythm, and I begin to roll up, leg taps jangling when right the heel thumps, and right hand keeping the heartbeat. Between the heart-clicks, I whack my forehead, and then bang on my crotch. Tempo increases with heel, heart, head, and crotch becoming a melange of masochistic rhythm.
I could have only made the piece for a German crowd: Germans love to get naked, be naked, have no shame about the nude body, and no hyper-sexualization about the flesh. Even so, before the premier I was so nervous–and forgot that I had to make an announcement before the second part of the show—that in my panic I managed to rip the aluminum chainmail! However, in my thong, banging on myself with abandon, the German crowd went wild, and I had begun to conquer the demon of lifelong corporeal dis-ease. I did not, however, win the trophy, and remain bitter.
From the initial crescendo, I settle into the ‘oom-chi’ section: establishing a musical ‘1’ with a quick shift left, my heels playing one and three while the vest swooshes against the crotch piece on 2 and 4. Up-tempo swing, delivered by heels and crotch. As the vest-crotch rhythm plays, I add a series of ‘heel bomb’ accents, intensifying until my right foot adds a single paddle. Gradually the paddles work into continuous sixteenth-notes, the hand clap rhythms morph into eighth-note triplets, and the oom-chi stays strong. At some point I rub my hands together–a weird little tribute to Lady Macbeth—and let the section dissolve.
Did I mention I am barefoot? Originally the piece was in tap shoes, but my friend Thomas Marek asked me in a rehearsal in Dusseldorf if I had considered bare feet. I had, and with that, the shoes were history. From the beginning, I had included one butt-reveal turn in the dance, a tasteful turn late in the piece to give the crowd one quick look at my behind. Thomas made a second critical suggestion–he said the piece was serious, and that the flesh took away from the dance. While there is a certain demographic who has seen the dance from infancy to maturity who really miss the butt-reveal, Thomas was right: without the turn, and without the shoes, the dance took on a whole new life.
Marek’s conceptual mixed-media show, About Tap, enjoyed three seasons of work in Germany, premiering in Dusseldorf’s Tanzhaus in 2005, and settling into Hamburg’s prestigious center for contemporary dance, Kampnagel, in 2006 and 2007. He created portraits of the artists—the largest incarnation of the show involved Pia Neises, Sarah and Leela Petronio, Brenda Bufalino, myself, and Thomas–with video, sound, photos, and live performance. My portrait began straight-ahead, improvising easily to my favorite Red Garland recording—Exactly Like You, from the landmark album Manteca—until in the voiceover I began to describe the Warrior. I walked upstage left to the changing area, removed my shoes and all my clothes except underwear, and transformed live onstage into the Warrior. One night the knee-taps shook loose, and ever-savvy performance guru Bufalino began her piece by tapping through the debris, and ‘bowling’ my taps one by one off stage: ping…ping…ping…ping…ping…ping… .
The piece is set, and not set. Within each section I can play things longer or shorter as I feel, but the transitions are more or less choreographed. Tempos of this or that can be faster or slower, sometimes I am on the wrong foot for a little while, things happen. For fullest impact, there is a floor mic right in front of me, but the various vibrations sometimes move me out of position. Then I have to vibrate back, without looking like a dancer who is messing up his own dance.
I transition out of the up-tempo swing with a quote from Bufalino’s dance Haitian Fight Song into the ‘sexy’ part, setting up a slow-drag rhythm with my feet, mimicking the drag of my leg on the floor with a drag of the toe-tap down the chainmail—a post-modern washboard. The down and dirty rhythm with the delicious scraping sound of tap on chainmail is totally traditional–‘three and a break,’ one of the foundational musical and choreographic structures of tap dance–and the break consists of simple swinging eighth-notes, played with heartbeats, body scrapes, and head clicks. After a repeat of the three slow-drag, chainmail-washboard time steps, the second break falls out of time on the last note, an extended play drag of tap across chainmail.
CROTCH-DJEMBE! I bang a traditional African drumming break on my crotch, and settle into a basic djembe pattern. As the rhythm continues, I begin to pound my flat feet and increase the noise and energy until I am jumping, pounding, and banging my codpiece. Repeat the break, and then head back to the djembe rhythm, this time split between head, heart, and crotch. The Warrior, in intense inner battle.
Six months after the first performance, Tony Waag invited me to do the piece at Tap City in NYC. This performance got me a page in the recent history of tap, Tap Dancing America, by Constance Valis Hill. The responses ranged from outrage—people actually shouted and walked out of the theatre–to total hilarity, and for the subculture in attendance I presented a conundrum: were there rules about ‘how’ to tap dance, or was tap dance actually an art and free from restrictions? As a teacher that year in the children’s program, I was mainly worried that parents would be horrified. After the first show, a little girl and her mother approached me shyly: the girl was dying to scrape the chainmail! To this day, I thank that kid who set me back at ease.
The first time I wailed on my balls, fresh off djembe instruction with the brilliant Sekou Sylla, I went into the dance studio, took one big whack on my crotch, and nearly knocked myself out. It only takes one moment like that to figure out a better way. People always ask if it hurts. Maybe if I had more integrity I would try to pound my balls to the point of blacking out, but this is theatre! The crotch piece sits well above those little sperm-producing devils, and any resemblance to actual ball-banging is purely in the twisted minds of the audience.
After the shows in New York, on the sidewalk on 42nd street, Jimmy Slyde gives me that narrow beaming stare and asks, “What do you call that thing? Tink-a-link on your dink-a-link?” I didn’t really get the hilarity of the moment until a few blocks uptown, where the stress of the evening dissipated and–like so many others on the streets of New York–I began laughing hysterically to myself. The next night at the Duke the God of Tap held a bunch of performers hostage onstage before the shim-sham while he took over the mic and rambled on about the death of tap dance.
From all of the banging I use a little cheerleader move to get into the breakdown, smashing the metal under my knees together with both hands to create a loud sound, while pounding on the balls of my feet as fast as I can muster. In the 2012 Green Street Studios fundraiser I beat the leg jangles so hard that blood trickled down my leg. This little temper tantrum leads to the last section, my commentary on masturbation and the destruction of visual style in tap dance.
In my early tap daze, I thought the dancing was ‘feet only,’ that tapping good enough technically was the only ‘real’ goal, and that attention to all the myriad complex details of performance and style were beside the point. I watched as a generation got so obsessed with the same idea, and fueled by anger and ignorance, abandoned the performance qualities that made tap great. Tap became the anti-performance art, and the lowest moment of the ‘rejection of tap’ was the infamous scene in Noise/Funk that portrayed the Nicholas Brothers and Bill Robinson as sold-out darkies.
Lavaughn Robinson–an old-time tap dancer I worshipped since first taking class with him in 1987–was sitting in the dressing room at the Duke on 42nd looking at my costume and me and shaking his head. Finally he said, ‘Man, you fucking up tap dance.’ By the time the second show had arrived, he couldn’t stand it anymore: ‘Man, I gotta see this thing’. I told him, DO NOT WATCH IT FROM BEHIND! Something about the thong, Lavaughn, my butt: too much information for a mentor who had always been so kind to me.
After the show, Lavaughn could not contain his excitement: “Man, I seen the bitter end tonight. I ain’t never seen nothing like that before. You took it to another level. You took it to another bag. That motherfucker is outer space, that is mean. If there was anybody else on the show but them and you, they couldn’t follow you. You did it man. That’s all I can say.” I was so amazed by the praise coming from such a traditionalist, a titan of paddle and roll, that I took notes on the NYC subway-themed envelope that Tony Waag used for my paycheck.
Early the next morning, in the hotel lobby, I see Lavaughn again, who says, “I was thinking about you last night.” My eyebrows raised: ‘Lavaughn?’ He said, “Shit, man, not like that. You gotta have a lotta heart to do that man…a lotta heart. You got more guts than any tap dancer I ever seen. I want to see you, man, you’re gonna get involved in something way bigger than yourself. ‘Cuz you got guts, you a chance-taker. It was unbelievable.”
More than 10 years later, on a Friday night in Medford, MA, I perform the piece for the first time in over a year, and although rehearsals go well, the piece is ‘flat,’ and I leave unhappy with my performance. Saturday night, pissed at myself, I am louder, more dynamic, more physical, banging and grunting and using full force, and the Warrior reemerges. People who see both shows ask, “Did you do something different tonight?” Old repertory can be a good friend, and also a reminder that nothing lasts forever without work.
The fights we all have within ourselves make us human. Last night as I thumped my heartbeat to begin, I thought of Karen Krolak. I thought about her will to live–how she carries the amazing spirit of her mother in her work and in her relationships, how she has encouraged me in limited but revelatory interactions, and in the spirit of Karen, her parents, and her brother, I beat the crap out of myself.
Hunched over and staring at the floor, arms as awkward as possible, I begin to thump heels and toes as though on a surfboard. I keep the thumping slow, and build it into a rhythm, and then into an out-of-control train. My body stays bent over, my arms are flailing, my feet are pounding out 16th notes as fast as I can manage: I am an ugly rhythm-making machine obsessed only with itself. Building the foot rolls faster and faster, the heartbeats emerge, and the Warrior stands tall again: two clicks on the heart, one click on the head, two clicks on the heart, one final shot at my crotch. Lights out.
Made me cry, Josh! Love you.
Don’t forget that in the 2002 Tap City performance you also executed a coy, slow spin that flashed your bare bottom to the audience. This gesture honored John Ashcroft’s draping of the Spirit of Justice statue in the lobby of his office building so his press conferences would not feature the statue’s bare breasts…
Who could forget? Actually the ‘coy, slow spin’ (thank you!) was in the dance before Ashcroft covered up the statues. For the Tap City shows, I dedicated the piece to Ashcroft with an introduction that Tony Waag read. I was horrified that the US Government was spending money to cover up classical art, at the same time that I was uncovering as much of myself as possible. Thanks for digging up that piece on Ashcroft, the drapes, the justice…