Josh’s Story

josh hilberman's ukelele one man band

Josh Hilberman's Heeling Powers with Paul Arslanian








Since 1988 I have enjoyed an insider’s role in the resurgence of tap dance, participating as teacher, performer, choreographer, and producer.  Among my proudest professional accomplishments are/were the close personal relationships I maintained with my mentors, who included all-time greats and virtual unknowns:  Brenda Bufalino, James ‘Buster’ Brown, Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, Dean Diggins, Gene Medler, Sarah Petronio, Lavaughn Robinson, Joe ‘Buck and Wing’ Stirling, and Norman Wallace.

I have served as faculty and performer in more than a hundred tap festivals–the epicenter of the tap boom–as well as taught hundreds of workshops in private dance studios.  Additionally, through the years I have served on the faculties of the prestigious Leon Collins Tap Dance Studio, Roger Williams University, Mount Holyoke College, and The Boston Conservatory of the Performing Arts. 

As a producer I have created dozens of original tap shows, all with live music, and many in consort with perhaps the most significant pianist of the tap revival, Paul Arslanian. This includes two solo shows, White Jew Blues and Heeling Powers; a decade of Best of Boston jazz club shows; and two decades collaborating with Germans Kurt Albert and Klaus Bleis–known as Tap and Tray–including the absurdist, satirical World Championships of Paddle and Roll in Nürnberg, Germany.

As a performer I improvised a decade of concerts throughout New England and Europe with some of the finest jazz musicians in the world, including jazz festivals and clubs in the US, France, Spain, and Australia; co-founded the company Stoptime (1988-1998); danced from 1995-1997 with the New York-based Manhattan Tap; toured with the New York-based Tap City on Tour; and have toured Europe annually since 1993 as a soloist.

As a choreographer for groups, I cut my teeth on the collaborative Stoptime–creating works for three dancers and jazz trio–and on two formative youth ensembles, the Washington, DC, Tappers with Attitude, and Chapel Hill’s The North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble.  I set work on companies in Amsterdam, Berlin, Boston, Calgary, New York, and elsewhere, and served as teacher and developer of repertory for the Barcelona tap community for nearly a decade.

In the year 2000 I was hired as artist-in-residence by Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in Calgary, Canada, to spend three months training the jazz dancers in tap, and to create works for two weeks of performances with the company.  2001:  A Tap Odyssey, the resulting show, featured new group works for dancers who had a range of ability from zero to advanced when we started the project.  In 2010 the company brought me back, for 2010: A Tap Oddity, and built a new show incorporating my solo works, repertory from 2001, and jazz dance solos.  None of my work has ever looked so good as when given proper rehearsal time and staff dedicated to staging and production details, assembled under the watchful eyes of jazz dance guru Vicki Adams Willis, and performed by this troupe of true thoroughbred dancers.

In 2001, I created Cappella Josh for a pair of Dutch dancers, and taught the piece in a workshop in Barcelona.  The dancers of Barcelona quickly adopted the tacet dance as their ‘theme,’ and on my return to Barcelona after a 5-year absence I was shocked to learn that virtually all the dancers in Barcelona knew it, performing Cappella Josh as the finale for shows and jam sessions.

In 2006, I was the first outsider given the Premi Claqueta, an award honoring my decade of contributions to Barcelona’s tap dance scene.

Between 1997-2002 much of my creative energy focused on The World Championships of Paddle and Roll, a satire of dance competition begun as a joke in Paderborn, Germany (‘where the Paddle was Born–Paddleborn–Paderborn’) in concert with Kurt Albert and Klaus Bleis in 1995. The only rule was that every dancer had to employ the tap style paddle and roll in the contest.

In 2000 we staged Birth of the Paddle, an original 45-minute musical setting the origin of the paddle and roll on a German farm in the late 1800’s.  Featuring 11 of the finest dancers from the US, Germany, and the Netherlands, the dance drama was my response to what I perceived as absurdist thinking among my peers in the American subculture of tap dance.  The second half of the concert was the Championships, which had exploded into a full-blown effort to capture the trophy, with elaborate costumes and theatrics sometimes involving fireworks.  For the 2000 contest, I created Yankee Doodle Dandy, a red, white, and blue-costumed piece for penny whistle, paddle and roll, and sparklers.

For the 2002 World Championships I undressed, and made a tap dance in imitation of the brilliant Canadian dancemaker Marie Chouinard.   The Warrior, a semi-nude, tap and chain mail-costumed fetish dance, commented on inner struggles and masturbatory dance styles.  My performance of The Warrior at New York’s Tap City garnered mention in the 2011 tap history tome, Tap Dancing America.  The African-American tap great and ultra-traditionalist Lavaughn Robinson, who first taught me in 1987, saw the Tap City performance and said, “Man, you took it to the bitter end tonight.  I never seen nothing like that.  I mean, I seen every tap dancer in the last 50 years, and none of ’em could follow you with that piece.  None of ’em.”

Between 2000 and 2009, MAD Theatricals, a collaboration led by Drika Overton with Dean Diggins, Brenda Bufalino, Paul Arslanian, myself, and assorted others, created three original shows–Clara’s Dream: A Jazz Nutcracker, Music Hall Follies, and Off the Beaten Path. Inspired by Duke Ellington, Clara’s Dream used original music played by a 6-piece band, tap dance, Lindy Hop, Irish dance, and African dance and drumming.  The show featured 4 generations of dancers and ran for 7 seasons. Music Hall Follies was an original vaudeville show featuring Bill Irwin and Fayard Nicholas, and the 2008-2009 tour of Off the Beaten Path mused on environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.

In 2003, Pedestal Man was an 8-minute vaudeville-style act for three round platforms, dancing in and around the platforms, stacking them and finishing on top, as the topper on a wedding cake.  Antithesis of the incredible acrobatic acts of the 1930’s, Pedestal Man made short leaps look incredibly difficult and terrifying.  I performed the act for the all-time acrobatic great Fayard Nicholas, who laughed from beginning to end.

Ukulele Man, created in 2005, was a solution to the problem of what to do when there were no musicians hired on a gig.  Another vaudeville-style act, also 8 minutes, the multi-tasking involved playing ukulele, whistling, tap dancing, and kazoos, all while offering comedic running commentary.

My first piece to solve the problem of tap without accompaniment, a scat and tap improvisation using the Langston Hughes poem Motto, emerged around 1995 from a duet with the esteemed jazz drummer Alan Dawson.  The piece featured call and response with the audience, vocal improvisation on the text, dance and music improvisation, and trading around the theme.  After Alan’s death, by necessity I began performing the piece as a solo, and over the years it has been a most ‘portable’ dance.

In 2005, I was awarded the prestigious Dance USA/National Endowment for the Arts National College Choreographic Initiative, for a 10-day residency to create new work with the Wayne State Dance Company at Wayne State University, in Detroit, MI.

From 2005-2007, I was part of the collaborative creative quartet led by conceptual tap artist Thomas Marek, performing his multi-media show, About Tap. Housed at Düsseldorf’s Tanzhaus, and later at Hamburg’s Kampnagel, the show–biographical sketches of the dancers enhanced by video, sound design, and photography–had three successful seasons in Germany’s two premier centers for contemporary dance.

After nearly decade of watching the finest young women artists in the field dance like men while reclaiming high-heeled tap shoes, I couldn’t stand it any more, and for my 2008 solo show created High Heelberman.  Set to a pair of ragtime pieces, and costumed like an ungainly man with shorts, t-shirt, and character shoes set off by white athletic socks, I dance in an old-fashioned, feminine style of Broadway tap, and finish off with the spectacular Buck and Wing.  The show, Heeling Powers, toured for the next 3 years–including performances in Boston, Hartford, NYC, and Germany–and opened the 2010 Tap Ahead Festival, Germany’s largest, at Düsseldorf’s Tanzhaus.

In 2009, for mentoring the young dancer Dan Mitra, I was awarded the Presidential Scholars Program Teacher Recognition Award, from the US Dept. of Education.

In 2012, I was co-creator of an original tap opera, Euridike, to be performed at a later date with the prestigious WDR Rundfunk Orchestra in Cologne, Germany.  I was a special guest in Amsterdam’s first International Tap Dance Day Concert, and featured teacher and performer at the University of Ballarat (Australia) in the inaugural Tap Rhythm Festival.  My work was featured at Tappin’ the Yard, first-ever tap event at the center for contemporary dance, The Yard, on Martha’s Vineyard.  My touring life continued with German and New England tours of Tap, Tray, and the Fool.

In 2013, I relocated to Liège, Belgium, where I live with my wife Stéphanie and our baby Félix.  As of January,  2014, I have begun to teach weekly classes in Liége as I search for space to open my very first school of tap dance.  In the spring of 2014 I am again busy with international workshops and festivals, including Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, and Barcelona, as well as a June trip back ‘home’ to Kittery, ME for the 2014 Kittery Percussive Dance Festival.

Josh Hilberman at International Tap Dance Day show, Amsterdam, 2012.  Photo by Frans Kraan.

Josh Hilberman at International Tap Dance Day show, Amsterdam, 2012. Photo by Frans Kraan.

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