Savion Glover's tap-dancing mission (2023)

4 April 2014Last updated at 00:49

By Vincent DowdArts Correspondent, BBC World Service

Savion Glover's tap-dancing mission (1) Tony award-winning Savion Glover also choreographed the Oscar-winning animation Happy Feet

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Savion Glover has been called the most creative tap-dancer in America today. He's made it his mission to explore and develop tap's deep roots in African American culture. Now he's bringing his acclaimed show SoLe Sanctuary to London for a series of dates at Sadler's Wells.

Downtown Newark just off the New Jersey Turnpike is not where you'd expect to find a school for tap-dancing.

But Savion Glover insists most of us get tap completely wrong: he hopes his Hooferzclub School for Tap will counter some of tap's glitzier trappings.

He doesn't claim tap is exclusively black in its heritage but he believes the creativity of black America has given tap its status in US culture.

Broadway is less than an hour away from Newark but Savion Glover's style has little in common with the tap-dancing you'll currently see in musicals like Newsies or Bullets Over Broadway.

"My approach to tap has a relationship to what we as African Americans went through in this country. To an extent it's what we continue to go through - the struggle to be recognised."

Savion Glover's tap-dancing mission (2) Glover made his Broadway debut at 12 in the Tap Dance Kid but has largely left commercial theatre behind him

Savion Glover is sitting in the room he's carved out as both theatre and education space at his base in Newark. He proselytises for a dance form he admits he signed up for as a boy mainly to have something to do on Saturday mornings.

"We have all kinds of people come here, from young Korean students to older African Americans. They learn tap not to be the best tap-dancer ever but because it helps them grow as people."

Surprise hit

As a choreographer, Glover first got noticed for Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk in 1995, which won him a Tony Award. The show used a blend of tap and rap to relate the black experience in America.

It was a surprise hit on Broadway but Glover' has mainly now left the commercial theatre behind.

"There's a piece we're doing in the London show called Entering the Monastery of His Outness. It gives me the chance to enter a realm through tap-dance which reaches a point of meditation.

"When we get to that point, if you can dig it, we focus on the great men and women of tap - mentors such as Gregory Hines, Chuck Green, Steve Condos and Jimmy Slyde."

Savion Glover's tap-dancing mission (3) Glover starred alongside his hero Gregory Hines on Broadway in Jelly's Last Jam - here they are performing at the New York City Tap Festival

Mark Knowles is an American dancer and choreographer who's written books chronicling the development of tap in the US.

"There are three main sources for tap in America. Probably they came together in the Five Points area, a tough part of Lower Manhattan in the nineteenth century.

"Five Points is where Irish step-dancing and English clog-dancing joined with the African tradition, which descended from sacred roots.

"After the Civil War they all melded into something which was utterly American - just as jazz and ragtime and musical theatre would be later.

"But I think Savion Glover is right - it's the African American influence which really gives tap its flavour and texture. It's where a lot of the syncopation and the improvisation come from.

"But it's a complex story because you soon hit part of the American theatrical tradition which people today are uneasy with.

"English and Irish performers would put on blackface and impersonate black styles of dance and movement because those styles were popular.

Unacceptable today

Those minstrel forms would be unacceptable today but it was how American tap drew inspiration from both African and European traditions.

"Where things changed was with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Everything black was popular in certain big cities.

"The trend extended from heavyweight dramatists to jazz music and dance forms. It was when dances such as the Charleston and the Black Bottom became hugely popular."

Savion Glover's tap-dancing mission (4) Glover starred in the 2000 Spike Lee film satire Bamboozled about a modern minstrel show performed by black dancers

Mark Knowles says tap benefitted from the same fashion, though always remained a dance to be admired rather than attempted by amateurs.

There was an entire vaudeville circuit in the 1920s and 1930s which featured black dancers and other performers, called the T.O.B.A circuit. The initials stood for the Theatre Owners Booking Association, though some claimed it stood for Tough On Black Ass. A few music acts such as Fats Waller progressed to wider audiences, but most did not.

"But what's marvellous today," says Mark Knowles, "is to go online and see at least the bigger dance acts such as Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers.

"People are rediscovering a whole tradition of black tap-dancing which in its own day became marginalised.

"Fayard and Harold Nicholas were amazing dancers and superb showmen. But that talent was only going to get them so far in the society they lived in.

"Just look at them doing their big dance number in the film Stormy Weather (1943). It's irresistible."

'Best dance sequence ever'

The Nicholas Brothers' breathtakingly athletic performance was described by Fred Astaire as the best dance sequence ever committed to celluloid and it's hard to disagree.

Yet almost all dance-sequences of the era which featured black performers went into movies in such a way that the reel could easily be skipped for the US Deep South.

Savion Glover's tap-dancing mission (5) The Nicholas Brothers' in Stormy Weather leapt across the orchestra's music stands and danced on the top of a grand piano

Savion Glover isn't about to knock Fred Astaire's dancing skills but he thinks generations of white dancers drew inspiration from black talent without full acknowledgement.

"You have to admit whoever was doing tap-dancing at that time had to have seen a black person do it. Then maybe the other person became well-known for it.

"So the Hollywood style was strictly for entertainment and it doesn't really appeal to me. My style is more edu-tainment - it has to have an element of education.

"So when I'm on stage in London with my dance partner Marshall Davis, the audience has to learn something through us.

"We're drawing on a tradition from the 19th Century when African Americans were allowed little freedom of expression.

"I think developing our own dance form was very important at a time when black people had to be careful what they said or wrote.

"Naturally we make sure audiences have a good time too. I can look back at old footage of an act like Buck and Bubbles or Bojangles and I take huge pleasure in it.

"But I'm also aware of the circumstances they had to perform in and the pressures they were under in the industry and in society.

"That's one of the most important things we do in the school. We let people see that whole tradition, even if we only have limited footage to show people. But for me it makes the school sort of holy ground.

"So when I dance on stage I don't do what the old guys used to do. America has changed. But it's their tradition we're honouring."

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