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Tap Into Your Inner Dancer!

Justyna Zajac, Associate Publicist

In honor of National Tap Dance Day (May 25) Oxford is celebrating with Constance Valis Hill, author of Tap Dancing America. Hill is Professor of Dance at Hampshire College and a jazz tap dancer, choreographer, and highly respected scholar of performance studies whose writings have appeared in Dance Magazine, Village Voice, Dance Research Journal, Studies in Dance History, and Discourses in Dance. She studied with Charles “Cookie” Cook and various members of the Copasetics, performed as one member of the tap-dancing Doilie Sisters, and directed “Sole Sisters” for the Changing Times Tap Company. Her book, Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers (2000), received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award.  In the excerpt below,  Hill shares a contemporary tap dance scene full of rich choreography.

Charlie’s angels was Jason Samuels Smith’s 2006 tap choreography for his three muses of dance. Set to a suite of historical recordings by the bebop saxophone virtuoso Charlie “Bird” Parker, it opens with Parker’s flickering, birdlike four-bar entry into “Star Eyes,” which then flattens out into a smooth crooning of the theme, as tap dancers Chloe Arnold, Ayodele Casel, and Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards execute elongated wipes that sweep their legs off the floor. Dancing in unison precision, not only in step but in the exact millimeter of their slides, they are a commanding triple-etched threat on the massive stage of Chicago’s Harris Theatre; the basic pulse stated by Ray Brown on double bass is a throbbing undercurrent.

Casel and Arnold split the first section of Parker’s improvised chorus. Casel follows Parker’s notes, but meanders off to hit her own tap style of heel-and-ball paddle-and-rolling; Arnold curvaceously shapes the notes with arms and leg-sliding ronde de jambs made frilly by the swishing skirts of her black halter-necked dress. Sumbry follows, melting into the elegant Hank Jones piano solo by setting down each of her taps with soulful selectivity—then not so dutifully, jutting into her own glittering steps in counterpoint, to break Brown’s bass phrasings out of its meditation.  The women join together, in the final A-section of the second chorus, for a muted obbligato of shuffling waltz clogs and tapping turns—a finishing sendoff to Parker’s flyaway riffs.

Chloe Arnold then dances with an exhilarating joie de vivre in her brazen solo to “Mango Mangue,” played by Francisco Raúl Gutiérrez Grillo’s Machito Orchestra, with Parker on alto sax. Behind the seeming abandon and hothouse fire ignited in her feet is a calculated design in how Arnold presents herself—a sassy assuredness in using legs, hips, and snaking arms while delivering piston-slapping beats in two-inch high heels. In her solo to “Moose the Mooche,” Ayodele Casel takes on each of Charlie Parker’s saxophone riffs note for note; like the “mooche” in the title, she surreptitiously reclaims the paddle-and-roll for her high-heeled shoes. Treading sideways, head cocked in the opposite direction from where she is traveling, with arms crooked at the elbows and wrists dangling daintily over scuffling feet, she cruises with the beat. Her beboppity rhythms add up to small nuances of pulse, accent, and division of beats that perforate Parker’s melody line.

Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards returns to the stage in a red tanktopped leotard and black tights, like snakeskin over her muscled body, for her solo to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” With its plaintive ghosts of gospel and rhythm-and blues, the tune is a pinnacle of hard bop, and one of Parker’s and pianist Bud Powell’s masterpieces in jazz improvisation. She immerses herself in the music, delivering a lean and athletic performance shorn of inessential detail. From the authority of years of experience, she improvises with emotion and constant invention at tempos beyond the reach of most rhythm dancers, typing right over Parker’s improvised flight in her high-heeled, t-strapped shoes. Her delivery, a tight-lipped diatribe of sixteenth-note shuffles and flaps, is given momentum by twisting, turning, and spiraling her torso to meet the back leg as preparation for a step. Her technical mastery is staggering—her acid-cool delivery driving like drumming-in-tongues.

Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” played by Gillespie (trumpet and vocals), Curly Russell (bass), Sid Catlett (drums), and Parker (alto sax) defines the bop idiom in its primal form. Dramatic, restless in attack, and full of sharp contrasts, it creates a dynamic sense of insecurity in listeners who feel attacked from unexpected angles. The women are up for it. Raising their arms in a three-fisted salute, they disperse into conjoining spotlights to conduct a three-ringed attack on the band’s wildchild delivery of non sequiturs. Tapping in unison, they take on one risk after another in a furious, note-for-note matching of the lines. Then they divide up to conquer—Arnold going head to head with Russell’s bass, Sumbry water-snaking over Parker’s lines; and Casel matching Gillespie’s stinging, elaborately detailed, and daringly high-flown phrases. Joining together in a screeching finish over Catlett’s drum solo, their bullet taps fuse into a stuttering diatribe—a headlong collision with the ghosts of those bebop kings. If only Parker and Gillespie were alive to witness these dancers and their tour de force interpretations, they would fall to their knees in mesmerized awe to kiss.

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