Al Blackstone, NYC.
OPTAP: When did you start tapping, and for how many years did you continue to train and perform?
AB: I started tapping very early, probably 4 or 5 years old. I don't remember my first tap class but I think my Dad was my teacher. I continued studying tap up until I hit my twenties. My Mom's best friend is Germaine Salsberg and she would come and set choreography and teach master classes at our studio fairly often. We were spoiled. I don't take tap regularly anymore but I try to get into a class at STEPS at least one every couple of months. If I could I would take it all the time!
OPTAP: I know your parents own a studio and your Mom is big fan of tap dancing. Did you have much of a choice as a kid whether you were going to tap or not?
AB: Yes, my Mom is a huge fan of tap dancing! I didn't have much of a choice in the sense that no one ever asked me if I wanted to start. I just got thrown into it. But there was never a time that I didn't want to do it and someone made me.
Al and his Mom!
OPTAP: I was lucky enough to work with you when you were younger and you were very good at tap. Did you ever consider making tap the center of your training?
AB: I was lucky to have you as a teacher! You opened up a world of tap to me that I didn't know existed. I thought about spending more time tap dancing but at that time (late high school) I was very focused on becoming a contemporary dancer. Although it wasn't my focus being so inspired by this whole new world of tap was a huge blessing because my sense of musicality and style evolved quite a bit. It definitely made me better at contemporary and jazz.
OPTAP: How do you feel your tap training has helped your career?
AB: As a performer it helped me work, undoubtedly. When I got to NYC I was auditioning mainly for musicals. I was always very confident when an audition process required tapping. I was studying with Andy Blankenbuehler at the time and he often added moments of tricky soft shoe into his combos. Half of the room couldn't pick it up and I think it gave me an edge.
As a choreographer, having solid tap training has been huge for me. The last thing you want to do as a storyteller is only speak one language. It's so freeing and exciting to know that if I want to use tap to help tell a story I have that option. And let's be honest, audiences LOVE tap!
Al Blackstone's Me Before We Met
OPTAP: You and I both love a lot of the old standards. Sinatra, Bobby Darin.. Why do you think you are a fan of that style of music?
AB: That’s a great question! I grew up in a very Italian household and most of my friends were Italian so Sinatra was on a lot. But also, my sister was a member of the Harry Connick Jr Fan Club. She had a huge poster of him in her room as a teenager and I heard a lot of the classics for the first time from Harry. I'm still using that music to choreograph today. Later on I discovered Bobby Darin and was crazy inspired. His arrangements are so full of life and energy and style and personality. That's what I love about the genre. The songs are amazing but the singer brings them to life with their own brand of charisma and panache. They make people feel things and as a choreographer that's my number one goal; to make people feel.
OPTAP: Have you recently choreographed a tap piece?
AB: I have actually. In December I choreographed the opening number for a benefit here on Broadway called "Gypsy of the Year." It was a modern take on 42nd St about a stage manager that has to learn the show he's working on when a dancer drops out last minute. I was nervous about it but it was a great challenge and because I had such slid training, it came back to me right away.
Gypsy of the Year, Opening Number
OPTAP: Do you think it benefits dancers to take tap, and what do you look for in a dancer when casting?
AB: All of my favorite dancers have tap training. I think that tap makes dancers understand music and timing in a way that no other kind of dance can and it shows in everything that they do. Musicality is huge for me. Tap training also helps dancers know how to shift their weight quickly which is something I love to do in my work. When casting dancers I look for people that have a strong sense of self and can make unique choices within the framework of what I give them. They also have to be kind and generous and have a great sense of humor. Life is too short to be in a rehearsal room with no laughter!
OPTAP: What was your favorite moment ever with a pair of tap shoes on?
AB: When I was 16 my parents took me to Las Vegas for spring break and my Mom had heard that Henry Letang was giving private lessons out of his studio there. So we went, her and I, and we took a few private lessons from the master himself. He must have been in his 80's at the time. The first day we got there he asked me to show him what I could do, to improvise a little, and I froze. Later on after we had learned some choreography he said to me, "Never be afraid to show 'em what you got. You can tap, so tap!" It was an honor and I'm so grateful that she took me there. It's a very special memory, tapping next to my Mom in a room with one of the greatest tap dancers of all time.
You can follow Al Blackstone on Instagram and Twitter @alblackstonechoreo