When thinking of the musical facility of a tap dancer one is often working on the ability to keep time. “DON’T RUSH,” comes billowing from the mouth of every tap instructor the world over! Keeping time, while essential and vital, is only a small fraction of the musical intuition one needs to be a tap dancer. Dynamics, inflection, and tonality are among the forgotten or last ingredients added when teaching, working, and practicing. I recall one of my ballet professors in college, Katie Langan, always preaching that when you dance you can not divide the technical from the artistic. “How do these things go hand in hand with one another. Where does your technique end and your artistry begin? If you are working correctly the line between technique and artistry should dissolve and they absorb one another.” Taking that logic into tap dancing I propose that we don’t work on musicality as factions and separated entities. Where does your metrical ability combine with all of the other musical elements in your dancing? Today let us take a look at some of the great musical performances of tap dancing's distinguished history.
GENE KELLY, The Master of the Crescendo and Decrescendo
Gene Kelly is often remembered for his contributions as an innovator in film and his contributions as a choreographer. Armed with a very simple tap vocabulary Mr. Kelly made up for this with an incredible sensitivity to the music and the orchestrations with which he danced. This is an element of his artistry that is often overlooked. In the 1950 MGM musical Summer Stock, Kelly famously danced with an array of pedestrian props including a squeaky board and a series of newspapers. The combination of the orchestration in this piece, coupled with Kelly’s personal dynamic choices as a performer, and the use of sound and space make the rise and fall in intensity throughout the piece the undercurrent by which this becomes an iconic dance number. Watch this clip with an eye towards the huge range with which the music and his dancing rise and fall in miraculous connection.
Joseph Wiggan, Phrasing At Its Finest
In today’s tap dance scene there are so many amazing videos of festival performances from dancers all over the globe. To see these dancers in action is to see the state of tap dance, an explosion of technique and musical facility with limited venues as vehicles for these artists to express themselves. Joseph Wiggan is one of tap dance’s finest practitioners not only for his sparkling technique and his sparkling spirit as a human being but because of some of the most beautiful phrasing in tap dance today. Just like a prolific writer, Mr. Wiggan is able to harness his steps into perfectly expressed musical phrases. Take a look at Joseph’s video from the Snowball in 2015 to see his graceful, masterful, virtuosically sublime musicality on display!
Savion Glover, The Musical and Tonal Explorer
Savion Glover is one of our generation's greatest musical dancers. What separates Glover from everyone else is his musicality informs every aspect of his dancing. The physical, the spiritual, and the emotional all flow through his musical thought. For me personally, I am always baffled by Mr. Glover’s enormous tonal range in his taps. The precision with which he can articulate a melody or tonal cadence is uncanny. Armed with heel drops, toe drops, paddles, and slurps watch Mr. Glover explore musical possibility with nuance, subtlety, command, and total mastery.
Ray Hesselink, MGM's Musical Ambassador
There was a time in show business when knowing tap was a prerequisite for being an entertainer. As with Gene Kelly, these performers had a keen sense of musicality and a sensitivity to orchestrations and personal choice in performance. This seems to have died a bit in the tap world as of late except in the case of NYC choreographer, teacher, and performer Ray Hesselink! A lover of Eleanor Powell and the Hollywood tap dancers of 1930-1950, Mr. Hesselink brings a strong sense of musicality, timing, and technique to his teaching and choreography. In this clip of Michelle Dorrance and Demi Remick watch Mr. Hasselink’s work come to exquisite musical reality in this tribute to Eleanor Powell! (To see the clip go to 36 minutes into the video, however if you have time for the full video you won't be disappointed!)
Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards, Tap's Complete Artist
To see Ms. Sumbry- Edwards in action is to see tap dance’s past, present, and future on display in one masterful moment. Gorgeous phrasing, impeccable technique, phenomenal performance chops, and impeccable musical decision making centers her dancing like no one else working on the planet. If Mr. Glover is the embodiment of the musical tap dancer, Ms. Sumbry-Edwards is the embodiment of the the total and complete tap dancer. No more explanation needed, Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards!
For obvious reasons we could not make this article about every tap dancer and what makes tap dancing cool is that the voice of each individual is unique. My hope is that you realize that keeping time is only the beginning of becoming musical. Studying musicians and other masterful tap dancers is your key to understanding the concept of communication musically. Every dancer uses the musical vocabulary but is expressive in their own unique way! How are you working on your timing and musicality? Which one comes first? For me, I am still trying to do like my professor said. “ If you are working correctly, the line between keeping time and being musical should dissolve and they absorb one another.”