Ten years later...
Randomly, somewhere in that foggy moment between dreaming and waking up this morning I remembered that 2016 marks ten years since the debut of “Imagine Tap!”, a show created and choreographed by Derick K. Grant with Aaron Tolson as his right hand man. Ten years! Wow. That blows my mind. Time really flies. Around springtime, ten years ago, a truly remarkable group of tap dancers were fiercely rehearsing at Chelsea Studios in NYC. If you're not familiar with "Imagine Tap!" I can tell you it was a pretty significant moment for tap dancers and tap dancing. It was the first major full length show to be produced having tap entirely as its premise since the revolutionary Bring in Da’ Noise/Bring in Da’ Funk ten years prior. "Imagine Tap!" intended to create an impact and these were its players, in no particular order.
Jason Samuels Smith
Tre Martin Dumas III
If THAT isn’t a dream team, I don’t know what is.
I remember being so excited hearing the idea of "Imagine Tap!" and being asked to be a part of the show. Some time in between teaching our individual classes at Steps on Broadway, Derick approached me and said “Dele, I need you.” Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t the “I need you” like “I can’t do this without you.” It seemed simply a recognition of really wanting to create something special and gather all who he knew could bring his vision to life in the absolute strongest way possible. He imagined a show that would be diverse, reconnect audiences with their love of tap dancing and open their minds to what tap was capable of achieving. What I loved most about his vision was his ability to express what he thought was unique and special about each of his potential players. I had felt that our community had been plagued by an inability to articulate appreciation for each other's talents so his candidness was refreshing and much needed. He knew that I was also an actor and he wanted me to fully express that in the piece he wanted me to lead. I originated the role of “The Doll”. The doll comes to life to a nice waltz after hours in a department store and midway through the number she gets bullied by the other toy soldiers in the store. Not for long. While toy weapons are being pointed at her she makes the decision to fight instead and one by one she takes all of them out in a pulsating, glorious 6/8 time signature. The doll is victorious. (fun anecdote. one evening two of the toy soldiers, Joseph Wiggan and Jumaane Taylor, were nowhere to be found onstage due to some backstage mishap and I was out there, in performance, fighting alone. I’m sure I looked absolutely crazy.) I was incredibly proud to dance in that segment. I can't think of a time that I didn't eagerly anticipate rehearsals and walking to the theater every day to rehearse and perform felt like a blessing. Any time we get to live out our performance dreams is a blessing.
The show was comprised of tap vignettes brought to life by singers, break dancers and each tap soloist had their own theme and scenario. Jason Samuels Smith was a Samurai meditating in his space while ninjas slowly creeped in on him to attack. The piece begins with a single candle lit downstage and Jason, in tap meditation, can sense that enemies are near. He blows out the candle and the battle ensues! He battles the ninjas and two break dancers, Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and David “Cyclone” Fogler in what was one of the most exciting dance pieces ever. Jason, in true fashion, danced his behind off! Seriously. I wish you could have seen it. If you did, lucky you! Seeing Jason dance in this show reminded me of our time in NYOTs in the late 90's. He was always being inventive on the dance floor. I’d always say “there’s the way we express ourselves and then there’s Jay”. I have always felt so fortunate dancing and performing with friends, especially when your friends are masterful and kick ass! They keep you on your toes and don’t let you get away with nonsense. When you are surrounded by dedicated and highly disciplined individuals it only pushes you to being the best you can be. I can't imagine ever wanting it to be any other way.
It was such an exciting time (and Chicago in the summertime is pretty awesome). There was camaraderie on and off the stage. We recognized the power we held as a group and we were so committed to making this the best show possible. Tap was going to be fully alive again, commercially, artistically, and we were giving our all to make sure it had the best chance possible at succeeding. We ran for 6 weeks at The Harris Theater in Chicago. An ambitious commitment for a new piece but we were COMMITTED and our hard work paid off! It was a success. The audiences loved it. Show business brings a lot of legalities and hoops to jump through and I’m not privy to the details that prevented the show from moving forward from that point. A loss to the dance world without a doubt. A revival with an alternate cast was also in the works in 2011 but never came to fruition. I can imagine it’s also very difficult to recreate the same power with different actors/dancers. It’s one of the reasons a first cast is so special in almost every production. The exciting energy and chemistry is a large part of what contributes to the success of any production. The revival plans, however, became the subject of a documentary “Tap or Die” but most importantly, the 2006 union moved the community of dancers forward and inspired us to create.
New Leaders Emerge...
Derick had a lot to do with that. From my vantage point, he brought an extraordinary group of talent together and lead us with confidence. Not just in his own ability but he was confident in each of OUR abilities. There was no competition. In rehearsals, he fostered a sense of community and leadership by pairing each of us with another dancer and calling us “cypher buddies”. Jason Janas was my cypher buddy. The “Imagine Tap!” rehearsal process was the first time I’d met him. I was immediately impressed and inspired by his work ethic and determination. After hours of rehearsals, we’d bump into each other at Fazil’s, NYC's go to studio for tap. Still practicing. Still working on something to bring the best we could to this new venture and to the art form. We have been great friends since. The “Imagine Tap!” experience seemed to generate a lot of energy towards creating. I remember rehearsing bits of Jason Samuels Smith’s tribute to Charlie Parker, “Charlie’s Angels” in the wings at the Harris Theater. He would later go on to present that show in Chicago and at The Joyce Theater. Shortly after our Chicago run, and what I thought was simply a short hiatus from IT, I started co-producing shows and workshops. Dance companies were formed, even more jams were being created, collaborations increased, and more performance opportunities were being created. We grew. I am extremely thankful for that experience in 2006 with exactly this group of people.
So many artists in this cast have achieved an incredible amount of success steadily and since 2006. You need only look at the media to see the multiple appearances on TV shows, Broadway shows, MacArthur Genius Grant recognition, concert dance venues where tap is breaking ground because of these artists. It’s a different kind of revolution and I partially credit the “Imagine Tap!” experience as empowering each of us to forge ahead confidently. I come from a personal tradition of giving credit to those who helped pave the way for me whether they be an elder or a peer. We are not lone entities walking around reaping benefits just by existing. Someone or something has helped us along the way. If they are a part of your journey, claim it. There should be no hierarchy when it comes to expressing gratitude. Life is too short. Thank you Derick for being a part of the journey and for creating an opportunity for us to do what we love. We haven’t all shared the same stage at the same time since 2006 but what that would look and sound like a decade later, I can only imagine…