Every tap dancer has two things inside of them; a musician and a performer. Tap dancers have the challenging task of having to sound and look good at the same time. The more I study the art form I realize tap is a balancing act between these two forces. Your own personality is a huge factor in developing who you are as an artist. It’s amazing to me that some dancers are known for certain steps and essentially create their own styles. Some performances tip the scale towards the show business aspect of tap, like Donald O’Connor in Make Em Laugh. And some favor the musical side like Savion Glover performing Live In The Greene Space. This is not to say that Donald O’Connor isn't musical and Savion Glover is not a performer, it’s just to say that these particular performances tip the scale about as far as you can in either direction.
Which way do you, as an artist, tip the scale? Are you more of a performer? Do you focus more on the musical aspect? I was always drawn to the performers that could slide the scale back and forth effortlessly between the two.
Gregory Hines could connect with an audience like nobody else but could be such a musician at the same time. It was so impressive to see someone so comfortable of an artist that he could connect with everyone musically and emotionally. Not only could Gregory tap with the best of them, but every time he performed he inevitably had a moment where a perfectly placed pause or a moment of silliness would bring the audience into an uproar. The combination of his technical skill and his obvious love for the art form is the reason I dedicated my life to tap dancing as well as many others.
Jimmy Slyde is another person that was able to have a visual effect over an audience as well as a musical one. I learned from watching Jimmy, the few times I was fortunate enough to be around him, that he was a master at focusing the audience’s eye. If he was doing a wing with his right foot, he would freeze and shape the rest of his body in a way that made you look at the wing. There is an art to that. His ear and his technique made him masterful enough to be one of the musicians, but at the same time used his slides and personality to be so visual that the whole audience just couldn’t take their eyes off of him.
Writing about these two legends and thinking about tap dancing in general reminds me that tap dancing is an art form that can move people in more than one way. It’s not always about how fast, difficult, or athletic a step may be. It’s also not always about how theatrical or showy a step may be. It’s the care and quality of how a step sounds and reads visually that connects the performer and the audience rhythmically. Like Ella Fitzgerald sings,