Dance as Music

Savion Glover dares to let tap stand on its own

The last time acclaimed tap-dancer Savion Glover played Centennial Hall, he brought along a retinue of musicians.

Savion's own body provided the percussion for Classical Savion in 2005, but nine string musicians played classical music live onstage. A jazz combo added a funky edge.

Not this time.

In Bare Soundz, the Saturday-night concert at Centennial Hall, the only musical instruments will be the tapping feet of Glover and two other dancers. (Marshall Davis Jr., Maurice Chestnut and Keitaro Hosokawa rotate the parts.) The point is for the audience to see dance without music and, more importantly, "to see dance as music," Glover says.

"What you will be seeing is just three dancers—myself and two others," he says. Apart from the pounding by the dancers' tap shoes, "there is no additional instrumentation."

Those musically percussive shoes will play jazz and Caribbean rhythms, among other styles. A sampling of titles on the program demonstrates the concert's musical range: "Swing In." "AKA Punk Rocker." "B Bop Bird." "Blue Afros." "Mr. Calypsonian."

"There will be all types of sounds," Glover says. "Tap-dancing carries it all."

Tap-dancing has carried Glover all the way from the tough town of Newark, N.J., to renown in the dance and theater worlds. He's had roles in Hollywood, too, in 1989's Tap with Sammy Davis Jr. and tap mentor Gregory Hines, and in Spike Lee's Bamboozled in 2000.

In 2006, he pushed the boundaries of tap into mainstream American entertainment in the runaway penguin hit Happy Feet. Glover danced the part of Mumble, his fluid body converted via computer to animation.

"That was really nice, an opportunity to have the dance, the art form, presented at such a level," he says.

Glover's been tapping since he was a little kid. He's the third of three sons of the singer Yvette Glover. ("She still sings as a solo act.") But before his mom signed all three boys up for tap lessons when her youngest was 7, Savion already had a head start in music.

No surprise: He played the drums. He was in Three Plus, a band out of Teaneck, N.J., operated by the sons of jazzman Rudy Stevenson for a gaggle of kids all younger than 18.

"They had us performing all over—in the streets, in the theater, in schools, all over the tri-state area," he says. "I played not knowing that drums would be a part of me. In later years, I realized the connection of dance with music and an instrument. Knowing music, period, is important."

For dance, the Glover boys traveled into Manhattan, to the Broadway Dance Center.

"It was a cool experience going to New York, but I was going back home to play football with my friends. The lessons set me on a path," he reflects, but back then, "I wanted to be a basketball player."

Instead, at age 10, he was tapped for a part in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway.

His brothers moved on to other interests, but Glover stuck with heel rolls and shuffle-ball changes. Now just shy of 37, he was a mere 23 years old in 1996 when he starred in the Broadway tap musical Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. His choreography won nearly every prize possible, from a Tony Award, to a Drama Desk Award, to the title of Dance Magazine Choreographer of the Year.

The innovative show created a history of black America through tap, tracing its moves back to African slaves who brought the rhythms of Juba to the plantations of the American South. By the late 19th century, tap emerged as a distinctive new African American art form in the crowded cities of the East Coast, tinged, perhaps, by a little English clogging and Irish step-dancing.

Black tap-dancing became a mainstay of vaudeville, and segued into Hollywood in the golden years of movie musicals. Even when it was picked up by white stars, tap persisted on the streets in African-American neighborhoods.

A couple of Glover's tap mentors, LaVaughn Robinson and Steve Condos, a white street-tapper, started out as street buskers in the tap capital of Philadelphia, down the road from Glover's hometown.

"There were contests then," Glover says, with street dancers goading each other on to ever-more explosive technique. But the impromptu corner competitions had disappeared by the time Glover was born.

"It was no longer done on the street at that time," he says. "It was in the studio."

Still, Glover is well aware of his historical debts.

"I have tap heroes," he says, and names at least 10, including "the great Lon Chaney," a boxer-turned-tapper not to be confused with the silent film actor, "the great Jimmy Slyde, the great Steve Condos, the great LaVaughn Robinson, the great Dianne 'Lady Di' Walker.

"I had the opportunity to learn from them and love them. All of them are my heroes."

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