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Published February 2004 in Dancer Magazine
Bring it On, Savion
It’s a sunny November afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, and Savion Glover, possibly the greatest living tap dancer, and a national treasure, is visiting the Children’s Museum to do one of the things he does best – perform for and teach a group of 30 – 40 people, most under the age of nine.
The event is unadvertised, and only a dozen kids are wearing tap shoes. But Savion is in his element. He presents a side view of his lean frame (5’ 9”, 162lbs), and taps out a hello. He spends about two minutes dancing before he calls on the children to join him. “Do you want to do a tap dance for the audience? Come on. Show me what you’ve got. Follow me. Right foot.” And soon, Savion and the kids are performing together, to the delight of everyone present.
Savion’s breakout style ventures far afield from formulaic tap practiced by great hoofers Bojangles Robinson, Fred Astaire, and Gregory Hines. For Savion, tapping is a way of teaching. Sound is experience: it communicates ideas. He was a regular on PBS’s Sesame Street, as a tap-dancing character named Savion “I would say one of the most influential experiences I’ve had, thus far, and I was really totally blown away, and amazed,” he drawls, as much an expert of comic timing as he is of dancing, “was when I got the chance to work with Big Bird.“
After the children’s show, he takes a few questions from the tiny audience. When one person asks, perhaps because Savion has made videos with rap artists Sean Combs and Red Man, “How important to you is the relation of tap dance to hip hop culture?” Savion takes the opportunity to slam what he clearly considers a narrow vision of art categories. “The art of tap dancing has nothing to do with the hip hop culture. The art of tap dancing is a culture in itself. There’s always the chance that I might use that music, but I was tap dancing when hip hop wasn’t so popular. I’m like Kool Herc.” Hip hop artist Kool Herc performed on the streets of New York before the style was picked up by record companies, before it was cool.
The visit to the Children’s Museum is the first event leading to a new show premiering at Atlanta’s Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, November 11 – 16, 2003, and continuing, beginning December 16, for three weeks at the Joyce Theatre in New York. The program isa jazz jam set to a medley of Broadway tunes, including “Singing in the Rain;” “My Favorite Things;” “Midnight,” from Cats; “Hey Big Spender,” from Sweet Charity; and Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven.” The six-member band, including jazz piano great, Tommy James, and bass violinist Andy McCloud, whose CD Blues for Bighead earned Soundstage’s Best Jazz Album of the Year Award, in 2001, sit behind plexiglass screens to temper their instruments against the sounds of Savion’s tapping feet.
Savion dances the first half-hour of the show with his back to the audience, and when he at last turns to face us, his eyes are shut. This is dance that is much less about the visual – what we see – than it is about sound. Rather than performing tap tricks, in a look-what-I- can-do display, he listens – and invites the audience to listen with him – as he corners an area of the floor and explores it. The movement is tight and centered; Savion rarely becomes expansive or takes over the stage in a broad way. This is dance that is about music, not about a star, and Savion’s body, like the body of a Balanchine ballerina, is an instrument.
Andy McCloud, who plays bass violin at St Nick’s jazz club, in Harlem, which is also where he met Savion, was hired both for the Atlanta and NewYork runs. He told me: “Savion made a rough sketch of the music for the first night, and since it worked, he kept it, adding in only a few things.”
I saw the Rialto show twice, on opening night, and then the following Saturday, and there were distinct differences in the two performances, especially in the work of Savion’s cast, tap dancers XX, XX and XX. On opening night, each of the three young people entered the stage alone and did a rehearsed routine. By Saturday, Savion had refined this section of the performance to reflect his personality: his joy in hoofing, his commitment to teaching a new generation, and to movement that is conversation. Savion tapped out a melody, and the dancers returned it to him. He played it again, and they sent it back to him one more time. The next review contained bright embellishments, tapped out with spirit and vigor. In the final turn, Savion, musicians and cast joined together in a jam that the impromptu, call and response routine had brought into being.
Up until now, Savion has communicated his artistic vision in original programs like Savion Glover’s Nu York and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, entirely with his feet. But for Savion at the Rialto, he sang “The Way you Look Tonight,” joyously, with a promising rhythmic awareness and graceful, thirties style. When I caught up with Savion at the Children’s Museum, November 4, I asked him what was new for him in this performance.
SG: To give you [an] aspect of my performance that you’ve never witnessed before, and just work on what I know. I’m just the same old dude. What’s new is basically my association with the Nederlander. This show is letting the audience in on what I really do, at the same time I’m thanking the Nederlander for letting me be a part of what it is they do.
CMP: Can you tell me what the effect of Greg Hines’s transition has been on you, on your work?
SG: I really can’t explain it. I haven’t figured out the words. It’s just something that has affected the rest of my life, sooner than anticipated. It was like he was my father, you know.
CMP: Now it’s like you have two pairs of dance shoes to fill.
SG: No. No, I don’t feel like that.
CMP: Why did you choose dance over music? Music seems like the obvious choice, something anybody would pick. Why go for dance, instead?
SG: Dance sort of picked me. I started out as a drummer. But once my moms started us in tap class it was like boy scouts. We went to boy scouts, we went to vacation Bible school and we went to dance class. It was something to do. I didn’t know it would lead to this, or what type of impact it would have in my life. You know – this wasn’t my plan, and I didn’t choose it. It chose me.
CMP: When did you know that you were just going to keep on dancing?
SG: Um – yesterday. [Laughs].
CMP: What do you think that means, as a dancer, being independent? Is it important? SG: To be a good dancer amongst a company of course requires a strong level of independence. To be in a group allows you to exercise everything you know as an individual. Not only being able to perform, but being able to perform with – to listen to what’s going on, on the other side of the room. To be a solo artist is another sense of independence.
CMP: From the outside, you seem to have led a charmed existence. We perceive you as someone the world has never said “no” to.
SG: What? Say that again?
CMP: Someone the world has never said ‘no’ to.
SG: Oh, wow. [Laughs]. Wow.
CMP: Have you encountered obstacles?
SG: Just living, there are obstacles. But you know, I’m here. I’m here now. I think I’ve just completed a cycle in my life, which has made the next cycle clear. Clear with myself, clear with God, and with what I am and why I am. It’s just as clear as – air. I’m able to attack with clarity. I can punch [the age of] thirty right in the eye when I see him next week. Bing bing.
CMP: Many dancers feel they have to make a choice between a dance career and college.
SG: I come from a generation of dancers who weren’t afraid to take a nine-to-five that paid six dollars. We live in a generation now where – five, six dollars? For a nine-to-five? You’re out of your mind. I need twenty thousand. [Laughs]. But I come from a generation where they knew how to work, go to school, and take dance class. Now, this generation is like [snaps fingers, taps feet] – pop – quick pop – quick pop. Instant. Everything’s instant. So that makes it kind of hard for the kids. They think New York is where it is. I tell the kids: You are where it is. If you’re in Witcheta, that’s where it is. It’s in Witcheta. That’s why I big them up – all these kids that come to New York, and just want to dance. They’re so powerful. They’re so strong. Knowing who you are, and what you have to do in order to maintain who you are – it takes awhile for some people. You can put some people in New York and they know just [snaps] they’re just like that to everything. Uptown, downtown, the movie scene, the club scene, the entertainment field, the music. And then you put some people in New York, and – Alice in Wonderland. They don’t know what to do, get nervous, oh it’s too much, break down, they had an audition, the producer said: ‘You will be nothing,’ duh duh ta duh, oh my whole career’s – debauchery! [Laughs]. I’m over! Dance is a matter of seriousness, devotion, love for the craft. It costs more to be focused, to give it your full attention, [to] say this is what I’m doing. This is what I am.
CMP: People like to talk about the price of fame, how growing up in the limelight takes its toll. You haven’t fallen into any of that. How have you managed it?
SG: All this stuff is cool – the press, the newspaper, tv. It’s cool, but we would still be doing this somewhere in the dance studio, somewhere in somebody’s basement, somewhere up in the club, when there’s five people around. I guess my head is just not set on fame and fortune. I’d rather teach the kids who Jimmy Slyde is. I’d rather teach this person who Lon Chaney was – not the actor or the boxer – the tap dancer. These are our heroes. These are our pioneers of the world. I’m a part of that, just passing it on.