It’s a shame that Savion Glover is trying so hard to hide from the world, because he’s the greatest tap dancer who ever breathed. Glover is touring the United States and Japan through June 2003 in his show Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, which won four Tony awards when it was on Broadway in 1996; but he has significantly reduced his dance time in it, giving over the important role of ‘Da Kid to an adequate but unexceptional 12-year-old tapper named Cartier Williams, a member of Glover’s tap ensemble, Ti Dii.
Noise/Funk attempts in two acts to tell the entire history of the African-American experience with songs, tap, voiceover narration, projected photographic stills, a drum-heavy orchestra and other percussion (pots and pans, etc.). All these elements are meant to come together synergistically into something called “‘da beat”–a driving force apparently (in the show’s mystique) unique to African-Americans. In the show, Glover and co-creator/director George Wolfe make fun of such tap legends as Bill Robinson (who appeared in many Shirley Temple movies) and the Nicholas Brothers for having sold out to white Hollywood with their “flash and grin” style. Of course, the ensemble tappers aren’t able to replicate the genius of these famous dancers, so the mockery falls particularly flat. (For a beautiful homage to Robinson, see Gregory Hines’s film Bojangles, available on video.)
Glover embodies so many contradictions that he draws energy from their mutual combustion: He looks and dresses like a child, although he’s 29; he loathes performing, yet he plays an audience like a piano, knowing exactly which effects will elicit the most applause; he believes tap is music, that it should be heard and not necessarily seen, yet, with his beaded dreadlocks that fly around his head as he turns, his brightly colored baggy cutoffs that accentuate the extreme length of his legs, and his height-enhancing woolly Rastafarian hats, he puts on an eye-popping display. He says everything from the waist up doesn’t matter in tap, yet his upper body moves with exquisite balance and counterpoint to his lower half: He often dances hunched over, with rounded arms and cupped hands like an angel’s wings canopied over, framing, as it were, the miracles he’s doing with his generous feet. His reedy shins and calves, microphoned ankles in bunched white socks and loosely held feet in black tap shoes suggest a heraldic falcon’s talons, which alternately fly from and hammer into the floor. Glover is so at one with his shoes that you are always aware of his toes, front pads and heels, each part creating different percussive sounds. His shoed feet are prehensile. Glover works the floor and the air much as a great pianist works the keyboard: Energy, tone and inflection emanate from his body’s center–the base of his spine–through his limbs, then extremities. It’s all touch.
In late November, I went to the Providence Black Repertory Company in the beautifully restored downtown of the port and capital of Rhode Island (the first state to prohibit the importation and trading of slaves, in 1774) to see Glover give what was billed as a half-hour lecture demonstration. (Why only a half-hour? I never found out.) The event was by invitation only and the place was packed, downstairs and on a balcony with a view of a small, banked, empty stage. I was happy to see so many young people but not surprised that there were hardly any whites, judging by the “invitation only” format and by the fairly ugly Afrocentric message intoned throughout Reg Gaines’s wordy–to the point of drowning out the tap–libretto to Noise/Funk. The event had been delayed by an hour (no reason given), so anticipation ran high. After another ten minutes, the sound of tapping could be heard along with recorded music, and Glover’s bowed head could be glimpsed swaying behind the stage. At first, everyone took this to be a cute way of entering the stage, but after several more minutes of Glover’s head bobbing and the audience straining to see him, someone (OK, me) spoke up, “Can we see your feet, please?” Moments of silence passed. Then, in answer to my question, Glover raised his pair of tap shoes and dangled them above the stage. No one laughed. That seemed to do the trick because Glover hopped on stage and starting tapping one foot metronomically while telling the audience all about his show, Noise/Funk, and why they should all buy tickets to see it the following evening at the Providence Performing Arts Center. He then graciously took a few questions from the crowd. One man said he liked Glover’s solo in the show in which he pays homage to four great hoofers–Lon Chaney, Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown and Chuck Green–demonstrating to perfection their distinctive styles. (It’s my favorite bit, too.) I think the fellow was hoping Glover would do it then and there. Instead, Glover asked for, and rejected, a succession of musical recordings before giving a thumbs up to some Bob Marley. To the beautifully rich reggae beat, he then soared into some of the most spectacular, most thrilling minutes of dance I have ever witnessed–the fastest, clearest, hardest, most toying-with-the-rhythm, superhuman tap imaginable. Then it was over almost as soon as it began, and Glover coaxed a little girl from the audience to join him on stage and announced, “Anybody can tap.”
I waited half an hour while Glover signed autographs: I was told that I would be the last person to interview him and that I had to stick to the allotted ten minutes. Fine. He was sitting with his sneakers unlaced, so, because it’s the first thing every dancer really wants to know about another dancer and because by this time I wanted to cut to the chase, I asked Glover to show me his feet and offered to show him mine, which are pretty banged up from toe dancing. He refused. I quickly moved on.
Because my grandfather, who was Scottish, was a good tap dancer, I then asked Glover whether he acknowledged any Celtic influence on tap. He said, “What’s Celtic?” I tried to explain, feeling distinctly “ofay”–the old jazz term that is pig Latin for “foe.” Incredulous, Glover said sarcastically, “Oh, you mean Riverdance? No, there is no white influence on tap.” Since I’m not a masochist, I cut the interview short, politely pointed out that his own book, Savion: My Life in Tap, co-written by Bruce Weber, mentions Scottish and Irish influences on tap, and handed him a gift I’d brought: a CD of Arthur Rubinstein playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), on the inside of which I had written, “To Savion: Your feet remind me of Rubinstein’s hands.” I left without looking back.