Tap dance is one of the original American dance forms that evolved during the come-up of jazz music dating back to when European and African expressions merged in Congo Square between African slaves and the Irish, similarly to how breakdancing evolved alongside hip-hop in our recent memory. The Revivalist caught up with two of The Tap Messengers–a collective of tap virtuosos committed to preserving the integrity of jazz culture–to examine the history and cultural makeup, musicality, and mechanics of tap. No lesson is complete without a step-by-step tutorial. The fabulous Michela Marino Lerman and Lisa La Touche demonstrate some basics, and show us how to create a conversation with the melding of movements, sounds, and rhythms.
How did the Tap Messengers get started?
M: The Tap Messengers started in the winter of last year. We put the group together to perform as a part of the Carefusion Jazz Festival with the Revive Da Live Big Band.
How does tap dancing relate to music in terms of improvisation and interaction when you go to jam sessions and concerts?
L: I think we both like to think of tap dancing as not only a dance art form but also a form of making music. The art form of tap evolved with the evolution of swing and the big band era. To us it’s always been something that’s like peanut butter and jelly. It just goes together. So we want to be able to express ourselves with our technique and our craft the way any other jazz musician would.
M: It’s also the tradition in both art forms to have tap dancers featured with the band. It’s kind of an old school tradition that was lost along the way. There were also many jazz musicians, especially drummers, who took up tap dancing in order to improve their drumming skills, and vice versa. So besides being a musical dance form, we’re carrying on a tradition that has been happening for a hundred years.
Who do you derive your influence from?
M: Well musicians there are just so many. My mentors in tap were Gregory Hines, Buster Brown, LeRoy Myers, and Jimmy Slyde.
L: I would definitely say the same and also it really inspired me that a lot of people knew this tap dancer Baby Laurence. And then as we get to know all these musicians, we find out how many of the drummers study tap dance. So the list goes on, it’s so long.
M: From drummers to everybody, horn players. We love listening to everybody.
How does tap dancing relate to hip-hop?
M: Tap relates to hip-hop because it was born in the street and people kind of sharing ideas between two different cultures or two different styles. There was a convergence every Sunday at Congo Square in New Orleans where Irish dancers saw the slaves every Sunday. This was the only time they were allowed to be free and express their woes and struggles. Irish dancers saw their dancing, so this is where the Irish step dancers and the African dancers fused. I think similarly, how hip-hop is kind of born out of the youth wanting a way to express themselves and vocalize is the same thing as the slaves were trying to express and vocalize their feelings. It came from the street where people could really see it and exchange.
L: In terms of the musical styles, hip-hop was born in the era that came after jazz. Tap dance was one of America’s first vernacular dance form. The relationship to hip-hop is still a musical relationship. Like right now everybody is starting to play hip-hop with live elements. Traditionally, once the jazz music era was dipping off a little bit, a lot of tap dancers felt lost. So eventually a cross fusion had to happen if you want to use that word. Someone like Gregory Hines is one of the first people to actually bridge that gap of you know, hip-hop is still music and we have a way of expressing ourselves as well. So whether you call it hip-hop or funk or whatever the genre of popular music at the time, just the feeling of expressing ourselves with our art forms.
When you’re tap dancing, aside from your lower body, your upper body is also being involved. Can you talk a little about that?
L: There’s really a dance element and a music element. Some people focus more on one or the other. There are different lineages that you can pursue. Every move is either going to be an improvisation or a step. It’s all a matter of style though. You have to develop your own style.
M: Oftentimes when we are improvising or just trading with each other, it’s about ourselves. Not that upper body is lost, but especially when it’s just us working out with each other or we’re in a jam session where it’s about the music, we want people to listen to us and look at our feet. When I was growing up I always got criticized for not smiling and looking cute because I was a girl. At one point I got so frustrated and asked Gregory Hines, what do I do. He said, “If you don’t feel like smiling, don’t. Do what you feel is right for that moment. That’s generally what we try to do as tap dancers.