- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Tap dancing will always be with us. It’s a quintessential American dance form.
And Austin, with its nationally respected Tapestry Dance Company, is a tap hub of sorts.
Yet tap dancing doesn’t play a huge role in the contemporary Broadway theater. Especially given the numerous jukebox musicals derived from postwar pop or rock music, or equal number of hits based on animated movies, which might include a smattering of rhythm dancing, but nothing on the scale of, say, “Singin’ in the Rain,” which can be seen at Zach Theatre starting Sept. 27.
“There certainly are tap elements in current shows,” says Dominique Kelley, who made the dances for this “Singin’ in the Rain.” “A friend of mine always includes it. He doesn’t always use tap shoes, or it’s in the way back, but there’s always tap. Some say that tap is dying, but you can find people who can do it, like you can find krumping, flamenco or break dancing. I can find good people to do it, but do they fit the type? Can they actually sing and act, too? When you whittle it away, you don’t necessarily get the best tappers.”
Combing through Zach auditions held in Los Angeles, New York and Austin, Kelley and director Abe Reybold came up blank for a leading man who could do all these things as Don Lockwood in this stage show based on the revered 1952 Gene Kelly movie.
“Then someone said: Do you know Luke Hawkins?” Kelley remembers. “Just hire him.”
Hawkins, who grew up in his mother’s dance studio outside Sacramento, Calif., has been a go-to guy for a type of tap dancing that requires more than mere rhythm.
“In my 20s, my agent sent me out for a lot of tap shows,” he says with a heart-melting smile. “But it was for the ensemble. I am a soloist tap dancer. Because I’ve devoted so much time and practice to falling in love with tapping, where it’s been and where it’s heading, being an ensemble member was too easy in shows I didn’t love. I didn’t feel challenged.”
Suffice it to day that “Singin’ in the Rain,” which costars Sasha Hutchings as Kathy Seldon, presents a challenge even for Hawkins.
“This pretty much utilizes everything,” he says. “Singing, acting, ballet-ish dance, tap dance. Because of Dom, I’m allowed to improvise, too, and that’s so rare. Most other choreographers don’t allow it.”
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Kelley, a Los Angeles-based choreographer from Bridgeport, Conn., appeared in the seminal musical about tap history and politics — sort of the “Hamilton” of its day — “Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk,” as well as the sleeper hit, “Wild Women Blues,” with blues great Linda Hopkins. In these shows, improvisation was essential.
“The first two shows I did, I was able to improvise,” he says. “It’s woven into the passed-down culture of tap, the call and response, taking the rhythm and expressing yourself. You can’t really be called an artist if you can’t express yourself. Also, if you have your own moment to shine, you won’t try to change the choreography. You’re gonna have that moment. I hated doing bad choreography. Whenever I got a chance to do my own thing, it was such a relief.”
Which is not to say that Kelley, who made the dances for Zach’s acclaimed versions of “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” lets the dancers stray too far from the plan.
“Some go too far outside the lines and make it about themselves and not the story,” he says with a sly smile. “Once the cat’s away, the mice will play. I’ve sent some strongly worded emails to dancers about that.”
So why have some traditional tap shows, such as “Anything Goes” or “42nd Street,” received pretty regular revivals, but not seminal tap-dance statements, such “Bring in ’da Noise” — which made creator/dancer Savion Glover a pop phenom — or another breakthrough revue, “Black and Blue”?
“There should have been a revival by now,” Kelley says. “But between arguments over rights and disagreements among artists, it’s very hard. I mean, Savion was everywhere back then, at the White House, at the Apollo Theater, in commercials. The bad part is that everybody associated tap and its influence only with him, not only the show. If he isn’t around, it doesn’t exist.”
Both Zach artists say that if charismatic Gregory Hines hadn’t died so young in 2003 at age 57, the state of modern tap might be different.
Hawkins, who is making his Zach debut, considers Hines his main role model. He started young at age 7 at the studio run by his mom, who had danced in Berkeley and San Francisco, and started teaching in Folsom, Calif. His first theatrical role, by the way, was playing a young version of Don Lockwood.
“I worked with Ben Hosig and studied with Jimmy Slyde,” he says. “I got to meet Joseph Wiggin about the time I really started to be a tap dancer. Before, it was just what I had seen in the movies. What changed everything was YouTube, where you could see all kinds of tap. Joseph and I would stay up and watch every bit of tap footage. Old greats who weren’t movie stars like Buster Brown.”
“Singin’ in the Rain” brings all that practical dance education to the fore.
“I get to do it all in this show,” Hawkins says. “Music is one language and tap is another. Being able to improv onstage is really special. It comes out of endless amount of practice. And why do you do it? Because you love it; it is born out of love. You see, the thousandth best baseball player in the country, the one sitting on the bench, is a millionaire. Great tap dancers today, they struggle just to pay the rent. It’s unreal. There’s no fame or money attached to it. In a way, that makes it so special.”
Kelley, too, can sense the legacy of the tap greats who came before him, some of whom he shared the studio or stage with as well.
“I am only a living repository of the people I learned from,” Kelley says. “I like to give people a bento box of tap. You’re always going to see more than one style of tap. For people who think they don’t like tap, you are going love some of it. I mean, tap is based on only six steps. It’s how you then arrange them. I put a little sauce on it. Not just straight rhythm, but hint of swing, or a hit of funk.”