Tap dancing icon Savion Glover keeps ‘tradition’ alive
At a recent rehearsal of a musical with a constellation of big stars, a wiry man in sweatpants with one leg rolled up stood up, stopped the action and made his way to the stage.
"OK," Savion Glover said calmly, as the dancers gathered around. "Listen to what I'm doing here."
He then let his big white tap shoes talk, tat-tatting a propulsive rhyme.
Glover, considered the world's greatest tap dancer, doesn't shout or get ruffled.
"When they say, `Oh, I can't do that' or `I don't know how to do that,' I have to put my knee pads on and show them how it's done. These kids are 22, 23 years old. I'm 42 and I've got to get down there and show them how it's done," he said.
Glover's infectious cool is present everywhere at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway as he readies his cast for a trip into the forgotten past, his metal shoe tips gracefully leading the way.
He's choreographing a new show that explores the groundbreaking 95-year-old musical "Shuffle Along," one of the first Broadway shows starring, written and directed by African-Americans.
Instead of reviving the show as it was in 1921, director and writer George C. Wolfe has reframed it as a musical about the making of a musical and a celebration of the era.
Glover still wears the dreadlocks and scraggly beard he had when he electrified audiences almost two decades ago with "Bring in `Da Noise, Bring in `Da Funk," which celebrated the beat in the black experience, from the days of slave ships to the hip-hop of today.
For his new show he's again teamed up with Wolfe, but left the dancing to a talented ensemble and some astounding stars: six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tony winner Billy Porter and Tony nominees Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry.
"There's no ego," said Glover. "You would not even know that it's Audra, with six or 20,000 Tonys. You would not even know that because of the energy in the room."
Glover has had to bring his stars -- some of whom last tapped many years ago -- up to par. That's his par, mind you. He said he's been most surprised by a refusal in the cast to take shortcuts.
"We'll be doing something and I'll say, `I can simplify that.' And they said, `No! We don't want the simple version.' They say, `Give us the hard version' and I appreciate that," he said.
Glover, who made his Broadway debut in "The Tap Dance Kid" and starred in "Black and Blue" and "Jelly's Last Jam," is steeped in tap tradition and sees himself as part of a link that stretches back.
"We're in the tradition business. We have to carry on these traditions because if we don't then they're going to get lost. I am a tap dancer. I can claim that honestly," he said.
"I tap dance to make sure Jimmy Slide, Gregory Hines, Lon Cheney, Buster Brown, Dianne Walker, to make sure these stories, these names, remain mentioned."
Maurice Hines, brother of the late tap legend Gregory and himself a tap-dancing master, is a fan, believing Glover has been able to keep young people intrigued by their rhythmic style of dance. "Whenever Savion dances, it's spectacular," said Hines.
Glover has seen tap go through phases of interest and decline over the 35 years he's been dancing, but has come to terms with it being viewed as a strange step-cousin to more popular styles.
"As long as show business is around, then tap dancing will be around," he said. "But it will never be at the pinnacle of the performing arts. I've come to accept that. It's definitely part of the flavor, but it will never be on top."
At his HooFeRzCLuB School for Tap in a poor neighborhood of his native Newark, New Jersey, Glover teaches the next generation. He takes a holistic approach, with students first learning tap history months before tapping their first steps.
It's hard to think of any other Tony winners who spend most of their time teaching kids this way. "It's not Beverly Hills. It's not Monte Carlo. You coming into the `hood," he warned. "I don't have a choice. This is where I'm from. This is me."
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