Feet from the street

Step aside, Gene Kelly - hip-hop artists such as Jason Samuels Smith are putting their stamp on tap dancing. Lyndsey Winship reports

Move over, Gene Kelly - tap-dancing has come a long way since Singin' in the Rain. An inspired Volkswagen advert has used the latest in CGI to morph Kelly's famous rain-soaked scene into a body-popping routine, but the slogan - "The original, updated" - is spot on when it comes to what's really happening in tap these days.

Move over, Gene Kelly - tap-dancing has come a long way since Singin' in the Rain. An inspired Volkswagen advert has used the latest in CGI to morph Kelly's famous rain-soaked scene into a body-popping routine, but the slogan - "The original, updated" - is spot on when it comes to what's really happening in tap these days.

Modern tap-dancers are reviving the old moves and matching them with styles from the street, so that they have as much in common with hip-hoppers as with Fred and Ginger.

Take Jason Samuels Smith, a 24-year-old American Emmy-winning tap wunderkind, who is more 8 Mile than 42nd Street. "He's got a very cool look. His body language, his whole attitude, resembles that of hip-hoppers," says Julia Carruthers, dance programmer at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, where Smith made his UK debut this month.

Smith danced in the Broadway smash Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, created 10 years ago by the American dancer Savion Glover. With his street style and flying dreadlocks, Glover is the antithesis of the MGM matinée star. Bring in 'Da Noise... took tap back to its roots and told the story of black America through its rhythms.

Tap-dancing developed in the melting-pot of mid-19th-century America, a hybrid of Irish clogging, African dance and popular-music rhythms. It was popularised by the likes of Bill Robinson (Mr Bojangles to you, me and Frank Sinatra). But it was white dancers such as Kelly and Astaire who became famous for tapping when Hollywood came calling, while their black counterparts were dancing in vaudeville and jazz clubs.

Smith, Glover and the US's biggest female tap star, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who also made her first trip to the UK this month, are all artists who idolise the original hoofers of Harlem rather than the stars of the silver screen.

Over the years, on screen and on Broadway, tap style blended with jazz dance, ballroom and ballet, focusing on visual rather than aural impact, to form the showy style with which we're more familiar in this country. In doing so, tap shifted from its roots, where the role of the dancer had been essentially that of another percussionist. But this pure "rhythm tap" is enjoying a resurgence thanks to some virtuosic young talents who have had those classic steps and combinations passed down to them from the original masters.

Sumbry-Edwards, 29, was given a videotape by the late tap legend Leonard Reed. It showed his most difficult move, which was a "nerve" with one foot - where the leg vibrates and the toe rapidly taps the floor - and a "wing" with the other - where the foot flies out to the side, brushing the floor on the way in and out. She recalls: "Reed said, 'I'm gonna give you this tape, my last copy, and it has this step on'. He showed me right there, and said, 'Now, get that!'." Sumbry-Edwards is still working on it.

The idea of sharing and passing on what is essentially a folk tradition appeals to these dancers. For some young African-American dancers, it's a way to reclaim and celebrate their heritage. But, in spite of this reverence for tap's roots, there's plenty of fresh thinking. "It's not nostalgic," Carruthers says, "but there's a lot of respect, for Chuck Green and Honi Coles, say. They've done their homework."

Junior Laniyan, a 23-year-old Londoner, is keen to take it to the next level. "When you've got your technique to a certain place, you have to start your own journey. You listen to the music that you like and discover steps from that," he says. "A lot of people, when they think tap dance, they think 1930s, 1940s. But it's an art form, and any art form shouldn't be limited by the time in which it was conceived. It's about where the dancer's coming from as well.

"I love dancing to jazz, but also to hip-hop and so on. I like going to a jazz club and jumping on the stage - if there's a live band and a wooden stage - and seeing what happens. Improvising on the night: for me, that's the most joy, the truly important part of the dance."

Laniyan is as happy dancing away the early hours in a club as he is on a theatre stage. "I'm doing a lot of gigs in east London at the moment, clubs such as Cargo [the live venue in Shoreditch, playing hip-hop, soul and dance music]. Anywhere that has a live sound, that's hot and happening and passionate."

Laniyan clearly has the passion for performance, and a CV that includes appearing with Robbie Williams at the Royal Albert Hall. But you're more likely to have seen him in his other guise as an actor, popping up in soaps, or Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. There just aren't that many opportunities to do rhythm tap in the UK - or to see it.

This is less the case in the States, where dancers such as Glover are big stars, and where they have just celebrated International Tap Dance Day to honour Bojangles' birthday. Yet there is potentially a big audience in the UK, as the enthusiastic crowd at Turned on Tap at the Queen Elizabeth Hall recently demonstrated.

As well as picking up tips from the jazz and hip-hop worlds, there are new global influences breaking through, as Brazilian tappers bring in samba rhythms, African dancers add their spin, and tap comes full circle back to Irish step dance. Everyone brings their own style and culture to the mix. As Laniyan says: "Tapping's definitely coming through."

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