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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea