Tapping Into History

hile most 11-year-olds occupy their free time riding bicycles and playing video games, Newark, New Jersey-born Savion Glover was busy working on his flourishing career as a tap dancer at that age. Glover made his Broadway stage debut starring as the title role in the Tony Award-winning musical The Tap Dance Kid. He then appeared in Jelly's Last Jam with legendary hoofer and mentor Gregory Hines, as well as Black and Blue, each respectively earning Drama Desk and Tony Award nomination. Glover was one of the youngest performers ever, at 21, to be nominated for a Tony.

He would have to wait until the following year before taking a Tony home. In 1996, the 22-year-old seasoned Broadway dancer received the stage's top honor for best choreography in the critically acclaimed smash hit Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. The play's choreography showcased Glover's dance style, modifying traditional steps and mixing them with hip-hop moves. His ability to capture tap's raw, uninhibited energy and present it in new and innovative ways continues to draw comparisons to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. He also won two Obie Awards and two Fred Astaire Awards for his performance in Noise/Funk.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, Noise/Funk depicted the African-American experience interpreted through tap dance, old Negro spirituals, blues, R&B, street drumming, and hip-hop/rap music styles. Glover conceived the show while "learning the tricks of the tap dancing trade" under the auspices of tap's greatest exponents, including Buster Brown, Henry Le Tang, Chuck Green, Lon Chaney, Jimmy Slyde, and Dianne Walker. Glover credits these dance legends, among others, for his essential tap and life lessons.

In addition to his thriving, multihyphenated career on Broadway, Glover has appeared in numerous television programs, music videos, and feature films, including Dance in America: Tap with Tommy Tune and Gregory Hines, a five-year stint on Sesame Street, and an appearance in Puff Daddy's video "It's All About the Benjamins." In Tap, his 1989 feature film debut, Glover portrayed Louis, the "heir apparent" of tap dance, opposite Sammy Davis Jr. Seemingly, the role was a precursor for what was destined to unfold for him in the dancing world.

Amid his success, Glover continues to "spread the tap gospel," teaching dance classes to children in his spare time. He also created a dance company, NYOTs (Not Your Ordinary Tappers). Glover and NYOTs performed for President Clinton in Savion's Stomp, Slide and Swing and also in Savion Glover/Downtown: Live Communication at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York.

Glover returns to the silver screen this month in Spike Lee's feature film Bamboozled, described as a "blistering satire" of the network television industry. He portrays Manray, a tap-dancing street artist who becomes a star of a modern minstrel-style sitcom.

Back Stage West: As a young adult, you've reached a level of success with tap dancing that may take other dancers or performers a lifetime to achieve. At age 11, when you made your professional debut on Broadway, did you grasp what was happening?

Savion Glover: No. It was just pure fun and entertainment. It still is fun. All this is nothing that was planned or nothing that I dreamed about. It just all happened.

BSW: What more can audiences learn about tap (and you) after Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk?

Glover: I was very happy with the success of Noise/Funk, but of course, there is a lot more that I have to say about the dance, about the history, about the people involved with the dance and their history. We will do more tap shows. We're trying to develop something right now. Something way left of Noise/Funk.

BSW: Is acting something you want to pursue?

Glover: It's been a domino effect. I never said to my mother, "Mom, I want to be a dancer," or "Mom, I want to be an actor." I actually wanted to be a fireman when I was younger. I am just rolling with all of this. Yeah, sure, I would love to do more films. But it won't ever stop me from tapping.

BSW: How did the role of Manray come about?

Glover: Spike Lee came to me and said he had a project he wanted me to do, but it wasn't this [Bamboozled]. It ended up being this, and I gladly accepted it. Manray is a little airhead. He's so sure about himself, but he doesn't think about the situation he's getting into and the repercussions to come. But playing him was cool.

BSW: Did you have a lot of input with the choreography in the film?

Glover: Yes… I did all of the choreography in the film. I would ask Spike what he wanted, what type of feel he wanted, and he would give me his input. I gave the dancers a lot of freedom. I like to improv, so I really don't like to use too much choreography with my own dancing, unless I am doing something specific like a stage show. I like to express myself inside of the work that is given, and I let the dancers do the same.

BSW: There are differences between acting onstage and in film. Are there differences between dancing onstage and dancing in film?

Glover: Well, because my dancing style is mostly improv, I would say to Spike, "Look, if you see something you like, you have to let me know because I am going to forget the step if you don't let me know." Movie making is such a long process, and they only use that one take, although you do it over and over about 30 times. Live theatre is that one time and one time only. If you want to change it, you have to wait until the next performance. That's what I'm used to. It was a challenge dancing on film, but at the same time it was a challenge that I was up for and ready to tackle, although I prefer the live.

BSW: You're affiliated with the hip-hop community, and the film has numerous references to hip-hop culture. What's your view of hip-hop today?

Glover: Hip-hop culture is one thing, and rap music is another. In my opinion, what's going on today is not a part of the hip-hop culture. I am not with that at all. I am down with the hip-hop culture. I am not down with rap music that's being made and played today. Rappers are coming out yesterday and are gone today. I am down with true school hip-hop like Heavy D, Native Tongue Movement, De la Soul, Doug Fresh.

BSW: Are you still a part of the NYOTs company?

Glover: Yes. I haven't hooked up with them lately, but we are still a unit. I sort of left my peers, the younger dudes, for a second. I've been touring with the older cats like Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, Dianne Walker [in Savion in Concert: Footnotes]. I'm getting more of that vibe and information from them that I may have lost along the way in all that's happening right now. Because what's going on with today's rap music can easily happen to my art form. Where I show up like this [pointing to his casual hip-hop attire of T-shirt, jeans, and boots], ready to hit [dance], and some knucklehead might think that he can show up like this, as well, ready to hit, not realizing I once wore tuxedos and I can throw a soft shoe on you or a walk. There are some tap dancers who believe it's all about "hitting" hard, looking like you can dance, or simply looking a certain way. To them, it's all about "look."

What I wanted to do, by touring with these older cats, is make sure I wasn't buggin' out—get in touch with them to remember what it's all about. I think the younger generation needs to know that just showing up with the "look" is not the way to go.

BSW: What's the most important thing you've learned while touring with these "older cats."

Glover: Respect. Respect for an art form. It's like playing jazz—you just don't pick it up and start playing. You learn; you learn placements. It's rare that you can pick up an instrument and just start playing. You actually have to find out where the art form came from, its origins. That's what I learned from them.

BSW: What advice would you give to young performers out there?

Glover: Just know it! I have claimed this art form. I am a tap dancer. I live the life of a tap dancer, I am happy to say. I am honored to say that I am surviving as a tap dancer. That's because of the men and women who have come before me. They've paved the way. A lot of young people don't realize that. My advice would be, Know what it is that you want to do. Know where it comes from. Know where you want to take it, and try to maintain your sanity while you do it. BSW