Tommy Tune’s joyful and timeless retrospective, ‘Steps in Time’

“A dancer dies two deaths,” announced song-and-dance man Tommy Tune. One occurs, of course, when he stops living, but there’s another before that — when he stops dancing.

Tune spoke these words during his retrospective show, “Steps in Time,” at Strathmore on Saturday, on an evening in which he tap-danced with buoyant clarity and obvious joy. Which suggests that the lanky 73-year-old is planning to hold off both of his foreordained finales for a while longer.

It’s a good thing, for the nine-time Tony Award winner is sweet company, and this show, which he has been touring since 2008, is studded with touching moments. The most powerful of these was when Tune recalled pairing up with the famed tapper Charles “Honi” Coles in “My One and Only” (the Gershwin musical Tune directed and choreographed, along with acting, singing and dancing in it). Their duet was a guaranteed showstopper, until the night came when Coles, then in his 70s, froze up and failed to speak his lines in the scene leading up to it. On a frantic signal from the wings, the conductor started up the dance music — and Coles, inert no longer, glided into his routine without a hitch.

The Broadway veteran had had a stroke that night onstage, Tune said, choking up a little. “But when his dancer’s body heard the music, he rose up and danced to perfection.”

At its essence, “Steps in Time” is a testament to that magic, that alchemy of memory, will and physical transformation that happens when the aging dancer’s body hears its music again. Tune didn’t dance much, but when he did, the crisp delicacy of his footwork and flashes of speed seemed the work of a much younger man.

There were no gimmicks, no holograms, no frills in this 90-minute “ego’s last stand,” as Tune called it with self-deprecating charm. It was just the star, a few musicians under the direction of Michael Biagi and a couple of backup dancers (the excellent Manhattan Rhythm Kings). Everyone but Tune was dressed in stage-crew black, the better for blending into the background. Tune, too, was understated. At 6-foot-6, he’d stand out in sweatpants, but the look he chose was one of simple luxury: first the perma-tan, and over it a charcoal suit with some sheen to it, a crisp white shirt, a red vest and suede tap shoes to match.

If Tune’s voice had trouble at times carrying over the band, his smile could outshine Pat Boone. And those legs! When reminiscences of his “My One and Only” co-star Twiggy led into a bouncy Charleston, you’d swear Tune’s kicks were stirring the air like the propellers of a vintage bomber.

“It’s not how you go, it’s how you land,” he proclaimed, unzipping that grin. Which means what, exactly? Never mind. The wisdom here wasn’t in the words.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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