PREVIEW: ‘Juba!’ celebrates tap’s old master
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, December 7, 2012
A dance showdown with three judges rating the contestants on style, musicality and rhythm? No, this isn’t “Dancing With the Stars.” Rather, it’s an 1840s dance challenge, and the tap dancers are the favorite, Irishman John Diamond, and “Master Juba,” born William Henry Lane to free black parents in Rhode Island.
Lane, considered by many the father of tap, frequently challenged and defeated the best white tap dancers of the era. On a trip to New York in 1842, Charles Dickens witnessed a show, calling Lane “the greatest dancer known.” For dancer and choreographer Lane Alexander, Juba -- as he is fondly known on the dance circuit -- remains an inspiration.
“We absolutely continue to celebrate William Henry Lane’s legacy because of what he accomplished and when he accomplished it,” Alexander says from his Chicago studio, which houses the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, an education and performing organization dedicated to the art of tap.
“Imagine being a black man in the United States in the 1840s, not the best of circumstances,” Alexander adds. “Despite that he excelled. He succeeded. He broke all kinds of barriers.”
Tonight at the Kennedy Center, “Juba! Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance,” under Alexander’s direction, will celebrate Juba’s legacy with a program that recognizes the diversity and richness of this homegrown dance form. The Kennedy Center has featured Broadway-style tap and even the more vernacular rhythm tap performances over the years, but this is one of the few times the center has devoted a main stage solely to an evening of tap and percussive dance in the American tradition -- from shuffle to soft shoe, African American fraternity and sorority step dancing to the fusion of jazz tap.
“Tap stretches to many disciplines, particularly disciplines developing in real time in a contemporary context,” says Garth Ross, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of community engagement. “There has been an over-segregation of form and discipline in the past . . . but the answer for that is to deconstruct the boxes, not to take the art and force [it] into boxes.”
The program features Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, known as America’s first lady of tap, who will lay down her smooth rhythms in “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Representing the next generation in the tap revival movement: 30-somethings Sam Weber, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick Grant, who will dance in “Think of One.”
But Alexander is putting his money on the youngsters. A group of 12- to 18-year-olds from the Washington area and beyond will perform in “Extraordinary Machine -- The Waltz,” a piece they have been learning over three summers at CHRP’s Rhythm World workshop.
“These are the young people who when they’re out of high school will be finding their way into professional companies and starting their own tap businesses, their own creative lives,” Alexander says.
And Juba’s legacy lives on.