The resurgence of jazz tap dance that started in the mid-'60s and then cantered along at a desultory pace for a decade or so now appears to have acquired an unstoppable momentum. With boosts from Broadway ("My One and Only," among others) and Hollywood ("The Cotton Club," "That's Dancing"), the thing has taken on the proportions of a genuine "movement."
Though it's a national, even an international, phenomenon, Washington is one of the cities where tap seems to be catching on in a particularly big way. Within less than a year, we've had enthusiastically received visits from Leon Collins and the Copasetics, Philadelphia's La Vaughn Robinson, the Jazz Tap Ensemble from the West Coast, and Maurice Hines' new Balletap U.S.A. troupe. Local tappers have also been on the rise, and the tap audience -- gung-ho partisans if ever there were any -- has grown proportionately.
Hence, the first Washington appearance by Brenda Buffalino -- at d.c. space Saturday night, under the auspices of D.C. Danceworks -- seemed at once logical and another welcome cresting of the wave. Buffalino has been a pioneer, one of the first trained artists to help spur the tap revival. She's performed in this country and abroad, at sites ranging from Lincoln Center and the Newport Jazz Festival to New York's Village Gate and, currently, the Blue Note club. She's also frequently teamed up with Charles (Honi) Coles, whom she regards as her mentor.
Buffalino has devised her own solo format with the help of jazz pianist Amy Duncan, which she calls "Cantata and the Blues," and it was this she presented Saturday night. The title refers to the autobiographical musings, in song and patter, she uses as a frame for her tapping, focused on her desire to "have it all" -- Bach and Basie, Chopin and Ellington . . . the cantata and the blues. In general, her dancing picks up speed, trickiness and flash as the numbers go by; actually, it was her encore that had the breeziest, most dazzling tap riffs of the evening.
Tap is a very personal art and everything depends on style. Buffalino's dancing is hot, hard and heavy, but underneath it is a substratum of real "soul." Of the younger white dancers I've seen who've latched onto tap, it seems to me Buffalino comes closest -- in the way she rides her weight and gets into the floor, in her improvisatory daring, her jazz sense and nervous urgency -- to the true hoofer feeling of the great black masters. She gets the best kind of help from Duncan, who's not only a fleet pianist but on the same rhythmic wavelength.
Also impressive in its more modest way was the opening set by Washington's own Tap Quartet, led by Artis Brienzo. Only three of the foursome -- Brienzo, Holly Wydra and Dan Sherbo -- were performing, but in any case this was some of the classiest and most technically refined tapping I've encountered among area dancers, and they go at it with a very appealing kind of playful but earnest pizazz. The Quartet will have its own show at d.c. space in March.