HIS VOICE is surprisingly light. Just 13, Cartier Williams hasn't lost the cadences of childhood. But his feet, oh, his feet speak with a knowing maturity far beyond those 13 years. A tap prodigy with an inborn sense of the complexity and generative power of rhythm, Williams is the young, not-to-be-missed tap phenomenon that Savion Glover, tap's 30-year-old reigning superstar, has anointed to carry on the torch as a living repository of rhythm.
Featured as 'da Kid with Glover in Glover's groundbreaking homage to rhythm and folk culture, the Tony Award-winning "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," Williams credits his grandmother, Audrey Williams, for teaching him his first tap steps long before he was old enough to start school.
Growing up in Southwest's Washington Highlands, Williams first donned a pair of tap shoes as a 4-year-old when his mother, Aleicia, enrolled him in a summer camp program that she hoped would expend his excess energy. The teachers at the D.C. Dance Collective taught him the basics, Williams explains: "shuffle, step, dig, heel, shuffle-ball-change," and soon he was performing locally. By the time he was a first-grader he won the amateur night competition at New York's famed Apollo Theatre. He's also danced on "Oprah" and at the White House. "I was takin' all the steps I knew," the young dancer says, "the fundamentals, and using them . . . you know, you don't ever throw them away."
"I was in a tap class in '96, I was the youngest in the class," Williams recalls of his first meeting with Glover, "and Savion came over to talk to me and my mother. He told us I don't need to be in a tap school. I could go to New York every few days and just jam." So he did.
Jamming, Williams patiently explains, is the way inventive rhythm tappers test themselves, experiment, hone their ear and exchange rhythms and steps: "You turn on some music, you trade fours or eights with each other and you pick up steps. You share the dance; you can't ever keep it to yourself."
A former student at Leckie Elementary and Hardy Middle School, Williams now spends much of his time on the road and his mother homeschools him, requiring written research reports on each city he visits while on tour. Not a stranger to life on the road, Williams already toured in Glover's "Foot Notes" as a 10-year-old. Ask about life on the road, the kid still comes out: He loved Mall of America in Minneapolis and says, "It's fun to see all the different places and you get to change cities every week or so. . . . I also get to meet dancers from all over the world and jam with them."
Conceived by Glover and New York Public Theater director-producer George C. Wolfe, "Noise/Funk" asserts tap as a medium through which the complicated and emotionally charged history of African American culture can be traced in " 'da Beat." Wolfe believes greater truth exists in the rhythms of a time period than in written history.
Williams succinctly describes his pivotal role as 'da Kid: "He's a hoofer from Chicago and he thinks he's the bomb. The only thing he knows is how to hoof. When he goes to Hollywood they tell him he has to be Hollywood and showy." What would Williams do if confronted with that situation today -- hoof or showbiz? "I would never turn into the show," he insists. "I would keep it real. If I was back then [in the 1930s and '40s], no, I would never do that because it's not you. You have to show people who you are and what you mean . . . your expressions you can't hold back."
The real kid Williams says, "I'm going to keep on dancing for the rest of my life: to share the dance, to pass the hoof down from one generation to the next, to never stop. Never." The voice is young, but the shoes he fills resonate with the generations of hoofers who walked before him.
BRING IN 'DA NOISE, BRING IN 'DA FUNK, through Sunday, Warner Theatre,13th and E streets NW. 202-783-4000.