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Savion Glover stretches the boundaries of tap

Savion Glover brings his neo-bebop happy feet to the Wisconsin Union Theater Saturday night. In his current touring repertory show, Bare Soundz, he plys his renowned rhythm taps on a rangy set of African diaspora beats.

A child prodigy, Glover made his Broadway debut at 12 in Tap Dance Kid. At 22 he copped two Tonys, for his performance and choreography in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. He's a superstar at 34. Even if you're not a hoofer habitué, you've seen Glover tap on TV. He's done everything from PBS specials to commercials and even Dancing with the Stars, though glitz isn't his game. Glover's biggest claim to fame is that he's taken an art form born in the 19th century and rendered it new for the 21st. That's no small feat.

When I was a dance class kid in the '50s, the Golden Age of movie musicals was done. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were out; Balanchine's ballets, Martha Graham, Agnes De Mille's revolutionary musicals were in. Tap was relegated to the warpy wood floors of second-rate Dolly Dinkle ballet schools. Glover's usually credited with saving tap dance, though that's not quite right. The liquid, lanky-faced dancer/actor Gregory Hines, star of movies I loved like Frances Ford Coppola's Cotton Club (1984) and White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov (1985), was the real bridge between the legendary rhythm tappers and the genre's resurgence. Hines was Glover's mentor. But it's Glover, with his trademark dreads and baggy threads, who made hoofin' hip for the next generation.

How Glover came to be crowned tap dance king seems like destiny, even to an atheist like me. He was dancing in utero, his mother, Yvette Glover, says in Savion! My Life in Tap, Glover's autobio as told to New York Times writer Bruce Weber. The Lord wanted to call this rhythmic child Savior, the story goes, but Glover's mom prudently swapped the "r" for an "n."

"My mom was a singer," Glover tells me on the phone. "She was very heavy in the church and jazz as well. So she had her career. Music was all throughout my family. My grandmother was a minister of music, my grandfather was a musician. That's where my inspiration comes from, having a happy family and giving thanks to God that I'm alive and able to express myself through dance."

Yvette Glover, a single mother in economically depressed Newark, N.J., scraped together what it took to send 7-year-old Savion to tap class. No Dolly Dinkle school would do. Glover got his first glimpse of glinty Teletone taps at the Hines-Hatchett studio (owned by Gregory Hines' older brother Maurice) in midtown Manhattan, where legendary hoofers still hung out. "The day my mom signed me up I saw Chuck Green and Lon Chaney [the tapper, not the actor]," he says. "I was pretty turned on."

Glover's trademark lightning-speed, polyrhythmic style didn't quite happen overnight. "I started like everybody else," he says.

That means Maxi Fords and shufflin' off to Buffalo, but Glover mastered the elements in minutes and zoomed ahead. At 10 he auditioned for Broadway/film choreographer Henry LeTang, who got the young rhythm whiz cast in the 1984 Broadway production of Tap Dance Kid. Five years later Glover found himself in the Paris production of Black and Blue, a tribute to African American music directed by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, a pair of Argentinian showmen whose previous song-and-dance revues included Tango Argentino and Flamenco Puro. LeTang won a Tony for his choreography in Black and Blue, which featured a 13-piece jazz orchestra, R&B diva Ruth "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean" Brown and a pantheon of iconic hoofers including Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde and the elegant queen of jazz tap, Dianne "Lady Di" Walker.

Gregory Hines saw the show. It was Glover's luckiest break. "I met Gregory before, at Hines and Hatchett; he'd come up there from time to time, but it wasn't till he saw me in Paris that we started working together," Glover says. "It was a beautiful experience. I worked with him till he died."

Hines' influence still flows through Glover's taps. You can see his style take shape in old YouTube videos of the two trading eights. But the whole hoofer community seems to have taken the young prince of tap under its collective wing, Walker in particular. Glover still calls her "Aunt Dianne."

While apprenticing at the masters' sides, Glover played himself - an endearing, wholesome teen - on Sesame Street. He did the Broadway run of Black and Blue. In Jelly's Last Jam, based on the life of Jelly Roll Morton, Glover played Young Jelly opposite Hines, who won a Tony for his role as the aging jazz piano man.

In a video interview made years later, LeTang took credit for his discovery. "I'm so happy with Savion," he tells the camera. "He's keeping it alive. I took him when he was a kid, exposed him to the older dancers like Bunny and Jimmy Slyde. I'd say Bunny, show the kid a step. Savion's got a piece of all of us."

Most of the rhythm tap kings in whose shoes Glover now dances are gone. Chaney died in '95, Green in '97, Hines in '03, LeTang last year, Jimmy Slyde last May. "My teachers were far beyond show business," Glover says. "They taught me that I wasn't a show-business kind of kid. Every show I've been involved in has been by invitation on their part. I'm grateful to God that they taught me to represent an art form that belongs to my people. Being part of the family of hoofers is a blessing. I'm thankful I was able to know the cats and they let me copy them till I was ready to speak in my own voice."

Glover's voice emerged full-blown in '95 with Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. Black and Blue had loads of soul, but Noise/Funk, subtitled "A Rap/Tap Discourse on the Staying Power of da' Beat," broke Broadway barriers with its young black esthetic. Glover danced with an all-male crew of new-generation hoofers to song lyrics by poetry slam champ reg e. gaines. Noise/Funk ripped across the entire canvas of African American street music, from the slave diaspora to hip-hop.

Glover got slapped with a tag: hip-hop tap. He spurns the term. "I was around before the word hip-hop. I was there when it was rap, enjoying the songs and lyrics. Today it's nothing, it's a setback. There's a lot of things the kids 18 or 19 understand, but at 34 I don't get it. There is no link between hip-hop and what I do. I play music. The only links I have are to people like Hines or Lon Chaney. Those people know nothing about hip-hop. It was straight swing jazz through bebop. What I do, I can play all types of music, whether it's Caribbean or folk or jazz. I don't want kids to think that what I do has anything to do with hip-hop. No. It has to do with a very long legacy of tap dancers."

Glover's stretched that tradition with his spiffy Gen X look and rhythmic chops. Like Noise/Funk, his 2005 tour Classical Savion (think Vivaldi, Mozart, Dvorak) pushed the envelope. The show was controversial, netting both high praise and arched eyebrows from the press. Asked if he'd take on more classical themes in the future, Glover hesitates. "Sure, why not?" he says, after the pause.

But the mature Glover is heading in a more relevant direction. He's picked up the bop legacy where an earlier generation of hoofers left off. Swing and bebop bands often worked with tap dancers. Like his predecessors Glover's tapped to bebop potentates - he did an evening of works to Thelonious Monk at Lincoln Center a few years back. But he's also the world's first serious post-bop hoofer. He's got a Coltrane-inspired small-venue improv show, If Trane Wuz Here, with reg e. gaines and rising young Chicago-born composer/saxwoman Matana Roberts.

"Coltrane's the same as dancers like Gregory Hines," Glover says. "Hines is like Miles [Davis], Miles is like Sammy Davis Jr. They're like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ghandi. They're all the same to me 'cause of their contributions to the world. They all taught me that we can continue to evolve as artists till we run out of evolvement. They're transformative."

Glover's evolution includes gigs in big-city jazz clubs and concert halls with his own jazz quartet, the Otherz, or post-bop pianist McCoy Tyner and his trio. But it doesn't stop there. Like Hines, Glover plys his beats on the silver screen. He played a vaudeville minstrel in blackface in Spike Lee's bitter satire Bamboozled (2000) - a very edgy part, but Glover's a versatile performer. Proving that fame hasn't eclipsed the good-humored kid from Sesame Street, he did the tap-over for Mumble the Penguin in Warner Brothers' 2006 animated film Happy Feet. When former New York Times arts critic John Rockwell complained that the dancer didn't get proper credit, Glover responded that he saw himself as stunt man, not star; he was just glad somebody wanted to make a movie about tap dancing.

Like his mentors, Glover teaches at the Broadway Dance Center, formerly Hines and Hatchett. He's passing the torch to the next generation, particularly to Cartier Williams, 18, who's been Glover's protégé for a decade.

Williams struts his stuff with Glover Saturday night, along with Marshall Davis Jr., from the original Noise/Funk cast. "Davis is a student of the late, great Steve Condos, who danced in the '30s with musicians like Benny Goodman and Count Basie," Glover says. "I really dig performing with these two dudes; they have great respect for the art form and the cats who came before us."

There's swing, bebop and post-bop, plus Calypso and more on the Bare Soundz bill. "It displays tap as music," Glover wraps up. "That's what it is. We play grooves through tap. It's tap dance as song."

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