It's a rare performance when the audience feels as though they're witnessing something completely spontaneous. But if there's a dance form most likely to create that experience, it is certainly tap. For a few hours last night at Shim Sham, a tap jam presented at The Kitchen, spectators and performers alike were transported by pure, impulsive creativity to a place where rhythm is king and, regardless of age or skill level, all are welcome.
Before the jam began, while people still wandered in and out of the theater, footage from the film Jazz Hoofer: The Legendary Baby Laurence played against the back wall. It was a fitting choice considering Baby Laurence's contribution to the hoofing tradition: he brought together jazz music and tap dance, creating intricate and musical rhythms with his feet.
Shim Sham builds on Baby Laurence's innovations. One after another, tappers stepped on stage where each dancer improvised, laying down beats to complement those provided by the capable and easy-going house band (Nate Jones on electric bass, Corey Rawls on drums, Theo Hill on piano/keyboards and Lakecia Benjamin on alto saxophone). The evening was curated by Rashida Bumbray--who also performed a dynamic improvisation filled with moxie-- and hosted by the gracious and multi-talented Joseph Webb.
While some big names in the tap community showed up and performed with all the speed, clarity and style you would expect (Joseph Wiggan's feet fluttered like a hummingbird's wings), it was the younger, more amateur performers who truly embodied the spirit of experimentation. Between moments of triumph, they occasionally lost time or seemed to shift weight without intending to, but they worked through it, tapping away until they found the beat and their balance.
Perhaps the best moment of the evening came midway through, when legendary hoofer Harold Cromer took the stage. He riffed on James Cameron's latest box-office boom, Avatar, and even did a little dancing. Although he walks with a wobble, it disappears when he dances. Wearing no taps, just a pair of street shoes, Cromer's feet whispered their music. The band dropped to a hush and everyone leaned in to listen.
At the end of the night, everyone who had danced came back up on stage to perform Leonard Reed's Shim Sham Shimmy, a tap tradition that uses repeated phrases and breaks and is simple enough for tap dancers of all skill levels. It's not rhythmically challenging, but the Shim Sham Shimmy forms a connective thread with tap's history. And it's just plain fun.
Shim Sham at The Kitchen takes place twice a year. If you're in NYC next time it's on, don't miss it!
Photo of Harold Cromer at Shim Sham by Paula Court