There’s Trouble Right Here in Tap City

There’s Trouble Right Here in Tap City

If Chicago, St. Louis and Rio de Janeiro all have annual festivals celebrating tap dancing, shouldn’t New York City? That’s the question Tony Waag asked in 2001, before he founded the New York City Tap Festival, or Tap City. And it’s the question he is asking again after deciding to cancel this year’s edition.

For almost 25 years, Tap City has been an important gathering each summer, a hub on a circuit of festivals that combine performances with classes. These festivals have been pivotal to the passing on of a tradition, largely left behind in popular and commercial culture, that might otherwise have been lost. For a major art lacking major institutions, festivals have served as the next best thing.

Tap City has been an incubator of talent, crucial to the early careers of now-prominent artists like Michelle Dorrance, Chloe Arnold and Caleb Teicher. It deserves some credit for the recent flourishing of tap in New York theaters like City Center and the Joyce, where Dorrance’s company returns this month. And it has maintained a footprint for the art in a town central enough to its history to warrant the title of Tap City.

Is Tap City dead? “It might be,” Waag, 66, said recently at the American Tap Dance Center, a training and rehearsal space that he opened in the West Village in 2009 — and closed on June 30. Along with the cancellation of the festival, this is a worrisome downsizing of his American Tap Dance Foundation. While never robust, it is not just the biggest such institution in the city, but the only one.

The immediate problem, unsurprisingly, is financial. The effects of the pandemic hit hard. This year, relief funds ran out and, for the first time in the festival’s history, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was denied. Facing a six-figure deficit, Waag had few options, he said.

The center, at least, is changing hands. Its lease has been taken over by Susan Hebach, the director of the foundation’s youth program, who will run the space independently as Tap Dance Central Inc. In this way, tap dancers won’t be deprived of one of the few places in New York where they are allowed to nick the floors. But the foundation’s artist residency program and its festival are major losses.

For the present, the foundation is putting on a brave face. On July 11, a free event at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts will feature performances by Dorrance, Bill Irwin and other tap luminaries. Waag, receiving a lifetime award, will dance with his mentor, Brenda Bufalino, doing the challengingly slow soft shoe that she created with her mentor, Honi Coles.

That lineage is the lineage of the festival. Coles, who died in 1992, was a figure from tap’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s. He and his dance partner, Cholly Atkins, performed with the likes of the Count Basie Orchestra in a style largely developed by Black dancers and sometimes called rhythm tap. They lived through tap’s downturn after World War II and survived long enough to participate in a tap revival in the ’70s and ’80s, more artistic than commercial, that was spearheaded by Bufalino, among others.

Waag was a member of the American Tap Dance Orchestra, a groundbreaking company that Bufalino founded in 1986. When it became a nonprofit organization, the forms asked for an executive director. “I guess that’s me,” Waag recalled thinking. In 1989, the company opened Woodpecker’s, a studio that served as home for the orchestra and for tap in New York City. The dream lasted only until 1995, when an employment insurance audit forced Woodpecker’s to close. But Waag retained the nonprofit status, which allowed him to fund-raise for the first Tap City.

With the participation of Gregory Hines, the era’s only movie-star tap dancer, the festival was an immediate success. It was where you could see Hines trade tap phrases with his protégé, Savion Glover, but also witness some of the dancers Hines looked up to when he was a child. Generational transfer was the heart of the matter, onstage and off, and for students, the between-classes and after-hours socializing with elders might have been more significant than the formal instruction.

“Tap City had a remarkable impact on my young life as an artist,” Dorrance said in an email while on tour in Europe. In 2005, Waag’s foundation commissioned her first choreography for adults and presented it at the festival. Before that, she recalled seeing, in a single weekend, whiz kids who would become some of her closest friends and colleagues onstage with septuagenarian legends like Mable Lee and Jimmy Slyde.

Cross-generational exchange is what all the tap festivals were about, starting with “By Word of Foot,” an event that Jane Goldberg organized a few times in New York in early 1980s. Over the next two decades enough festivals were founded to form a circuit, coast to coast, with teachers and students hopping from one festival to the next all summer long. Many dancers of Dorrance’s generation matured in these gatherings.

“Our elders charged us with the responsibility of growing deeper into our past while growing into our future,” she said. “It felt like the future was bright and we each had a role.”

The Chicago Human Rhythm Project will start its 34th edition on July 12. Its founder, Lane Alexander, credited its longevity to early efforts to partner with other organizations, become a year-round presenter and “get inside the institutional framework” of the city — none of which Tap City ever quite achieved.

In 2021, he handed over the artistic director position to Jumaane Taylor, a tap dancer in his 30s who started at the festival as teenage scholarship student. But other prominent festivals have had trouble with succession, another kind of generational transfer. After Robert Reed died in 2015, his St. Louis Tap Festival (which Dorrance called “unparalleled”) fizzled out.

This is a problem Waag shares. Producing a tap festival has never been easy, balancing inconstant grants and fluctuating revenue with credit card debt and the occasional angel donor. Who wants that job, which is really several?

“We were always robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Waag said. “By the time we got grant money, we had already spent it.” Closing down required auctioning off equipment and memorabilia just to pay his debts.

A few years ago, the Howard Gilman Foundation funded the development of a strategic plan for Tap City’s future and how to hand it off to the next generation. During an early session with the planners, Waag asked if it was even worth continuing the festival. Everyone absolutely agreed that it was. Who, then, should take over? No one stepped up.

Outside New York, the situation is far from gloomy, though. There are more tap festivals than ever, on every continent but Antarctica. One of the most thriving is in Stockholm. Most of the newer festivals are smaller and shorter, two or three days instead of one or two weeks. Some are larger but closer to competition-dance conventions. To the old guard, not all these qualify as festivals in the original sense, but that original need for a mixture of instruction, inspiration and continuity remains. Tap’s recent gains are fragile.

Some of the new leaders were raised in the old system. Chloe Arnold is a sought-after, Emmy Award-winning choreographer with a large social-media following. But she and her sister, Maud, run two successful festivals, on opposite coasts: Hollywood Tap Fest and D.C. Tap Fest, which in its 16th year draws around 500 dancers.

Chloe Arnold called Tap City “a mainstay of her life,” one of the principal sources of work in her early career and a place she felt free to test out ideas. She said that her festivals try to echo the generosity of Waag and the artists who took time to share, Hines above all. “I want to transmit how those people made me feel,” she said.

Allison Toffan, the director of the Toronto International Tap Festival, a biennial event that has tripled in size since starting in 2017, cited Tap City as “extremely formative,” the place where she met her mentors. But she also said that with her festival she wants to “break the model.”

She was addressing the insularity of festivals, the tension between including everyone and showing the public the best. (In recent years, Tap City events sometimes slid closer to being recitals.)

“If we’re just catering tap dance events to tap dancers, the field is not going to move,” Toffan said. “Festivals are about communion and togetherness, but there are so many ways to exist in tap shoes besides classes.”

The Toronto festival still values legacy, Toffan said, bringing in present-day elders like Bufalino and Dianne Walker. But instead of the usual faculty or student showcase performances, it presents a touring production and commissions a local one, always with live music — supporting the creation of tap works that can have a life beyond the festival. (In Canada, more grants are available to support this.)

As some festivals fall away, others emerge. A few years ago, Maria Majors, who grew up attending the St. Louis Festival, resurrected it with a new one, small but expanding.

Even so, the lack of a festival in New York would leave the American art of tap without a center in America’s dance capital. Waag originally envisioned Tap City and his foundation growing into an institution comparable to the School of American Ballet or Jazz at Lincoln Center. Ready for a break, he still holds on to that dream.

“I might come up with something,” he said.

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