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'Da Kid Taps Back to Roots in 'Noise / Funk'

Dominique Kelley, 15, the youngest member of national tour, got a lesson in African American history from roles in play.

April 05, 1998|Diane Haithman | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

At age 12, Savion Glover, co-creator of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," made his Broadway debut in "The Tap Dance Kid." Now, the much-celebrated Glover is 23--and the new "tap dance kid" is 15-year-old Dominique Kelley, the youngest member of the cast in the "Noise/Funk" national tour, currently at the Ahmanson Theater.

Kelley, the ultimate string bean at 5'10 1/2, 115 pounds has wowed the critics during his six months with the show. The Minneapolis Star Tribune singled Kelley out as "amazing"; The Times' theater critic Laurie Winer noted that this bright, gangly teenager from Bridgeport, Conn., occasionally steals the show from the critically acclaimed Derick K. Grant, who dances Glover's former role--'da beat--at most performances.

"The eye is drawn again and again to Dominique Kelley, a slimmer, more mercurial and goofier dancer, with a long, animated face," Winer wrote.

Kelley, who looks even younger and slimmer offstage in a pair of baggy blue denim shorts and big white athletic shoes, acknowledges shyly that "it is very exciting to be singled out." Kelley's father, Aaron, travels with Dominique and serves as his high school tutor on the road. He also accompanies his son when Dominique meets the press.

This is not, however, because the younger Kelley is uncomfortable with the media. Kelley began his professional career six years ago in the European tour of the Broadway tap extravaganza "Black and Blue," and after that experience, he's an old hand at doing interviews.

True, he's occasionally been taken aback by odd requests from photographers. In Zurich, during a promotional appearance at a circus, he was asked to tap dance atop an elephant. The idea was to put a board on top of the elephant to provide a tapping surface. "A moving elephant!" Kelley says, shaking his head. He refused this proposal. Another photographer told him that, if only Kelley had come to Europe sooner, he'd have photographed Kelley tapping along the Berlin Wall.

Kelley tends to dismiss his age when he talks about his blossoming career. "The [other] guys treat me with respect, and I give them respect--and I try not to show my age in my tap dancing, either . . . I'm trying to find my own style," he says.

In "Noise/Funk," Kelley steps into the spotlight on two striking occasions. In one, he performs an initially pleasant soft-shoe number on top of a bale of cotton, which ends on a note of horror when the onlookers onstage turn into a lynch mob, and his increasingly frantic tapping stops short as his body goes limp and his head hangs to one side. Slide projections behind him provide historical statistics about the rampant lynching of blacks in 1916.

In the other, Kelley takes on the clownish part of Uncle Huck-a-Buck, based on Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, in a section of the show which explores what happened to black tappers once Hollywood got hold of them. Kelley's Huck-a-Buck grins and taps while cast member Grant dances alongside with a life-sized Shirley Temple doll called L'il Dahlin' strapped to his body. Uncle Huck-a-Buck is wiser than his pasted-on smile implies. "Who de hell cares if I acts de fool when I takes a swim in my swimming pool?" he asks onstage in an exaggerated dialect.

At 15, Kelley obviously has not lived through these phases in African American history. But he's done his research. "There is a lot of history in this show that they don't tell you in the history books," he observes. "Maybe they feel it is too . . . how shall I put it? Too graphic, or too violent. But it happened. Slave uprising was like the French Revolution," Kelley continues.

When he first saw another dancer perform the disturbing lynching scene, Kelley confesses, "I didn't want to do it. I didn't want that pressure on me," he confesses. "Now that I am doing it, it is not so much a pressure thing, it is more of an education thing. Because that's what really happened."

To prepare for his Uncle Huck-a-Buck role, Kelley watched old movies and documentaries on Robinson, over and over, "trying to figure out his steps." Although "Noise/Funk" takes a critical view of the effect of Hollywood movies on black tap dancers, Kelley remains philosophical.

"I didn't so much feel sorry [for Robinson], I felt great, because if he didn't do that, we wouldn't be where we are now," he observes. "He was really crossing the color line, as opposed to just tapping for black people. Just like rap artists are doing now--Boyz II Men, or Will Smith. They're not just playing to one audience. He was bringing the whole world into tap dancing."

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