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Tap's turn in the spotlight

The L.A. Tap Festival -- and the art form -- get a plug on a national TV show. Now the real movement begins.

August 04, 2007|Brian Seibert | Special to The Times

NEW YORK -- Recently on the Fox TV show "So You Think You Can Dance," there was a surprise: In between contestants, a guest artist named Jason Samuels Smith came out and tap danced, unaccompanied, for two minutes.

With his goatee and dreadlocks, he seemed to fit in with the show's urban cool aesthetic, and his technique was clearly impressive -- amazingly fast, intricate. The audience shrieked. The judges stood to applaud. The chipper host hugged him and said, "You're doing a great thing for tap." Then Samuels Smith got to plug a project, the annual Los Angeles Tap Festival, which will begin its fifth year of classes and performances Monday.

The great thing Samuels Smith was doing for tap, presumably, was exposing it to an audience of millions. Yet asked about his appearance a few days later, he was grateful but dissatisfied. "Why isn't tap on the show every week?" he said.

Two minutes wasn't much time either. But on balance, Samuels Smith said he was still glad for the opportunity.

"Every little battle contributes to the larger war," he said -- the war to spread the art of tap dancing.

In that war, tap festivals are a kind of boot camp crossed with a family reunion. The L.A. festival started in 2002, after dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen invited Samuels Smith, then 21, to develop a tap program for her school in Culver City. She'd seen him in the generation-defining Broadway tap show "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and knew he could show young people that tap was alive.

As a proud son of Hell's Kitchen and a New Yorker to the core, Samuels Smith required some convincing. "It took a lot of baking chicken and making cake," Allen says, "but he realized that there was so much opportunity in Los Angeles, and more need."

Once Samuels Smith had begun teaching for her, however, Allen noticed that he kept slipping off to Brazil. He wasn't going on vacation; he was participating in one of the dozens of annual festivals that, in the last two decades, have become the center of a global tap subculture. That's when Allen decided, "We're going to have our own festival." And with almost no funding, that's what Samuels Smith and his partner, Chloe Arnold, set out to organize for her.

The plan might not have gotten off the ground but for the help of Gregory Hines, tap's movie star, who agreed to participate for $5. Once he was onboard, the festival was viable, official. But two days before it opened, Hines died of cancer. The first L.A. Tap Festival thus became a tribute to him, and the fifth anniversary edition will be as well. It will culminate in a tap concert at Santa Monica High School's Barnum Hall next Saturday night.

In another sense, every year of the festival has been a bow to Hines and his inclusive spirit. "Put on a pair of tap shoes and you're in" was his attitude. Recently there's been some controversy about tap festivals, ever since Savion Glover told a New York Times reporter in June that they were "impersonal and business-oriented." But the charge does not seem to apply in L.A.

Diane Walker, a tap veteran who's a fixture on the festival circuit, singles out the Los Angeles version for its welcoming atmosphere. "I call it the Feel Good Festival," she says.

Allen's studio, Walker says, feels like home. Everyone eats lunch together. Instructors hang out and talk with students and watch other classes. Moreover, both Arnold and Samuels Smith grew up poor enough that they couldn't afford to attend tap festivals, and they say that in their own festival they make an effort to provide scholarships and work-study programs.

The festival is also set apart by Allen's insistence on providing classes in other dance forms: jazz, hip-hop, African, even flamenco and the Indian classical dance form kathak. "Tap dance is not as isolated as usual," Walker explains. "You feel integrated into the world of dance."

The teachers and performers, though, have an L.A. slant. Arthur Duncan, who tapped for years on TV's "Lawrence Welk Show," has been with the festival from the start. Dick Van Dyke went from fan to full participant. This year, Dulé Hill will join the crew. Before he was on "The West Wing" and "Psych," Hill danced in "Bring in 'Da Noise."

The festival also concentrates on other L.A.-bred talent. A sizable percentage can be traced to a single dance studio, Paul and Arlene Kennedy's Universal Dance Designs. Kennedy school alum Joseph Wiggan, for instance, has won the "cutting contest" three years running. More comers will try to unseat him Wednesday night at the Allen studio, where nonparticipants can watch the action for $10.

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