The Souls of Our Feet resurrects the classics at the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival
When rhythm tap dancer Acia Gray set out to create the show The Souls of Our Feet about six years ago, she wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before. And that meant she had to dig deep into hoofing history.
“I wanted to help educate American audiences about what tap dance really is, because unless they had seen a movie or had a child in tap, most people wouldn’t necessarily know what it is—and I still think that’s true today,” Gray says, on the line from Portland, where the artistic director of Austin, Texas’s Tapestry Dance Company is holding a workshop.
What Gray did with The Souls of Our Feet is resurrect classic tap numbers by greats like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and Gene Kelly, and present them in a live theatrical setting. She used projected film footage to meld the originals with her dancers’ versions of the routines. Her idea was not to mirror the works, but to give them new life. The result is that audiences get to see, say, that iconic Singin’ in the Rain number in three dimensions, plus other equally worthy numbers that have been lost to late-night TV broadcasts of old silver-screen gems. As the Austin Chronicle put it, the show “reminds us in every exquisite kick, step, shuffle, buck and wing, and rat-a-tat tapped out by this exuberant troupe that tap is a living form, that it always has been and always deserves to be”.
Souls has gone on to tour America and the world for the past six years to great success—including a groundbreaking 2011 tour of China, where American-style tap is hardly known. The Souls of Our Feet is finally hitting town here for the first time, during the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival.
“The hardest things we did was restaging these classics—and they turned out to be the most successful things, too. But I said to the dancers, ‘I don’t want you to be that person. I want you to put yourself in that place,’ ” Gray explains.
She says the old works carry an incredible amount of technical difficulty, and that a lot have a style that is challenging to access for younger dancers, most of whom have been steeped in the funk-influenced tap of modern masters like Savion Glover.
“What we’ve gone away from—and what many in the young generation are rediscovering—is this element of swing or jazz that was so much a part of the culture back then. So swinging is not a natural thing for a 20-year-old today.”
Gray says Tapestry has the luxury of being the only full-time tap troupe on the continent, so it has more time for rehearsal and research. That’s allowed her and her dancers to polish Souls to the high sheen of patent tap shoes over the years.
Putting on such big, theatrical productions is essential to build the art form, the enthusiastic Gray insists. Aside from a handful of modern productions like Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, most tap-dance shows are just lineups of artists that play to practitioners of the form. Gray says productions like Souls can take tap to the next level.
“Until more of us are doing that, we’re not going to be taken seriously,” says the current president of the International Tap Association, with passion. “The future will only be there if we can go beyond tap dance.…There’s amazing work being done and it needs to be seen.”
The Souls of Our Feet: A Celebration of American Tap Dance is at the Norman Rothstein Theatre on Friday (August 31), as part of the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival.