Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards is one of the U.S.’s most influential tap stars, a master who’s taught classes from Rio to Tokyo. But as she travelled the world watching the next generation of dancers, she started to realize something was missing from all the eye-popping technique she was seeing.
“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” the affable hoofer tells the Straight from her home in New Jersey before heading here for the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival (next Thursday to Sunday [September 1 to 4]). “I appreciate all the artistry that’s happening, but there’s a bit of a disconnect, and I’d say, ‘Wow, they’re doing amazing things, the way they’re using the vocabulary and the body of the dancers.’ But I wasn’t feeling anything. I wasn’t able to connect.
“Then I realized: it was a matter of groove, that I know as swing, that was missing.”
Sumbry-Edwards’s next step was to test out her theory, coaxing her students to try work that wasn’t technically challenging, but was full of that propulsive, rhythmic feel that defines swing. “It was amazing!” she reports. “These amazing technicians were not able to hold down their vocabulary if they were trying to swing.” The dance form, she deduced, had almost fully detached from its roots in the expressive, swinging 1930s. “How do you move forward when you don’t understand what was? There’s the disconnect not only with the rhythm but also the history of the form.”
A full-blown show has risen out of that eureka moment, fittingly called And Still You Must Swing, a project with fellow tap influencers Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith, to be performed here with live jazz music by Allison Miller, Michael Creber, and Rene Worst. Its debut here is the first full-fledged production since it received raves in July at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts—notably, a contemporary-dance festival. The New York Times wrote, “As the hoofers trade turns in the spotlight, each yields songs from the ground, scraping and stroking and piercing the floor in ways that confound the eye and ear with their intricacy.”
The show reaches back in history for lindy-hop moves, or even further for African rhythms. Sumbry-Edwards says she immediately related to music director, percussionist, and arranger Miller, who reported the same frustration with the loss of head-bobbing groove amid the technical fireworks in jazz.
For Sumbry-Edwards, a virtuoso who started dancing to the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington at three and went on to appear on Broadway and in just about every contemporary tap movie ever made, summoning the roots of the form has come naturally, reinforced by all her training. But she realizes that getting a new generation to find its swing is not going to happen overnight.
“The world is not just gonna swing. It will take a good long time, because it’s taken a while to get where it is. It will take time for the whole tap community to really undo,” she says with a laugh. “I just want people to check in, know about the history, try it on.”
And Still You Must Swing is at the Vancouver International Tap Dance Festival next Friday (September 2).