This Sunday, the National Museum of Dance opens its doors to celebrate National Tap Dance Day with renowned dancer and choreographer Brenda Bufalino.
National Tap Dance Day is officially next Friday, May 25, so designated by Congress because it is the birthday of tap legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who gained fame for dancing in movies with Shirley Temple and was the most employed African American tap dancer of his day.
Tina Baird, owner of Saratoga Jazz Tap, is co-sponsor and organizer of the event that celebrates this art form. “Tap was sort of an underdog art form,” she said. “We have a ton of ballet and professional modern dance in the Capital Region, and the New York City Ballet comes in the summer.” Baird said she hopes to shine the spotlight on tap, which she said “needs to be recognized for the history and richness that it contains.”
Bufalino, who lives in Gardiner in Ulster County, and teaches at the American Tap Dance Foundation in Manhattan, will present a lecture and demonstration titled, “Tap Dance . . . Made in America, The Rhythm and History of America’s Own Indigenous Art Form.” She will offer classes following the presentation.
National Tap Dance Day
WHERE: National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 1-5:30 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: Lecture/Demonstration, $30, $20 for seniors, $10 for 9 and under; single class $30; lecture and one class, $50
MORE INFO: 581-1791 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Roots of art form
Tap has its roots in African and European culture, which Americans blended together to create a new art form that was steadily woven into the American culture in the last century, alongside jazz, its cousin, which America also claims as its own.
“It came out of a very difficult time with slavery, and out of something so inconceivable for human beings at a very dark time came these two incredible, joyful art forms,” Baird said. Forbidden to use drums, slaves began to use their bodies to make percussion. The event is a way of not only honoring this indigenous art form, but also of honoring those who created it during so much suffering.
Bufalino said that her presentation “kind of reminds the public that tap dance is in all of our DNA.” She’ll talk about various styles of tap dancing and how it developed into a concert art form, moving from short routines in vaudeville and movies to a whole evening-length concert.
The process wasn’t easy. While tap enjoyed great popularity during the first half of the 20th century, it began to die out as the venues where tap dancers performed closed, and modern dance began to take over in Broadway shows. “Music got very loud,” Bufalino noted of the time when rock and roll came along. “Any place that a tap dancer might work disappeared.”
The disappearance was temporary, though, as Bufalino and other tap dancers like Gregory Hines helped to birth a renaissance of the art form in the 1970s. “It took us as tap dancers years to figure out what kind of venues we needed,” she said. “Finally, when we developed our place on the concert stage, we had a way to return.”
Films and more
Bufalino will include film excerpts in her presentation, including a performance by the company she created, The American Tap Dance Orchestra, in a PBS special with Hines.
Pianist Paul Arslanian, from Northampton, Mass., who has worked extensively with Bufalino over the years, will also be there to demonstrate some tap improvisation with her. “He really understands the form, and he writes for it,” Bufalino said.
At the end of the hour-and-15-minute lecture and demonstration, there will be a half-hour break for birthday cake to celebrate Robinson’s birthday, where attendees with have a chance to chat with Bufalino.
After the break, she will teach two classes, an advanced beginner class for ages 10 through adult followed by an intermediate/advanced class for teens and adults.
“I’ll do a lot of subtle footwork and a lot of musical tapping,” Bufalino said, nothing that she likes to work with tonality. There’ll be instruction in technique, phrasing, and swing tapping.
Rebecca Kim is traveling from Manchester, Vt. for the event, because she doesn’t want to miss the opportunity to hear and study with Bufalino, who she describes as “all-encompassing” in her work as a dancer, choreographer, technical artist and musician. Kim also notes Bufalino’s role in tap’s history. “She weaves together the past and the present,” Kim said.
Baird hopes that the event will give attendees a better understanding of the complexity and intensity of tap as an art form. “There’s still this misunderstanding that it’s just this happy dance that’s shuffle step, but there’s a lot more to it,” she said.
Bufalino would agree. “I’ve done all forms of dance, and there is no more complex and intriguing and complicated form than tap dance,” she said. “It takes years to develop.” Being represented at the National Museum of Dance is important, she said, because tap has been on the back burner in the dance world. “Sometimes other dancers look at us as if we don’t have as much clout,” she said.