Dormeshia’s And Still You Must Swing is the first online dance that made me want to write about it. I knew it would be good. I knew it would be good in the fall of 2019, and so did lots of other people. By the time I was at the box office asking about tickets last fall, it was sold out.
I was therefore grateful to The Joyce Theater and Tap Family Reunion for choosing to stream it in honor of National Tap Dance Day on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday, May 25, and the next day, too. Featuring four superb and inventive dancers, the tappers Dormeshia, Derick K. Grant, and Jason Samuels Smith, and the dancer-choreographer Camille A. Brown, all of whom I’ve been enjoying for years, and four musicians, it was a sure thing. And it came across on YouTube particularly well, far better than other online dance I’ve been viewing.
I’ve seen quite a few of those multiple dancer videos, each from a different place, some of which have a dancer ending with a move and the next one starting from that position. They are short and pleasant diversions, a pandemic dance meme, but though the dancers are highly skilled, the various backdrops are often more interesting then the dancing moves themselves. I’ve also been watching the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process Artists Virtual Commissions, brief video experiments in a new form for these artists, so new it’s hardly surprising that it’s hard to come up with something that matches what they can do live, though, in an exception, Jamar Roberts’ Cooped, powerfully conveys the trauma of a black body “being relegated to live in and within” a confined space.
In lieu of going to the theater for their just passed spring season, I’ve also much appreciated New York City Ballet’s Digital Spring Season. They’ve given us much top notch dancing and some great choreography, thanks to George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and an interesting array of varied 21st century works. But the camera flattens the stage and Balanchine’s patterns, and while there are no heads to dodge, what the camera captures and what you would see live are different. The camera for And Still You Must Swing, however, placed me just where I wanted to be.
No Balanchine patterns to miss, and just four dancers, generally, if dancing together, in a row on the narrowed stage. There are a couple of curved platforms just behind, but usually the dancers are in front, with our eyes at the perfect level to see both their subtle body language and their intricate tapping feet.
Tap does well on YouTube (I keep going back to the Nicholas Brothers and Fred Astaire) and so does lindy hop (Hellzapoppin’!) and Swing has a lindy segment. We see an excerpted version of the show, but every number shown is intact and the 55-minute length seems just right.
Swing begins with the fine jazz trio, Carmen Staaf on piano, Noah Garabedian on bass, and Winard Harper on drums, and there are other purely musical interludes to spare the energetic dancers. The three tappers enter, each spotlighted before they dance together in unison. Their dancing is full of tricky steps in complex rhythms that counterpoint to slow jazz. They dance in a line, then trade off, showing off slides, dancing on heels, turning and jumping, tapping up a storm. Their body language is both precise and loose and thoroughly African American.
Gabriel Roxbury on djembe drum expertly solos. Camille (I’ll be using first names for all the dancers since Dormeshia recently dropped, for the stage, her compound last one, Sumbry-Edwards ) is sitting on a chair on the platform. On the chair before the djembe rhythms begin she swims her arms and flicks her hands. The drumming starts and Camille uses her hands to drum out rapid rhythms, the equivalent by hands of feet tapping. Down on the floor she still flicks her expressive hands as her body bends, lifts, and twists.
Camille’s fascinating bodywork stems from her background in modern dance, African dance, and African American vernacular dance and with her fecund imagination she makes of these influences something unique. She punctuates with arms, hands, and torso. Her face can be expressive, even as she hides it in fluttering fingers. With those virtuosic hands she beats a highly punctuated rhythm against her body.
Jason joins her, tapping, and then so does Derick. They keep changing places until they are in a line. Camille’s feet are quick, too, as she constantly inflects all parts of herself. They dance in unison, with Camille maintaining her unique style, and all three together are wonderful.
Camille and Dormeshia dance aound a circle of light on the floor until Dormeshia is left alone, tapping at first to silence, then to piano, then to the full band, including the djembe. She is an elegant tapper, soloing with intricate beats. Like the later solos by the two other tap dancers, her dance seems improvised. She makes contrasts between tensions and releases, between a bodily looseness and a tightening, sometimes using her body’s changes as a kind of accent.
Derick, Dormeshia, and Jason sit in a row while the band, still including the djembe, plays. Derick begins a solo with hops, slides, jumps, and toe points. He continues with little jumps, twists, and kicks, ending with a punctuating isolation. Dormeshia taps solo, with one foot tapping as the other foot propels her across the stage. She uses her toes to tap steps or to slide on the floor. In his solo Jason crosses his feet as they tap quickly and he moves across the stage. Whatever their feats, their beats always make music out of rhythm.
The three tap together briefly, leaving Derick alone. To slow jazz Derick crosses into green rays on the floor, with slow taps and slow inchings away. To lively music, he taps intricately, accents with a turn or by clacking his feet in the air or sliding on his heels. As with Dormeshia’s soloing and later Jason’s, shifts and pauses make you think he’s thinking before springing into another improvisation. He ends amiably, tipping his head, hand on hat.
Jason and Dormeshia dance on the curved platform and descend to lindy with all the classic moves and rich inflections. They jump, he lifts her high, he hops, they snake out rooster heads. When he leaves, Dormeshia looks upset, but Derick comes in to partner her and they kick together. When Jason returns the three dance separately, then trade off, passing each other. They swing their legs together and collapse on the platform.
When we see them again they are elegant in black, dancing in unison, jumping on one foot and tapping quickly with the other. Dormeshia is now in silver high heels. Tricky complications follow with crossing legs and feet, jumps, slides, and the subtle body language that enriches their virtuosity. Several times they drag a foot to make an unusual musical accent.
Jason begins his solo on the platform. The jazz is slow, but his taps are intricate and quick as he moves across the stage, stabbing a foot or turning. He taps with his legs far out or brings them in, taps his toes, marks time, even staggers until he finds a new way to show off his ample skills.
The three tappers dance in unison again, together in their rhythmic intricacy, even with legs apart or tapping on one leg. Camille comes in for bows, then all four dance together, with Camille’s quick sneakered feet making noiseless (equivalent) small step rhythms as her knees go in and out. More bows, and for the online show a brief return to the three in earlier colorful costumes tapping elegantly as one. Sure, I would have liked to catch their energy and artistry in this splendid show in person, but for once seeing it online didn’t feel like a simulacrum, but like a completely valid alternate experience.