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Savion Glover (1973- )

By Christopher Miller

Savion Glover may be reasonably described as the most celebrated living personality of the tap dancing world. Gregory Hines, a legend in his own right, frequently described Glover as “possibly the best tap dancer that ever lived,” (Lahr, 90) and he is known within the tap community as the "Man Who Saved Tap Dancing.” Having convincingly overlapped with an aging generation of tap icons in his youth and now working to carry a traditionalist mantle into contemporary tap, Savion Glover is the most recognizable, and potentially polarizing, name in tap as it negotiates relevance in new contexts, among a burgeoning number of dancers, and with audiences of the digital age.

Tap shares much in common with the musical tradition of jazz, with which it developed in parallel, and as such demonstrates a pattern of mentorship through performance often ascribed to similar continuities in the jazz canon. Therefore, though Henry LeTang and the Hines Brothers (primarily Gregory but also Maurice Hines, Jr.) are rightfully credited as Glover’s primary teachers, Glover often lists in interviews a long list of tap royalty as his mentors, including but never limited to: Jimmy Slide, Bunny Briggs, Harold Nicholas, Sandman Simms, Chuck Green, Honi Coles, Buster Brown, Mable Lee, and Sammy Davis, Jr., just to name a few. The acknowledgement of influence in Glover’s work draws attention not only to the brilliance of a past generation of performers but also to the opportunity Glover had in his youth to share the stage with these prominent hoofers.

Savion Glover has been a consistent fixture on the Broadway stage, having danced in four major productions, despite his relative youth. He made his Broadway debut in The Tap Dance Kid (1983–85) very shortly after his tenth birthday. A few years later, Glover appeared in Black and Blue (1989–91), for which he earned his first Tony Award nomination. He then spent one year among the cast of Jelly's Last Jam (1992–93) in the role of a young Jelly Roll Morton, earning a Drama Desk Award nomination as a featured actor. By far his most celebrated Broadway endeavor, and arguably his finest artistic achievement to date, has been Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk (1996–99). Conceived in collaboration with George C. Wolfe as director and originally subtitled “A Rap/Tap Discourse on the Staying Power of The Beat,” the production received nine Tony Award nominations, winning four.

Among those Tony Awards, Glover and Wolfe each won awards for their choreography and direction respectively. Glover also received a Drama Desk Award and a Dance Magazine citation for his work on the production.

Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk remains the most studied and discussed work of Glover’s career, a status that some authors attribute to Wolfe’s influence as much as Glover’s creative vision. It is “essentially the history of black America in tap dance” for which the driving inspiration is, as Wolfe notes, “that American phenomenon of figuring out who you are in a new place” (Kendall). Following a narrative arc that attaches music and tap to the passage of African slaves to the new world and follows the African American experience through to contemporary urban life, Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk dramatizes an expansive cultural phenomenon across the commonality of tap, and as an extension of percussive music, jazz, and hip hop. Cast as an abstract concept, “’Da Beat”, Glover expertly taps through the frustrations of early jazz-age minstrelsy and hailing a taxi cab as a black man in contemporary New York City but also celebrates inspired African American voices, from W. E. B. Du Bois to the city kids who transcend modern urban life.

For Glover, as for many of his mentors,  screen appearances have been a resonant expansion of his theatrical work. His film debut came in Tap (1989), with Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. He was also a fixture on Sesame Street for five seasons (1990–95). He was among the top billed actors in Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000), for which he also made choreography. Additionally, Savion choreographed and was executive producer for the ABC-TV special “Savion Glover's Nu York” (1998), starred in Showtime's The Wall (1998), and choreographed The Rat Pack (1998) for HBO. He also loaned his tap steps to the animated penguin Mumble in the Oscar Award-winning feature film Happy Feet (2006).

At various stages of his career, Savion Glover has aggregated collectives of young tap performers, notably the Not Your Ordinary Tappers, the TiDii ensemble, and more recently in the form of his Newark, New Jersey-based tap academy, HooFeRz CluB School for Tap. Many of these efforts have resulted in significant collaborations with rising stars of a younger tap generation, including Marshall Davis, Jr., Maurice Chestnut, Robyn Watson, and Andrew Nemr. Among these, Marshall Davis, Jr. remains Glover’s most frequent collaborator in performance.

Within the past decade, Glover’s staged works have been a study of tap innovation anchored to a vocabulary of tap tradition. Increasingly seen as challenging to accepted norms of tap performance and tap audience expectations, as both a catalyst for change and a provocateur, Savion Glover has presented and toured several new works of his own composition, many of which have developed through a repeating residency at The Joyce Theater in New York City. Improvography (2003) is among those pieces that explore tap and the tap performer as a component instrument in the small jazz combo context. Glover presents an often evening-long program of jazz standards within which he both sings and taps while supported by a standard jazz quartet (piano, bass, drums, horn), who work through the accepted construction of ensemble, solo, and exchange work common to an instrumental jazz ensemble. The resulting performances accentuate a point that Glover has long vocalized about tap, that it is at its essence a percussive, and therefore primarily musical, tradition. This work in particular showcases Glover’s noted aggressive athleticism, liquid dexterity, and complex rhythmic work.

Other recent works have been somewhat conceptual in establishing a particular structure or framework in which to situate tap. Bare Soundz (2008) features only three hoofers with no other supporting sound, dramaturgical direction, or additional cast. Instead, Glover employs elaborate microphone placement in his performers’ shoes and resonant tap stage construction to feature a diverse range of possible tap sounds. The piece is meant to hold tap in the pure light of its own performance without external meaning or the accoutrements of musical accompaniment. The challenge is then set for the performers to hold an audience captive for an evening through footwork dialogues, not only amongst themselves, but also with the past and future of tap alike.

Two very recent works in partnership with the Joyce Theater are SoLE PoWER (2010) and SoLe Sanctuary (2011). The former is a work in two parts, the first half of which has been described as an existentialist exploration of tap phenomenology wherein Glover performs solo to a pre-recorded esoteric sound score. The second half of SoLE PoWER, by contrast, is meant to be, in Glover’s own words, “pure fun,” featuring Western popular and Japanese house music as well as ensemble work from three notable Japanese hoofers: Masato Nishitani, Keitaro Hosokawa, and Yumi Koshigai. In a completely different character, SoLe Sanctuary functions as a directly stated and auspiciously realized tribute to the tap legends from whom Glover most draws inspiration. On a set that features four raised tap platforms, only two are employed for dance. Upon one of the other two platforms rests a single pair of tap shoes (widely understood as belonging to the late Gregory Hines), and on the final platform a gentleman meditates in a seated position for the 80-minute entirety of the piece. Decorated with the images of late masters and featuring lighting and music accentuating an ambient religious setting, SoLe Sanctuary is a tapped homage to mentors past and a perceived statement regarding Savion’s increasing misgivings about tap’s future.

As an eminent, if reluctant, celebrity in the tap world, which has even at times extended into hip hop circles, Savion Glover has periodically offered his own commentary on the trajectory of tap. Though many of his performances explore emergent innovations, Glover has been very critical of tappers who lack a solid grounding in the vocabularies of previous generations. Of some fusion genres, Glover has decried, “They’re ruining us. . . . You don’t mix bananas with macaroni and cheese” (Goldberg, 55). Glover’s own style often directly quotes the identifiable footwork of his mentors before leaping into his crafted and technical tap wizardry. His style has not been without its detractors, however, leaving one critic to observe that his complex footwork “is like those eighty-step equations which math professors need three blackboards to write out” (Acocella, 77). There has also been a great deal of attention directed toward critical and audience commentary on Glover’s performance style and stage presence. Far from the ingratiating performances and outward-facing presences of the tap past, Glover maintains an obviously inward demeanor on stage. He rarely extends a gaze toward the audience, preferring to focus on the floor or surrounding stage. At one point in Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk, Glover dances a full section with his back to audience, a move that garnered comparisons to the aloof posturing of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The introspection is more benign in the context of Glover’s own description of his measured respect for the past, his desire to shake lose the specter of subservience, his personal artistic explorations, and his hopes of extending tap into future generations of performers.

Christopher A. Miller is Curator of Collections in the Herberger Institute School of Dance at Arizona State University. He holds a MA in Information Resources and Library Science from the University of Arizona; a MM degree in Music and Southeast Asian Studies from Northern Illinois University; and a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. His research focuses on media representation of minority cultures in Southeast Asia, and his musical training includes a range spanning from the Burmese arched harp to Javanese and Balinese gamelan to the saxophone. 


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Acocella, Joan. “Taking Steps.” The New Yorker 79, no. 42 (Jan. 12, 2004): 77.

Arthurs, Alberta. “Taking Art Seriously.” American Art 10, no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 2–7.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “’Being Savion Glover:’ Black Masculinity, Translocation, and Tap Dance.”

Glover, Savion and Bruce Weber. Savion! My Life in Tap. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Goldberg, Jane. “Savion Brings Back ‘Da Noise.” Dance Magazine 76, no. 12 (December 2002): 50–5.

Johnson, Robert. “Savion Glover's 'Sole Power' puts together an ambitious new show.” The Star Ledger (June 18, 2010). http://www.nj.com/entertainment/arts/index.ssf/2010/06/savion_glovers_sole_power_puts.html

Kendall, Elizabeth. “THEATER; 'Bring in da Noise' Steps Uptown, Feet First,” The New York Times. April 21, 1996.

Lahr, John. “King Tap.” The New Yorker. October 30, 1995: 90.

Newman, Barbara. “Bare Soundz.” Dancing Times (January 2009): 59.

Seibert, Brian. “The Joyce hosts the noted tap star, plus maybe Gregory Hines’s shoes.” The Village Voice (June 22, 2011): http://www.villagevoice.com/content/printVersion/2644122

Terry, Morgan, Elmo. “Noise/Funk: Fo’ Real Black Theatre on ‘Da Great White Way.” African American Review 31, no. 4 “Contemporary Theatre Issue” (Winter 1997): 677–86.

Moving Image

Bamboozled. Directed by Spike Lee. 2000. DVD. Los Angeles, CA: New Line Entertainment, 2001.

Tap. Directed By Nick Castle. 1986. DVD. Burbank, CA: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment, 2006.

Bojangles. Directed by Joseph Sargent. 2001. DVD. Los Angeles, CA: Showtime Entertainment, 2002.

The Theatre on Film and Tape Archives of the New York Public Library has a video recording of Bring in ‘Da Noise/Bring in ‘Da Funk; viewing is restricted to “supervised use.”