Years ago when I was just a kid in a dinner theater production of Oliver, I met Andrew Nemr. We’ve been good friends ever since, and I have had the privilege to watch his career develop. Mentored by Gregory Hines, Andrew is an outstanding tap dancer with a deep passion for the dance and its history. He runs his own tap company, Cats Paying Dues (CPD), which will be presenting his show, Echoes in Time, on March 4th at Symphony Space in NYC. I caught up with him in preparation for the show to chat a bit about some of his mentors, the connection between tap and lindy, and the upcoming performance.
Craig: Welcome, Andrew, to All the Cats Join In.
Andrew: Thanks, glad to be here.
C: So, I remember attending your college graduation party a few years back (or more), and meeting tap legends Buster Brown and Brownie Brown. Can you tell me a little bit about those guys?
A: Oh wow. You know, I didn’t know they were going to be there. Buster and Brownie were members of the Copasetics, a fraternity of mostly entertainers, that included Billy Strayhorn (Ellington’s writing partner), Honi Coles, Cholly Atkins, and LeRoy Myers. All of the members came up at a time when tap dance was part of the popular culture of America, so we’re talking the 1920s until the late 40s, early 50s.
Buster and Brownie, specifically, were two of my personal examples of the joy that one can have being a tap dancer and sharing the dance with others.
C: Yeah, I certainly got to see that in them that day. The reason I mention them is that I distinctly remember them having some serious swing moves on the dance floor that day. I’m guessing they were in their 80s, but they could still man-handle a woman across the dance floor!
A: Yes sir. If my recollection serves me, Brownie danced with every girl at the party. Like I said, pure joy! And yes, Buster was 88 or 89 in 2001 and Brownie was around the same age.
C: Was it common for tap dancers to social dance as well?
A: Depended on the dancer, I think. Most that I know, did. But generally speaking, if you hung out back in their day and there was music being played, the music was jazz. And if you chose to dance, you would be social dancing…some form of American vernacular jazz dance.
C: Yes, as I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking of all the solo jazz/charleston steps that are similar in tap: fall off a log, over-the-tops, suzie-q’s.
A: Yes indeed. The entire Shim Sham Shimmy has steps that are related between the dances.
C: Actually, you’re the one who first taught me the Shim Sham. I still do it with shuffles where most swing dancers use little kicks.
A: Yeah, man, keep those shuffles.
C: But the tap dancers don’t do the third chorus with the boogie backs and shorty georges. You guys miss out on that part.
A: Right, we just do the one up top, a chorus without the breaks, and then it’s shave and a hair cut: two bits.
C: Also in the realm of crossover, I read on wikipedia that tap has some steps that are influenced by swing. They specifically mentioned the “Flying Swing Outs” and the “Flying Circles.” I don’t put much stock in Wikipedia, so I thought I’d check that with you. Were tap dancers stealing from the lindy hoppers?
A: To be honest I’ve never heard of those. If you think of what the scene might have been like back when tap was young, I would say that every kind of movement was a potential influence on a dancer. Bunny Briggs told me once that his intentional lack of movement at times was influenced by a singer he saw in one of the old movie musicals. (The singer’s name escapes me now.)
And thinking of all the old guys (and ladies) that I’ve known, they all had some sort of character, a way, about them that influenced their movement. And in talking to them and being around them, I really came to learn that the root of all of it was the music that they were drawn to. It was all jazz and rooted in the idea of swing. Some cats just liked the more “modern” music which was considered not as “danceable”.
C: I know the shift in music was particularly hard for the swing dancers. I think tap did a better job finding a way to connect with jazz as it developed.
When I think of some of the stuff that I’ve seen you or Savion Glover pull, there’s something about the essence of tap being equal parts music and dance that enables you to connect and contribute to music. I think the structure of swing makes it really difficult to bend to some of what happened. I can think of all kinds of rhythms that could be tapped to “Take 5,” but while I’ve managed to do swingouts to it, its really tough.
A: I think you’d be one of a select few to try swinging out to Take 5; that’s awesome. I agree, tap dance is the dance between the dancer and the musician. It also is formulated much like jazz in the sense that part of the form of tap is that we are allowed to do a lot in terms of movement quality and musicality, so long as the statements are clear. If you want to be a stickler you add a historical reference to why you’re reaching for a specific movement quality or musical form, but that’s really for the purists like me that need a foundation from which to grow. Lindy, much like other cultural dances (flamenco and irish step dance come to mind), functions within a form that was tied to the music of the time. It’s hard to expand the form without changing the dance. I think that’s an artistic question that a lot of people face who are trying to do “something new.” How much can I change what it is I say I’m doing before I have to call it something else?
C: Yeah, that is something that is heavily debated in the swing dance community. My take on it is that those guys were changing the dance all the time, and worrying about what to call it second. I think every art needs to have a solid past, a strong present, and a vision for the future. That’s one of the things I appreciate about the work that you do in the tap community; you really value and work on all three aspects. Your current show, Echoes in Time, focuses on that solid past, yes?
A: Yes indeed. Echoes really functions on two fronts. First, it provides an opportunity for dancers in the show to deal with that past in a very tangible way. Second, it provides an audience with both ideas of the contributions of some of the masters and the arc of the growth of the dancer as they deal with that material, the latter being the story that we’re telling during the show.
This preview of Echoes showcases the several numbers from the performance Andrew discusses below.
C: You do a direct recreation of Bojangles stair dance in the show?
A: Yes. That’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted with Nicholas Brothers style splits being a very very very close second.
C: What was so challenging about it?
A: Bill Robinson was left-footed so the whole dance starts with the left foot, and I tend to favor my right. That’s one thing. The other thing is the physical demands of supporting one’s body and one’s feet as you’re running up and down those stairs. I’ve become used to it, I guess, but it’s still a big feeling when I walk up to those stairs.
C: Any other favorite routines from the show?
A: We recreate Gregory Hines’ Apollo, a solo of his, as an ensemble piece. That’s really exciting for me. We also have two Bubba Gaines pieces in the show. I didn’t know Bubba, but Bettye Morrow, one of his protégée taught me the pieces and I staged them. He was really unique as they all were, but I guess because his material is new to me so I’m still hit by it.
C: Those sound fantastic. Its getting late, so I just have one more question for you.
C: Did Jimmy Slyde have anti-gravity shoes?
A: No, man, but he did have an eight-pack. Strong. In all senses of the word. I think it was a matter of friction for him, not gravity.
C: The man looks positively weightless!
A: Yes he does.
C: Anyhow, thank you so much for your time, Andrew. I hope your show is a huge success, and we look forward to having you back again sometime.
A: My pleasure…until soon.