Savion Glover is blessed to have been mentored, taught and molded by the greatest tappers of a very rich era.
The late Lon Chaney (born Isaiah Chaneyfield), James “Buster” Brown, Charles “Honi” Coles, Jimmy Slyde, Howard Sims, Arthur Duncan, Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr.: These are the legendary hoofers, some of whom hearkened back to vaudeville days, who helped make Glover into the tapping wizard he is today.
“These guys were beyond dancers. A lot of them were great comedians,” Glover said of the masters he learned from in Broadway shows including Black and Blue and Jelly’s Last Jam as well as movies such as Tap, choreographed by mentor/choreographer Henry LeTang. “It was just a joyful exchange.”
“I was always in learning mode. I continue to be a student of their contributions,” said Glover, 38, who made his Broadway debut at age 10 in 1985 in The Tap Dance Kid.
Glover pays tribute to the tap masters who came before him in his show SoLe Sanctuary, which he will perform Saturday at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall. Billed as “a hoofer’s meditation on the art of tap,” dancer, choreographer and producer Glover began performing the piece in 2011.
The bare-bones show features just one other dancer, Marshall Davis Jr., as well as a figure meditating throughout the performance. The stage is dominated by posters of legends Hines, Slyde and Davis Jr. dangling from the ceiling; an altar of red votives; and a pair of Glover’s tap shoes, designed by Hines.
The performers dance on a miked floor designed by the late, great Hines. The New York Times said that in SoLe Sanctuary, Glover’s body becomes a vessel for the art, tapping to evoke the spirits of legends as voice-overs of Chaney, Brown and Coles “haunt the stage.”
Glover, speaking from his car last week en route to a dance rehearsal in his hometown of Newark, N.J., said the show’s title is a play on the word “soul.”
“We’re speaking from the tap dancer’s point of view. It is a dancer’s sanctuary. In this situation it’s my own personal sanctuary and it’s to acknowledge my teachers, my loved ones, my instructors, the pioneers also in tap dance.
“It’s our moment to really say thank you to them [his legendary tap mentors] and express our gratitude towards their contribution, their friendship and their commitment to the art form.”
Glover, known for his hard and loud style of tap called “hitting,” began tapping at age 7 but didn’t realize his great love for the art until about age 15. His breakthrough role came in his early 20s when he co-created Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk with George C. Wolfe. Noise/Funk told the story, through tap, of African-American history from slavery to the present, winning Glover a 1996 Tony award for best choreography.
Reminiscing about the greats, Glover said dancing with the late Hines in 1992’s Jelly’s Last Jam on Broadway was a joy. Hines played jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton and Glover played Young Jelly.
“That was one of the greatest experiences in my life,” he said. “The camaraderie was special. The learning experience was special. These guys, particularly Gregory, they had a way of allowing me to not really worry about the performing or performance aspect of what we were doing, but they just made it so joyful and personable to be onstage and to have those exchanges. The audience was like secondary.”
These days, Glover looks back and is amazed that he got to work in the early ’80s with so many legends at the latter part of their lives, when many had reached their 70s and 80s.
“I’m so blessed to have been born at the time I was born,” he said.
“All of them have been very influential in my life, not only as a dancer but just as a man in this world. I love them dearly. I continue to respect them and acknowledge not only their contribution to the dance but their contribution to my life,” he said.
Glover said his mission is to make sure that this generation and those to come don’t forget about the great tap masters. He works to achieve this by performing SoLe Sanctuary as well as speaking at school outreach programs.
He moved from Manhattan to Newark three years ago to raise his son, who is now 8.
“My mentality was changing so the New York pace living in the Village in a loft was not my style anymore,” Glover said. “This is my home. I’m very much satisfied and happy with New Jersey.”
He’s currently working on a new show slated for next year and also runs the HooFerz CLuB for Tap, a dance school he founded five years ago.
The hoofer said he was concerned about the arts being cut from schools: “When we take the arts education out of the schools, then we take away the history — a lot of the important history of the world” in regards to the historical context of entertainment.
Tap has thoroughly returned to the mainstream today, with everybody taking tap class like in the days of his grandparents, the hoofer said. Pop-culture films such as Happy Feet (2006), for which Glover was the motion-capture dancer for the penguin Mumble, have helped.
But Glover is concerned about how the absence of the great tap masters has affected the current generation of dancers.
“A lot of views have changed and we all have different opinions as to the direction of the art form,” Glover said. “When we had all these cats [tap legends] around, it seemed as if all of them were on the same page.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.