Tap: An Under-Appreciated Art Form

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It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a tap dancer. Today, I purchased a pair of Capezio FlexMaster tap shoes (pictured above) after my poor introductory shoes finally broke down after ten years of wear-and-tear. I’ve never been a competitive dancer, but I have been dancing for over half my life; I dabbled in ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, and pointe, and tap was the dance form that truly resonated with me. Syncopated rhythms and intricate footwork were easier for me to latch onto than, say, the flexibility required in a jazz straddle. I got to college and participated in the tap dance team there for all four years of undergrad, co-directing the team my senior year. It’s a huge part of my life. I can’t imagine not doing it.

But I find that, especially recently, tap has kind of fallen to the wayside. The #NationalDanceDay hashtag on Instagram and Twitter (July 25th) depicted images mostly of ballet dancers jette leaping in the air, or contemporary dance routines emphasizing emotion and metaphor. And that’s wonderful. Dance is an amazing form of expression and I don’t regret exploring other dance forms in the least–I stuck with them for a decade at the same dance studio, after all!

But seriously. What about tap? This dancer blogged on Tumblr this past week lamenting that her studio cut their tap program. Companies in major cities like Boston and New York haven’t updated their websites in months. And speaking from experience, when you say you’re a tap dancer, people tend to assume you’re an import out of 1950s Broadway and expect you to finish your sentence with, “and golly, isn’t it just a hoot!”

The fact is, though, tap isn’t stuck in any time period. It moves with the times. Out of ballet came contemporary and lyrical dance forms to accommodate modernized, varied expansions on what ballet can achieve performatively. Tap, I argue, has always been that way. It’s a fusion of a plethora of cultures, dance types, and histories. People have stolen and modified and exchanged tap steps since the first shuffle-off-to-Buffalo was tapped out, and tappers haven’t stopped creating new combinations of rhythms yet.

So why is it so overlooked? Sure, people still do it, and do it well (Savion Glover tours the country with his company and performs sold-out shows). But it bugs me that when people think “dance,” they don’t think “tap.” I don’t have an answer as to why that is, but I have a few ideas. Some are nicer to think about than others. But I’m going to lay them all out here, regardless, and hopefully start a conversation.

Tap is a uniquely American art form. What makes it American is it has a wide and deep-rooted history in all different cultures. I’ve done a lot of research on tap over the years, both for academic and personal purposes. For my English class on the Harlem Renaissance in my last semester at Wheaton, I wrote a paper on dance as it related to African-American identity during the Harlem Renaissance. An excerpt of my paper explaining tap’s role in that construction of identity is as follows:

The dance form is known for its combination of many influences including European and Irish roots, as well as links back to minstrelsy in the nineteenth century. Tap rose high in popularity during the Harlem Renaissance, due in no small part to a number of innovative black dancers. Most important to this discussion of identity through dance, however, is that tap was considered a very well-respected dance form by whites—and its roots are full of African influences, too. African dance consists of “gliding, shuffling and dragging steps” which led to the tap steps known as “slides, drags, draws, and chugs” today (Knowles 23). […] we see how African tradition permeates the kinds of dance we see today—and how it functions to preserve cultural identity.

Irish, African, and black minstrel influences. What does that tell you? Tap is a dance type constructed by people who, at one point or another, were (or still are) considered minorities. One could argue that there is a race narrative–perhaps a racist narrative–in how the image of tap dance has been constructed over the last couple of centuries. Tap was not really considered a performative dance until white dancers in the 1800s used blackface and showcased their interpretations of African-American dancing. So, tap started out as a white appropriation of black dance–until black dancers like John Bubbles and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson reclaimed it as a sophisticated art form with powerful, elaborate moves and footwork. Opposite these dancers you had Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and other white dancers that added their own “clean” and “crisp” steps and styles to tap. Thus, tap became representative of a fusion of black and white American cultures rather than an attempt to appropriate either way. But tap is, and always will be, rooted in the African-American’s rise to create identity in the performance space. What does that say about it being cast aside? Is it not deemed a “legitimate” art form because its roots are so entangled in different places around the globe? Irish step-dancing has its influences on tap, as well, especially with all the hop-stepping and time stepping (there is a tap step called “the Irish”)–what makes it more legitimate, though, than tap? Are ballet, with roots in France and Russia, or jazz stemming out of the Roaring 1920s, more “acceptable” because we can clearly trace them back to a few sources? These are questions to consider.

You also don’t really hear about tap-induced injuries (unless you attempt a bell-kick and knock the heel of your tap into your ankle. Which I’ve done. Ow). Let’s be honest–risk of injury really adds to the prestige of any athletic pursuit. In a 2003 study done in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, research showed that “calculated injury rates among the tap dancers were substantially lower than those previously reported for other dance and athlete populations” (source). So. Because you’re dancing so low to the ground and don’t typically involve your arms and legs too much, tap is less risky. From an outside perspective it just looks like someone moving their feet really fast. While that’s an accurately simplified depiction of what tap is, it doesn’t do tap justice at all. There is a method to each rhythm produced with the taps on the foot, even when moves are improvised. Also, I’ve watched tap dancers leap off of very high blocks onstage–it’s all up to how crazy a choreographer wants to get!

Tap also isn’t very conventional in terms of dance as artistic expression. When we think “dance,” we think grace and ballet barre. Tappers, especially these days, tend to stamp-stomp around like they own a place–not exactly what you had in mind, is it? She’s beauty and she’s grace…she’ll tap you in the face… 

In reality, there’s a whole lot of grace involved in tap, too–did you know in order to produce crisp sounds, a tapper should essentially be up on the balls of their feet at all times, unless a move indicates otherwise? Bojangles coined the balls-of-the-feet style, and Fred Astaire and tons of dancers afterwards followed his lead. There has to be something in it, right? Of course there is: balance, technique, and a sense of rhythm. I’d call a person who has all those skills very graceful indeed.

There is so much history embedded in tap, and so much to learn from it. And just like any other dance form, it’s a valid form of creative expression. It’s even been effectively used in dance-movement therapy, according to a 2011 study. And however cliche it sounds, there’s something in it for everyone, regardless of skill level. I’d also argue tap is about community. Sure, talented and enthusiastic dancers compete with tap numbers all over the world, and there are competitions exclusively for tap. But more often than not, you see gatherings of tap dancers. Conventions. Places where people come together to just have fun and exchange ideas. I wouldn’t trade that opportunity for anything.

I hope people come to recognize just how powerful an art form tap is, as it was in the early twentieth century. There are so many more rhythms to be made, more footwork to be learned. Why slow down now? Let’s tap it out.

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Too Much Heart

There are some things that the
brain won’t let you see,
but the heart can make you
feel.
What we had was visceral.
Instinctive. Intuitive.
And now those little snapshots
in the camera flash of my
consciousness that have
your name stamped across
their frames make
my stomach lurch–
seasickness on land,
for you never touched the ground, did you?
The sound of your name,
the memory of your decorated lies,
the turmoil of our downfall–
they exist in my mind as things. Events, objects,
pasts-futures-presents.
In my heart they are vessels,
splattered in red and fractions of regrets.
And no matter what my mind dictates,
the pumping vessels always win–
unfolding me from indo- to endo-
until vestiges of me patterned in a slow,
pulsing beat are all that remain.

6 Things I’ve Learned Two Months Out of College

It’s been a long two months of summer heat, vague unemployment, scripted “congratulations” and staring up at the ceiling in existential dread. I’d say the start of my post-grad life so far has been a mix of reluctant self-discovery and necessary grounding of myself. I’ve gone on good job interviews and bad job interviews; I’ve felt inexplicably lonely and deeply alive. In a nutshell, here’s what I’ve figured out, and perhaps it can be of some use to any of you in the same (very lost) boat:

  1. You probably aren’t going to get a job right away. So get used to that. Keep yourself busy applying to as many positions as you can, but also give yourself a break once in a while and focus on doing things you like. Read that book, paint that picture, visit that city. You’ve got the time right now–use it.
  2. You are going to be lonely. Friends you used to see across the hall every single day aren’t going to remember you–not because they don’t like you, but because it’s inconvenient for them to do so. Distance is hard. Maybe you’re the kind of person who will think of them everyday. Maybe you’ll tell them so via text or voicemail. And maybe they won’t text back for days or weeks, if at all. You’ll be lonely in this limbo between having someone always there to rub your back when you cried, and finding someone new to take on that role. But it’s okay. Cherish the people who do send those messages asking how you are. Cherish the family that keeps you company.
  3. People in the real world don’t actually drink alcohol everyday, at least not in unhealthy amounts. That’s called “binge drinking,” and yeah, it’s a real thing they all warned you about at those assemblies in the high school auditorium. Maybe you don’t even like alcohol that much. Maybe remembering the taste of vodka is enough to make you sick these days. Nobody’s pressuring you anymore. Just be yourself.
  4. Just be yourself. Maybe the person you were when you were with friends, isn’t the person you are. Work on finding who that person is. If those friends come back around and accept that new person, then they’re worth keeping.
  5. Things will never be the same again. This is not a bad thing. Four years in the same place with the same folks can be nice and comfortable and wonderful–it can be home. But homes change and people change. Step up. Step out. Start over.

My Top 10 Favorite Fictional Characters

This list is, of course, constantly changing. As I consume more and more media–be it television, film, books or otherwise–I come across the occasional character that truly blows my mind. My favorite component of any literature is characterization. Personally, it’s something as a writer I really want to work on; it’s why I’m so partial to writing fanfiction (because the characterization is already done for me–I just have to play to it, do it justice in whatever situation I place those characters). Here are my Top Ten Fictional Characters, a few of which have been on this list for years and years, and some who’ve just made it to the top! Click the following link to view the list, and see whether or not you agree with some of my choices. Continue reading “My Top 10 Favorite Fictional Characters”

Not Great

If I’m honest, I’m not doing great without you.

The worst part is, your presence isn’t the part I miss. I miss winding you up, like a child’s toy vibrating with anticipation before the release. And in turn you would litter me with half-drunk half-caffeinated promises I always believed you’d keep–every time. You kept them when you felt like it–vows of convenience. But mostly I was alone in the stuffy bedroom staring at my open skin and willing it to rot, until you came home at 4am with boys and slurs in your mouth.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I hope it will for you, because smothering you was something I never meant to do to you. In trying not to hurt you, in desperately clawing at your ever-wandering body I drove you away. Now perhaps you’ll have time to breathe and realize all I ever tried to do was love you. I just did it wrong by the end. Badly. Crookedly. 

But for me. For me, for me, absence makes the heart grow stronger. Being blinded, separated by walls of miles from your big Ireland eyes I remember myself again. I’m restarting my heart. The monitor goes beep, beep, beep in rhythmic time. When I see you again it will flutter, with anxiety for your mistakes you make in spite of me (in front of me, Ireland-eyes glowing), with affection for a personality that’s only sometimes there to cradle me at night. But for now, I am me. No, not me-without-you, not missing-an-appendage. Me, within myself. I patch up my open skin and face my newly open life with uncertainty, but with the driving force of myself. Like Bad Wolf “I create myself.” Beep. Beep. Beep. 

I’m not doing great without you. 

But I’m okay. 

And that’s enough.

Everyone’s Freaking Out about the New ‘Sherlock’ Teaser. Here’s Why I’m Not.

If you’ve been living under a rock, you might not know today rings in San Diego Comic Con 2015. With it comes a whole bunch of surprises for those of us sitting at home unable to attend the con, including trailers, extended clips, and interviews with stars and comics writers alike. Tonight, the BBC unveiled a preview clip for the Sherlock Christmas special. Take a look, if you haven’t already.

In short, the internet is exploding. I, however, am not. Not with excitement, anyway, but rather with some low-key rage. To be honest, I’ve been over Sherlock since the first few minutes of Series Three aired last year. To sum up my reasoning in a few words, here’s how I concluded my (very bitter) review of the whole season on my Tumblr:

I love Sherlock Holmes. I love Sherlock. But I’m very disappointed and I wanted to finally be able to say why. In this season, nothing is left to the imagination. The beauty of “The Reichenbach Fall” is negated by the fun-for-the-family, fluffy thrill ride that is “The Empty Hearse.” All in all, I think the creative power of the fandom–in art, in fic, in written theories, in fanvideos, all of it–managed to come up with work celebrating the relationship between Holmes and Watson and the resonating influence of Conan Doyle’s works in the last 2 years far better than this season ever did. I’m so disappointed.

Essentially, I think the Sherlock writers have gotten lazy. They’ve watched us wait years for each season; they know what we want and this season created tropes, stereotypes, and insulting caricatures of what we want as if to say, “Hey. We’re listening. But we think your ideas of, say, Sherlock and John having a meaningful, developed relationship are trite and stupid. You know what would be funny? If Sherlock and John laughed off the fact that Sherlock pretended to be dead, and then they went and got drunk at John’s bachelor party. SO FUNNY, RIGHT? SO OUT OF CHARACTER. SO FUNNY.” Frankly, I thought a lot of aspects of Series Three were out-of-character, misogynistic products of poor writing.

Now, here are my issues with the clip:

  • It appears the episode is set in Victorian times. As my friend Gabrielle pointed out, why are Freeman and Cumberbatch talking in “modern” English accents, in relatively modern, colloquial language? For reference, here’s how Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr tackle Victorian English pronunciation in the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films. Much more old-fashioned, posh, etc. Those films aren’t perfect by a long shot, but they’re my favorite adaptation to date (I’m partial to steampunk anything, so).
  • Even the costumes seem overdone, and to be honest Cumberbatch and Freeman don’t even look like Holmes and Watson to me, but weird caricatures of them. This all leads me to believe this episode might be some character’s (perhaps John’s?) strange fever-dream in which he and his favorite detective boyfriend are transported back to Victorian England. If that’s the case, then fine. Make it as campy as you like.
  • But if this is supposed to be a campy little dream-ish sequence, why are there (yet again) undertones of sexism laughed off by the characters? Indeed, Mrs. Hudson is Watson’s “landlady, not [his] plot device”! But Watson seems to think within his narratives Mrs. Hudson functions as his housekeeper performing her womanly duties. If this episode is actually set in Victorian England, fine. Sexism through the roof isn’t ideal, but it’s within the context of the time period. But something tells me, like I said, that this is going on in the conscious (or unconscious) mind of one of our main characters. If so, what is the point of making Mrs. Hudson’s role as a woman a point of argument?!

I really think it’s that Moffat and Gatiss (mostly Moffat; see these various criticisms of his writing on Sherlock and Doctor Who for reference) don’t know when to leave sex alone–leave sexism and gender roles at the door and just write for characters. Of course these issues permeate our daily lives and should be talked about, but instead of finding constructive ways to do so, the Sherlock writers constantly write themselves into a corner in terms of how they treat women. It’s quite tiresome. Women have become the fallback joke for Sherlock which very much confuses me as a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories–unnecessary marginalization of women has absolutely nothing to do with anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was trying to accomplish with his work. I mean, I never met the guy, but I think I can make the assumption he just wanted to entertain people and make some money doing what he liked to do (and, through Watson’s narration, writing about medicine which he always wanted to pursue). And because Sherlock is a modern retelling, there’s no excuse for the blatant, archaic sexism constantly permeated throughout the show.

My point is–I’m truly hoping despite the clip I just watched that this Christmas special doesn’t set me, as a female viewer, apart from what I am watching. I’m tired of Sherlock doing that; I’m tired of mainstream media doing that. With a popular show like Sherlock there are many opportunities to make something brilliant. And, in the first two seasons, something brilliant was made. I’d love for Sherlock to return to the intelligent, quick-witted, consistent writing I fell for. There’s no way to tell what’s in store from a minute-long clip, but it’s clear the writers’ behavior patterns haven’t changed much so far. I walk into this special, and eventually into Series 4, very warily indeed.

Long-Lost Roommate

My short story made it to The Drabble this week! Check it out! Thanks to everyone who’s liked it so far and provided feedback. 🙂

old roomBy Jenna Tramonti

My dad always said New England had a history to it. I put my suitcase down in the tiny apartment doorway and decided that was the case. The wooden floor creaked as I moved. Small square windows gazed out to Boston below. I smiled.

The landlady seemed to materialize behind me, gesturing in welcome.

“… And don’t worry about Emily,” she said after, making for the door.

“Who?” I asked.

“Oh, she died here in 1894. She’s very smart. You might learn from her.”

Then I was alone. A box near the kitchen moved on its own, slightly to the left.

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Review: Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962)

Having just finished the novel of the same name, I delved headfirst into what was described by fans of the book as Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 “masterpiece” adaptation. This review will mostly consist of an analysis of both versions of the story through comparisons between the book and the film, since both are so fresh in my mind.

First and foremost, one can’t quite consider oneself a “fan” of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita without receiving a few questioning glances in return. The novel is told from the perspective of a pedophile, H. Humbert, and his love-lust-desire for his landlady’s preteen daughter, Dolores Haze. It isn’t that Lolita ranks so high among literary classics because of its likability. Rather, its harsh, disturbing subject matter combined with Nabokov’s detailed, often flowery prose creates a contrast that keeps readers enthralled and engaged from start to finish. And it’s not that we as readers necessarily feel for Humbert–we just experience his feelings, his self-hatred, his passion firsthand as it all unfolds for us throughout the novel. Nabokov weaves a deplorable yet unforgettable tale that has shocked readers since its publication in 1952.

So upon reading the final page of the book, I wondered just how any film adaptation could do this book justice. Humbert’s narration is so painstakingly wrought that it seemed to me impossible to replicate in any other medium. The 1962 Lolita (in comparison to the ’97 adaptation which I’ve yet to see) features a script partially written by Nabokov himself.

Despite Nabokov’s involvement in the film, translating this book from page to screen inevitably had to allow for some changes. What surprised me about the film was its very immediately apparent change in tone from that of the book. There are various little plot changes–for example, Lolita’s initial age is changed from 12 to 14, though I think this was to make the film easier to stomach for viewers; and Mona is written as the daughter of Jean and John Farlow–but I think what struck me most having just put the book down was how much more open the film is to other character perspectives. It’s a bit jarring to those only familiar with the book, because we as readers are exposed to only Humbert’s claustrophobic thoughts, ideas, and fantasies. As viewers we see a much fuller picture of Humbert’s marriage to Charlotte, and a much more in-depth depiction of Clare Quilty, our main antagonist (if you don’t count Humbert as the antagonist, though that is a debate for another time). Kubrick doesn’t only make changes, but creates his own dynamics between characters and components of the original Lolita story. This takes a bit to get used to if you were expecting a direct adaptation (as I was). The film takes on an almost comic tone at times–not necessarily in regard to the disturbing feelings European Humbert has for Lo, but in Humbert’s maneuvering of the various strange American idiosyncrasies by which he’s surrounded, as well as his over-the-top interactions with others in his attempt to achieve his lofty and disturbing goals.

What Kubrick hits perfectly in his film is characterization. Charlotte Haze is portrayed near flawlessly by Shelley Winters; both her dialogue and her mannerisms truly emphasize her need to be “in” with the cultured “it” crowd (“Is it my fault if I feel young?”). Her dynamic with Lo is great as well, snippy and changing feeling constantly. James Mason’s Professor Humbert is perfectly awkward (the dancing scene between him and Charlotte is exactly how I would imagine him attempting to dance) and subtly creepy (i.e. in his longing stare at Lolita’s picture as he fondles his wife). Kubrick cast the film very effectively; the chemistry and dynamics between all the actors is brilliantly executed. For those who haven’t read the book, this film definitely gives one a sense of what the characters are like.

Kubrick’s direction, too, is unparalleled, creating sympathy for even the nastiest, most attention-seeking of characters in long-held close-ups and erratic fade-outs. He treats Lolita with the innocent softglow Humbert eternally sees her in. And he uses lighting to depict Quilty’s ever-lurking nature very effectively. What Kubrick chooses to show is just as effective as what he leaves out. The intimate scene on the cot between Lolita and Humbert ends with a fade-out on her face, and we as viewers are left to imagine what transpired between them. One of my favorite moments is, actually, the opening credits scene depicting Lolita’s small, childlike foot getting a pedicure. It’s simple, but knowing the story oddly disturbing especially as the image comes up again later in the film.

It is important to understand there’s no true way to adapt Lolita word-for-word. It is an experience that can only be done justice in Humbert’s own original words. Kubrick’s film, though, is a worthy companion to Nabokov’s original work. The 1960s could only go so far in movie-making without censors blaring at every turn, but Kubrick maneuvers around these to allow Lolita to stand on its own, separate from the novel, as a tribute to Nabokov’s ideas about the perils, joys, and contradictions in sex, youth and love.

Rating: 4/5

Home

At the end of every week, I drive to pick up my sister from the college where she works over the summer, so she can be home for the weekend. Having just graduated from the same institution, it’s really strange to go back there every week. The place looks essentially the same superficially. But have you ever driven by, say, a house you no longer live in, or a playground where you used to play? It holds a different significance to you, doesn’t it?

My school was my home for four years. It holds so much history within its walls, and I’m part of that history. Coming back now, buildings I used to walk to for class, halls I used to reside in with my roommates and friends take on different shapes. Foreign shapes. The shapes they took before I first moved in there, as a timid high school graduate afraid of change.

This proves even further an understanding I’ve always had–that home isn’t made up of a physical place, but of people and thoughts and ideas. I don’t consider that campus my home anymore because none of my friends are there; none of my belongings are there. It’s a beautiful campus, of course, and I’ll always think of home when I see it. But it looks different to my eyes now. It’s become part of my past now, rather than remaining in my present. So I’ll always feel a little funny going back there, a bit out-of-place.

In this in-between time, I’m not really sure what ‘home’ is for me. Sure, I’m here in the house that I grew up in from 4th grade on, with my mother and my dog. But I’m excited to make a new one in the city somewhere. Hopefully someday soon.