Watching Bring In ’Da Noise, Bring In ’Da Funk, I was not so much watching after a while as remembering, in my body, what drew me to tap as a kid. It was less a dance to me than a declaration of spirit (I tap, therefore I am), and so wonderfully antithetical to ballet — loose limbs and loud feet rather than toes packed tightly together in a box, like bruised strawberries, forced up on pointe and always relegated to ladylike silence on the dance floor — please! Tap was the ordinary business of walking — or skip-roping, stepping over sidewalk cracks, hopscotching — but taken several notches up in volume and density. It was not only physically logical, it welcomed music of all kinds: jazz and pop and rag — as opposed to a strict diet of classical — handclaps, vocal signifying and, of course, the rhythm of the feet themselves. Tap didn’t pantomime feeling, it said it outright, via a stomp or a scrape or a heel scuff that was accompanied by nothing more than a crouch — no circled arms or body lines or symmetry in space. For all the spangled bowlers and bow ties we wore for recitals, tap was not pretty. Its aesthetic was its voice, and the more eloquent and forceful the voice, the uglier you were likely to look onstage, brow sweaty with concentration (there goes the Sunday-church hair your mother spent all day arranging), arms lifted out from the body at odd angles, like bird wings at half flap.
I don’t recall performances nearly as well as afternoons I spent nursing a classroom combination on the kitchen floor at home: hop shuffle step, heel step heel step, hop shuffle step heel step heel step. Over and over, until I had it and I gathered speed and then my upper body fell into it like people doo-wopping on a street corner listen for a moment before falling easily into the harmony of a song — arms, head, torso. I added my own steps, constructed my own song, which I might not be able to do onstage with a bowler but I could in more important places like department stores, in school sitting at a desk with feet swinging between chair legs, in the liquor-store aisle, dropped into that slight crouch that became automatic — hop shuffle step, heel step heel step, hop shuffle step heel step heel step.
Noise/Funk reminded me that it’s perfectly okay, even necessary, to move tap from the studio or stage to the cookie and condiment aisles and the kitchen and the back porch, to a percussive, ground-level tradition of communication to which all black American music belongs. During the most personal segment of the show, Savion Glover says (via tape) that tap is not about arms waving. “It’s raw and it’s real and it’s rhythm. It’s us and it’s ours.” He is not reinventing tap but taking it back, laying fresh claim to yet another vital but dispossessed piece of black American culture, an art form birthed in survivalism and a need to transcend, and mined relentlessly over the years for its entertainment value until it went soft in the middle and lost the tension — between dance and defiance of it, between high-flying improvisation and brutally fixed points of reality — that kept it most alive.
Glover submits that we either put tap in that visceral context where it started or risk losing it forever to the Holly wood/ Broadway maw that spat out the whimsy of Ann Miller, Gene Kelly, Tommy Tune. Some critics accuse Noise/Funk of being youthfully mean-spirited by parodying with grins and shuffles such tap greats as the Nicholas Brothers and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Yet it’s too deliberately broad for that; Glover is savaging not them but the postures these and other black artists were forced into, the tails-and-top-hat marks they had to hit in order to bring their craft to the largest public possible. Nor is the show entirely a cautionary tale about tap: Its fiercely expository, anti-entertainment bent speaks to other examples of black culture besotted by marketing and in danger of losing their way, if they haven’t lost it already.
The most obvious example is hip-hop, which in the end is a sword with an intriguing double edge: It powers the show with an irreverent, urban-style energy and connects tap to the present, but it is also tweaked as a phenomenon that has proved too eager to ghettoize itself into the cultural, if not profit, margins. But this all lies on a troubling continuum: If tap sold out to sensibilities too refined, hip-hop sold out to sensibilities too base, and both suffered serious dilution in the process. Glover proposes no answers, only that we get back to the thing that gave rise to the art in the first place — being “raw” — and suggests, though hardly guarantees, that saving one thing may well save another.
This notion is poignantly illustrated during the Gospel/Hip-Hop Rant segment, in which a tap dancer is literally caught in a dialectic crossfire between two warring styles of black music — one of the faithful, the other of the faithless — performed at opposite ends of the stage. It is a black triptych rarely seen, a group of personalities never assembled together and interviewed in the same room these days, and the few minutes that they are together here is contentious but electric in its convergence of passions that are sung, stomped, growled over a common beat. The famously fissured black psyche is suddenly made whole, accidentally, theatrically, but we’ll take the moment, take the implied possibility of class lines disappearing in the sand in the interest of resuscitating black culture, not through Nike ads or movie soundtracks but from the inside out.
Glover is not interested so much in narrating black history as he is in adding to it — a bold thought, but how many more musical tributes to Duke Ellington can we handle before we deem the ’90s a complete waste of time? With Noise/Funk, Glover throws down a gauntlet, challenging us to do likewise.
Bring ’em on.