A Spirit of American Jazz and Tap Dance in Harare

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha | Global Editor At Large

HARARE, Zimbabwe – RARELY do I get invited to dance events so you can imagine my excitement when I received an open invite to one. On a mid-morning in May with the sun’s rays liberally cast across the sky, I found myself in an old school hall in Harare among a group of people – some, professional dancers – that responded to a call for a free tap to live jazz music workshop delivered by the Jazz Tap Ensemble (JTE), a pre-eminent American tap dance company.

I was not sure what to expect from the Los Angeles-based dance company which has been hailed for the renaissance of tap in the US through blending original choreography in rhythm tap with live jazz music. Not much of a dancer myself, I came to the workshop out of mere curiosity.

At the beginning of the workshop, we exchanged the shoes we came wearing for special shoes equipped with metal taps that were provided by the dance company. Like the rest of the workshop participants, I clipped clopped on the wooden floors of the hall trying in the tap shoes with childlike fascination, eager to try them out for the first time ever in my life.

We were prepped up for the workshop by viewing of a short film on the battle between traditional and new tap in the US, titled, “Stormy Weather.” The film, featuring legendary American tap dancer, Gregory Hines, was like bubble gum to my eyes through its exposition of the wide creativity in rhythm generated by tapping of the feet.

After the viewing, we lined up into several rows and were given a dose of how to do the traditional Shim Sham tap dance style – something like, step forwards and back outs, foot in and out – and repeat the routine. You’ll have to forgive me, I’m not so much of a dancer but I swear I gave it my all. One absolutely positive take is that I quickly learned that tap dancers use their feet like drums to create rhythmic patterns and timely beats.

Two JTE dancers, Kenji Ingus and Sandy Vazquez led by Lynn Dally, JTE’s artistic director demonstrated the foundational steps of tap dancing to the group which consisted of approximately forty mostly young people. Dally roamed the hall during the class, listening for extra taps. The goal in tap dancing is to produce clear, clean sounds, with various levels of tone. Body weight should be held slightly forward, allowing most of the dancing to be done on the balls of the feet. The knees and ankles should be relaxed at all times.

I think because tap mimics a lot of Zimbabwean traditional dances, most of the participants caught quickly onto it, shaking and twisting themselves, feet stamping backwards and forwards and sideways. Tap resounded throughout the hall and even attracted onlookers to the doorways.

Once most of the dancers had a feel for the first part of the Shim Sham tap, Dally introduced jazz music into the picture. The band, fronted by bassist, David Dunaway and saxophone/pianist, Doug Walter, belted out some jazz tunes.

The liveliness of the tap rhythms supplemented by the easy jazzy sound plunged everyone into a dancing mood. Ingus, Vazquez and Dally demonstrated the mechanics of the tap shoe and how not only the toe and heel could make sound but also the sides and soles.

I must confess, I simply twisted through some of the steps but making sure to keep the tap. Overall, I felt thoroughly exhilarated and energized by the dance routine, as well as the magic and beauty with which our instructors brought it all out.

“I feel so good even though I really don’t know how to dance this way. I’m going to incorporate this way of dancing into my hip hop moves. This has been a beautiful experience,” said Kuda Machete, an upcoming break dancer in an interview after the workshop.

During the workshop, most of the dancers relentlessly followed instructions, and danced with energy and passion. As the participants caught onto the wave of a dance motion, Ingus and Vazquez put more spunk into the moves. They danced with more spontaneity and creativity all the while encouraging us to follow in step.

“This is my first time to tap dance but I have enjoyed every minute of it. It was so much fun, its even like exercising. This type of dancing reminds me of some of the local traditional dances so it was not difficult to catch on,” said Timothy Matena, another workshop participant.

Another participant, Alex Madziwa could not hide his happiness as he stepped into his tapping dancing shoes and thanked his lucky stars for bringing him to the workshop which was free to the public.

“It was a new and exciting experience, I could not have expected anything better for a day like this – the moves made me stretch and exercise muscles I didn’t know I had,” he said, a smile on his face.

Dally said that tap dancing had a transformative power especially on young people.

“Tap dancing is good because it’s about improvisation and each dancer must find their own voice. That’s why we are promoting it. The response that we’ve been given has given us courage and hope,” Dally said.

The JTE, which also toured the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique prior to Zimbabwe, is part of the DanceMotion USA, the US State Department dancing diplomacy project aimed at engaging people across the world and creating opportunities for greater human understanding.

“It’s been a great trip; I have had a good time. The response that we got was overwhelming and it made my heart bigger,” said Ingus adding that he would like to return to Zimbabwe to do some more work, especially in rural schools.

The dance company also gave two sterling performances at the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA), an annual arts festival held early May in Harare. They also performed and participated in educational outreach activities as well as staged arts management sessions in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

“It’s a big deal – our State Department is encouraging cultural diplomacy and what that means for us is to work with young people in communities. It’s a cultural exchange, the idea is to bring American style dance to southern Africa,” said Dally.

US Embassy Assistant Public Affairs Officer, Jillian Bonnardeaux, said that the overall aim of the exchange program is to bring American culture around the world. She said jazz and tap dancing are two American traditions that can be merged with traditional forms of Zimbabwe dance.

The US also seeks to strengthen the arts industry in Zimbabwe, in this case to make the young dancers aware that they could turn their art into a means of survival, she added.

“The idea is to professionalize the arts – to make the dancers more experienced and confident that their art can become a contributing factor to Zimbabwe’s – and their own personal – economic development,” said Bonnardeaux.

At the end of the dance workshop, Francis Mukuzunga who participated in the workshop with his eleven year old son donated a pair of his late father’s tap dancing shoes to Dally.

“These shoes belong to my late father who was an exceptional tap dancer himself. When Dally told me that they were a rare type of tap dance shoes from the 1930s, I felt like I should give them to her. So on behalf of the all the Zimbabwean dancers here, I’m donating these shoes,” he said.

Dally promised to display the shoes prominently among her collection of tap dancing mementos. We all clapped to mark an end to a spirited show of jazz and tap in Harare that thoroughly inspired me and lightened my imagination. The whole experience was like opening a doorway to a magical wonder that I had never experienced before.


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