16 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Art of Tap Dancing

TAP dance, that rhythmic sound one hears when stamping their feet to the beat, is alive and thriving in Zimbabwe!

Tap dancing, or simply the clip-clattering of shoes fitted with specially designed metal tips, is one of America's oldest dances that was once popular throughout the world from the 1920s down to the 1950s. The dance goes well with jazz, blues, funk, hip-hop, Latino and to the surprise of many, Zimbabwean mbira music.

The dance has made a reincarnation and the young people of the Dance Trust of Zimbabwe (DTZ) are loving it, thanks to a donation of 50 pairs of tap shoes, a collection of dance and music books from the US-based dance group, the Jazz Tap Ensemble (JTE) through the US Embassy in Harare.

The donation was made in November last year at the DTZ studio and offices in Belgravia Harare. This follows a cultural exchange programme held in Zimbabwe during the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) in May 2012. The 10-member Los Angeles-based group facilitated several workshops in Bulawayo and Harare and performed two sold-out shows at 7 Arts Theatre during HIFA. The group was part of a cultural exchange initiative, Dance Motion USA, that brings American dance forms worldwide. The Ensemble was supported by the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, which later acquired additional shoes to ensure the Dance Trust of Zimbabwe's dancers had appropriate sizes. Lynn Dally, a highly acclaimed tap dancer and artistic director of the group, guided the workshops and the performances. Dally is known for her ingenuity and creativity in the world of tap and has performed with great legends such as Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jnr and Savion Glover.

"We are thrilled that this great American tradition, tap dancing, lives on in Zimbabwe following the Jazz Tap Ensemble's visit earlier last year. The dance, music, and technical workshops they held - and the shoe and book donations we made - highlight the US Embassy's commitment to investing in and supporting the arts in Zimbabwe. Professionalisation of this industry has the potential to make it a driver of economic growth," said Jillian Bonnardeaux, the US Embassy Cultural Attaché.

The Dance Trust of Zimbabwe is the restructured institution resulting from the National Ballet, formed 50 years ago by teachers and lovers of dance. For more than 20 years, the DTZ has successfully introduced Zimbabwean and International dance in its various forms. The organisation has also implemented five Dance Foundation Course (DFC) programmes in which more than 60 youths from around the country were trained in various forms of dance education among which are ballet, contemporary and traditional dance disciplines as well as theory. The donation of tap shoes by the JTE will add a new dimension to dance tuition at the centre.

The DFC is a three year professional training programme of the DTZ which provides trained dancers for Tumbuka Dance Company, a professional dance group borne out of the outreach programme. To date the DFC has produced more than 100 graduates of the course.

As a part-time and professional tap dancer in the heydays, yours truly was one of the participants at the two-day tap workshop at Girls High School gymnasium during HIFA. I was thrilled by the enthusiasm and attendance of the local dancers, especially the scribes, Masimba Biriwasha and Privilege Musvanhiri. The workshop was open to everyone, so it is no wonder therefore that when I heard that Dally and the JTE would be visiting Zimbabwe, I could not waste much time to pass on the buck to the future generation, so I invited my siblings, Kudzi, Kundi and Tida for the workshop and indeed, they enjoyed it.

Many of my colleagues must be wondering what became of the professional tap dancer and musician that I was in the late 1980s turning on into the 1990s. They just need to watch this space - something is definitely happening this time around.

I was exposed to tap dance when I was growing up in the 1970s. My mentor was my late father David, popularly known as "Mr Sixpence" those days. He was a performer of note who, besides working in the railways as an office orderly, would find time to entertain family and friends during the weekends with his fine tenor voice and dance imitations. Having been inspired and performed with various jazz and township music groups such as Sonny Sondo, City Quads, De Black Evening Follies, Cool Fours and other Africans musicians of the 1950s and 1960s, Mr Sixpence never seemed to retire from his act till his departure from this world in 2006 at the age of 84.

Although he was not so nimble footed as I was, he at least gave me the foundations which would later find me performing at the age of 17 some self-taught tap moves at school and jazz clubs using metal shoe protectors and drawing pins as taps. Sometimes I would steal my father's original tap shoes that he kept in his closet for some of my shows. Local magician, singer and entertainer Kenneth Mattaka and his wife Lina, visited Rugare Primary School in the 1970s to perform to the school kids, but the most captivating of all was the amazing tap dancing skills that the couple had. I owe this couple's performance a tribute for my love of tap dancing to this day.

My real encounter with professional tap dancing was in 1986 when I was chosen to be part of the London Calling! cast at Reps Theatre. The movies, White Nights, Cotton Club and Tap also inspired my love for the dance. Later of course, and inspired by taking up full time music and dancing in 1989 and being a founder-member of the original Tumbuka Dance company, I took tap to a more serious level, up to a time when I had to study journalism.

It is no wonder therefore, when colleagues poke the fun out of me saying, "Entertainer by profession, journalist by mistake..." They could be right.

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