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Sands of Time

Posted in Dance, Hip hop, Performance art, Tap dance by lisatraiger on July 16, 2010

Keepin’ It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims
Choreography and direction by Holly Bass
9th Annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
July 10, 2010

By Lisa Traiger

© 2010 Lisa Traiger

Past and future mingled, albeit uncomfortably, in Holly Bass’s “Keepin’ It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims.” The tribute to great tap dance showman Howard “Sandman” Sims strung together vignettes intended to trace the evolution of the indigenous American percussive form from its early days as buck and wing, to its heyday in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, through its evolution into break dancing and hip hop. An installment in the 9th annual DC Hip-Hop Theater Festival, the 80-minute performance featured a range of Washington, D.C.-based dancers with expertise in tap, hip hop and breaking, joined by spoken word artists, all accompanied by onstage by deft dj Soyo. By rejigging the Dance Place black box, with a portion of the audience sitting on stage and a section of the chairless bleachers left empty for performers to dance on, Bass gave the evening an interactive flavor, copasetic with the hip-hop theater aesthetic. Unfortunately, sight lines for those with onstage seating were less than ideal and those in the traditional bleachers seemed quite a distance from the interactive stage.

Bass can be an engaging performer and her one-woman character-driven performance pieces, among them “Diary of a Baby Diva,” are astute, jewel-like studies that reveal kernels of universal truths awash with pop culture icons. When, as in “Diva,” she engagingly refers to specific cultural moments, her works succeed best — the particular hitch kick of a 1970s “Solid Gold” TV dancers, or the elegant grace of a besotted Diana Ross wannabe. Then her work becomes freighted with resonant universality, a lesson that much good theater relies on: at its heart, as different as we are on the surface, beneath the specific historical, cultural or personal baggage we carry, humans are more alike than different.

"Keepin' It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims," photo Joshua Cogan

Sandman Sims (1981-2003) trod the boards at the Apollo Theater for decades as “the executioner,” holding court on amateur night with a broom, a hook and soft shoes when scores of hopefuls would air their talents. Awaiting the nervous claque: a mercenary crowd that could boo even the most earnest, if off key singer. Sims learned the tap trade on the streets, for then it was a vernacular form, much the way hip hop, too, evolved a generation or two ago on street corners and nightclubs. Like tap, which in its heyday was appropriated by white performers on the vaudeville circuit, then on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals, hip hop has also gained commercial agency on television, in movies and videos and as a genre taught at nearly every local store front dance studio across suburbia. In “Keep It Moving” Bass tries valiantly to connect the dots between the vernacular rhythm tap of Sims’s generation with the b-boys and fly girls of the 21st century. The point is a salient one. It’s just been done before — and better on Broadway. Savion Glover’s 1995 collaboration with George Wolfe on “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” trod the same path, although it brought hip hop into the tap vernacular, rather that foisting tap onto hip hoppers, which seems Bass’s intent.

While Bass is not a tapper (although she does a respectable Lindy Hop at one point), her trio of women tappers – Melissa Frakman, Quynn Johnson and Alyse Jones — riff on the Sandman Sims legacy. They offer up some unison bars, then Frakman mediates on a phrase from the 1979 documentary “No Maps on My Taps,” which helped spur the revival of interest in old school rhythm tappers. On a sheet of rolled out white paper, Frakman dips her heeled tap shoes into plates of paint brushing, stomping and dotting her feet in a moving scroll of lines, squiggles, dots and dashes across the blank canvas. Abstract expressionist footprints lending a different voice for feet to speak. Later the trio painstakingly prepares shallow plywood boxes, then as sand slips through their fingers, they replicate the scraping, rough hewn music Sims made famous in his signature sandpapery dance. Sims, though, typically danced in soft shoes, not taps, which create a tinnier sound. When four (unnamed) members of the Beat Your Ya Feet Kings crew displayed their rubbery limbed breaking, popping, locking and acrobatic feats, the crowd approved, as they did when rapper Tabi Bonney offered a DC original rap, “The Pocket,” with its funky go-go-esque syncopations indigenous to the District music scene.

The 80-minute evening’s highlight comes late, after the some stilted narration on the Apollo scene, a mock Lindy Hop competition, a sad-clown miming caricatured Sandman as stage manager, and a few hip hop numbers. A mock Apollo amateur night soars when Luke Spring, looking ready for church in his blue blazer and pressed trousers, nonchalantly takes the stage. With a seriousness of purpose set on his face, he takes to the raised wooden platform, where he breaks it down, laying on rhythm after syncopated rhythm, his neatly combed blond hair bobbing with his shuffles, tremolos, stomps, old school time steps, Cincinnatis, over the tops and paddle and rolls. Spring is seven. Seven years old. Yet, he essentially schools every dancer on the stage with an innate rhythmic awareness that is remarkable for one so young. The future of tap certainly looks brighter with Spring. What didn’t resonate in Bass’s tribute to great old school tapper Sims, the evening’s namesake, was the man himself. Sims’s life was long and interesting, hard but lived to its fullest. He wasn’t always successful as a tap dancer, at least not enough to support a family, but he found a way to keep himself and his family going, while continuing to dance. That tenacity and devotion – to his family and his art – is the legacy for which Sims should be remembered. That the old-time rhythm tappers paved the way for the Lindy Hoppers, the breakers and hip hoppers of succeeding decades is a story that has been told. While Bass found tap’s future, she hasn’t yet succeeded in telling the story of its illustrious past.

Published July 16, 2010

© 2010 Lisa Traiger