At Savion Glover's Hooferzclub School for tap dancing, students are warned that they won't be taught "the fancy steps." In fact, the website for the Newark, N.J.-based school instructs students to bring a pen and a pad of paper to class for their first year or two — and not to expect to do a lot of dancing.
"Our approach is to teach not necessarily how to be a tap dancer, but how to express yourself through the dance," Glover says.
For Glover, that means cultivating what he calls a "holistic" understanding of tap, including its long history as an American art form. He wants students to become adept at expressing themselves from a holistic perspective.
"There are different reasons that we have all these abilities and this talent," Glover says. "You have to be able to identify with how the person needs to learn, what they need to learn, what they want to learn. Then you have to learn to teach that inside whatever your curriculum or protocol is. You can have someone coming to your cooking class but they might need help in speech therapy. How would you help them learn how to be a better speaker in a cooking class?"
Glover, who performs with his quartet in the WWOZ Jazz Tent May 6, employs a similar kind of integrated thinking with his own artistic expression. Long regarded as the greatest tap dancer of his generation, the Newark native first explored his interest in rhythm at age 3, when his mother enrolled him in Suzuki method drum lessons. By 7, he was performing for audiences with a band. After playing at a benefit concert for a dance school in New York City, he saw veteran tapper Lon Chaney perform. Chaney suggested he try tap, given his precocious drumming skills. Glover did and by age 11, he was dancing on Broadway. His talent continued to blossom as he studied with tap legends including Gregory Hines. Glover's choreography Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, a hip-hop- and funk-heavy, musical and dance-based retelling of African-American history since the era of slavery, drew worldwide acclaim within and outside of the world of dance.
Now 44, Glover has retained a drummer-like approach to tap that's lent itself to collaborations with jazz artists including drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Ron Carter.
"Music has always been a part of my life, whether it's sounds from the church or sounds from the club or sounds from the disco or sounds from the street," Glover says, adding that everything he does ultimately comes from improvisation, which allows him to distill everything he's experienced into his work. Sound is essential to that process.
Even the way Glover speaks on the phone is pointed and rhythmic, as if he's devoting equal attention to the way his words sound as he is to their meaning. But not everything about his gentle voice is like his famously hard-hitting dance style.
"I've never been afraid to try a dance move," he says. "I'll jump off the roof. I'll jump and be in the air and then figure out how I'm gonna land. I always have a little extra testosterone."
Like the HooFeRzCLuB students who need to develop themselves in areas besides tap in order to fulfill their potential as dancers, Glover balances out his fearlessness about the form's physical demands with a respect for the importance of challenging himself on a daily basis.
"I am experiencing moments now more than I have in my life before," he says. "I have to push myself in areas of coping, in areas of humanity. If I'm out riding my dirt bike, and I can't do a stunt, then I'm gonna keep trying. Same thing if I come to the dance, it's not like I have to push myself, it's a natural thing. So I push myself in other ways."