Getting to Know: Barbara Duffy

Photographer: Julie Lemberger
This week, I had the opportunity to talk to a woman whose company performs one of the most exciting and universal styles of dance: tap.  With her complicated rhythms, versatility and appreciation for improv, Barbara Duffy is spreading the word about tap one shuffle at a time.

REMY: What do you love about tap?

BARBARA: Well I think for me it’s that I’m a dancer but I’m also a musician so I feel like I can use tap to make music also, besides just being a dancer.  That's one reason why I love tap.  And I love that you can communicate with people. I've visited 20 countries and I’ve had to teach classes where people don’t really speak English. Many times I've had to communicate with just rhythm. Rhythm is universal and it connects all people, it really does. It’s amazing, I can go to anywhere and communicate rhythmically because we all feel rhythm. I think that’s why I really like tap.

REMY: Thats so cool, Ive never thought of it that way but I really like that.  Something in particular that I noticed while studying your work is that you use both choreography and improvisation.  I found this so interesting, and was wondering if you could talk about how you use improvisation and how it affects your work?

BARBARA:  Well, for the work that I’ve done, I use improvisation to feature dancers, to give them solos.  I like to give them an opportunity to express what they have to say within my work. They do my choreography, but they’re also dancers in their own rite and have their own style, which is one of the reasons I've asked them to be part of my company.  I might direct their improvisation, give them an intention, but they can use their own voices. Another use of improvisation is when I want to create a chaotic moment.... everyone improvises at one time, or an organized improvisation to make counter rhythms.  Even though we’re improvising, we’re blending into a groove so, again, we’re creating something musically and and because we're improvising, it's always challenging and different.

REMY: Do you ever use improvisation to build or influence your choreography?

BARBARA:  Sure, because when I’m creating something I have to improvise right away. I feel a rhythm, and then I’ll make it with my feet; that’s improv.  I think that it all starts that way and then becomes more organized.  Then I've got to settle on what steps I want to use and what picture I want to make.

REMY: Being a girl who's always favored jazz, I can't help but notice that dance forms like modern and ballet are much more main stream at the moment. How does those styles, if at all, influence you?

BARBARA:  I can't say that ONLY modern dance influences my choreography. It doesn’t actually matter what the dance form is.  If I go to any dance concert, what moves me is the story and the emotion of the dancers. So whatever form that comes in, that’s what inspires me.  I could go to watch African dance and get totally inspired, or it could be modern or ballet or opera.

REMY: Is there anyone or anything in particular that you feel has inspired your work?

BARBARA:  I've loved seeing Koresh Dance Company, based in Philly, as well as Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, here in NYC, because of the stories they tell through dance. I'm also continually inspired by all kinds of music, from Bonnie Raitt to Santana to Oscar Peterson.

REMY: When youre creating a piece, do you usually go with the rhythm of the music or do you create a rhythm that complements it or all of that?

BARBARA:  All of that. It also depends on whether I’ll be dancing to live music or to a recorded piece of music, each is a little bit different. If it’s a recorded piece of music, of course it doesn’t change ever, it’s going to be the same and we memorize the song so I really try to create choreography that is influenced by the ups and downs and the moods of that music, so that will definitely affect what I’m going to do with that music.  Or sometimes,  when I’m making a piece, maybe I'll start with no music and then bring some music in later.  I’ve also worked with  musicians to arrange a particular piece of music that I want.  And a lot of times within that, it will be Jazz-based so the musicians will be improvising within that in certain sections, so that makes things a little bit different.

REMY: So when you have the musicians improvising, is that a point of time when youd have the dancers improvising or would that be too hectic?

BARBARA:  No, it could be either way.  That’s what Jazz musicians do. They improvise and play with the song and then improvise off of it musically, so it depends. I mean there are sections when we’re definitely improvising together, or we might be doing choreography and the musician might still be improvising.  And so I might ask the musicians to play a certain mood, or maybe not fill up with so many notes but still improvise.

REMY: Tap always makes me think of the suave and elegant like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and their light-hearted, entertaining work.  Youre work is much more emotional and theres much more variety and dynamic. Could you speak to that a bit?

BARBARA:  I think that we’ve grown in the art form in that people are more aware of the progress we've made, since Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, which was 50, 60  years ago now, so I do think that the general public is more aware of tap dance since then. But some people, if they’ve never seen tap dance recently, that’s what they might think of. That was a very different style of tap dance because it was for the movies, it was movie tap dance.  The traditional Broadway style of tap, with the exception of certain shows is more oriented to simpler steps and more "showy" effects, arms and hands.  In the late ‘70’s-early ‘80’s, people like Lynn Dally of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, who is a modern/tap dancer, started creating tap concerts. Tap companies started to form. Brenda Bufalino, my teacher, created the American Tap Dance Orchestra, (I was her dance captain and featured dancer). Heather Cornell created Manhattan Tap, for example. Tap dance went onto the concert stage, similar to modern dance concerts. Gregory Hines was a huge influence on-the art form.  He started dancing to contemporary music in the mid ‘80’s, so he really influenced the younger generation to want to tap dance and opened up a lot of possibilities. Jelly's Last Jam & Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk were groundbreaking musicals on Broadway, presenting a different style of tap to Broadway audiences from what we usually would see. So I came from that, I came up when that was all happening.  I have to say that we all learn from each other with tap, and of course Gene Kelly was one of my favorites, and I think it has to do with his energy and his rhythms. Everybody knows [Kelly and Astaire] so a lot is influenced by them and other famous movie stars, like the Nicholas Brothers and the Condos Brothers, that’s what made me love tap dance as a kid, those movies. 

REMY: Its just so interesting to see how different forms of dance have evolved over time, and even looking at all the styles and genres within each dance form is amazing.

BARBARA:  Right, and the tap world has really grown in that way, it’s really grown. Savion Glover changed a lot of things technically, people are doing things they’ve never done before footwork-wise. 

REMY: One of the things that I personally had a hard time with when I was taking tap was how to coordinate and control your upper body when you were moving your feet so intricately and quickly.  So when youre creating a piece, do you mostly focus on the footwork or do you also work with the whole upper body at the same time?

BARBARA:  I think what happens is, basically, I’m focused on the rhythm that I want and when I figure out exactly what footwork I’m using, my body kind of goes naturally where it wants to.  I’m pretty much a whole-body tap dancer anyway, I don’t just stay in one place and I move a lot and my upper body moves, so I kind of have my way of moving.  But sometimes I really get specific with my dancers about really wanting to exaggerate a movement and we all need to be together and pretty uniform most of the time, unless we’re improvising. So I think the answer is that I focus on my music first with what I want to say, and then also it depends on the mood of the music or the mood I want to create. and how my body would move to that.

REMY: I really like that idea of starting with a rhythm and feeling how it moves you, rather than deciding to move this way or that way.

BARBARA:  Right, well I’m not saying that’s the only way it could happen, because there’s many ways to approach it.  I give an exercise to my improv class about dancing first and then seeing what your feet are going to do and how your feet will follow, that’s a whole different way to approach it. 

REMY: So is there anything else you really want to say about your work or your experience with tap?

BARBARA:  I feel really lucky that I’m making a living doing this and I think it’s important to pass the word about tap dance.  That’s been the mission, to make people aware of tap dance because people love it when they see it, but it’s interesting to see how many people in the general public really don’t know much about tap dance and it's history and what's happening now. A lot of people think it's a dead art form, when actually it's growing and thriving all over the world.  So that’s the mission, to make people aware of this Americana dance form and the artistry of tap dance, not just a preconceived notion of what they think it is.

REMY: Youre right, any time anyone sees a tap dance performance they love it, its impossible not to!

BARBARA: I know! It’s very true.

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