This is the first of this year's Against the Odds: Artists Talking to Artists series. We asked each of the choreographers participating in Against the Odds to both interview another artist and be interviewed themselves in an effort to build community, generate conversation and give you a sneak peek at what might be going on backstage at Against the Odds. I am very excited to introduce you to Kendra Henseler of Six One Seven Dance Collective chatting with our own Blogger in Residence and tap dancer extraordinaire, Ryan Casey.
Kendra: So I understand you were first introduced to tap dance as a small child via Savion Glover's involvement with Sesame Street. Were you musically inclined as a child? What drew you to tap dance? What was the turning point in your early training where you went from "yeah I like this" to "I've got to do this every single day of my life"?
Ryan: I recently went to see a preview of Maurice Hines' (Gregory's brother) new show, and he talked about working with Ella Fitzgerald. She had no real musical training, it seems -- just a God-given gift, he said, to be so rhythmically talented. I would never put myself on par with her, of course -- not in a million years! -- but I feel the same way about my own development as a tap dancer. People always ask me if my parents are dancers are musicians; the answer is no. Nor did I grow up in a household where my parents were playing jazz music all the time or watching Hollywood movie musicals with me. I have a good ear for rhythm, but I admittedly don't understand music very well, or as well I probably should; I have trouble counting things out and discussing musical forms with band leaders. There's really no discernible reason why I should have become a professional tap dancer other than I was blessed with this ability, I guess.
I started my dance training with a tap/jazz combo class, and although I liked both styles -- and still do -- I was just naturally better at tap. I picked it up quickly and it stuck with me. When I got to high school, my teacher, Thelma Goldberg, sat me down and told me that if I wanted to have a career in this field -- and I could -- I needed to become a soloist. I think that's when I started getting really serious about my dancing and began to understand that this was something that could take me somewhere.
Kendra: My sources tell me you're 6'8". Tap dancing involves a lot of weight shifting. Does your height influence your movement style?
Ryan: This is a question that I address with my work in the festival. I get it a lot -- and I also hear from a lot of people who are shocked to see me dance because they thought it would be impossible for someone of my size to move with any grace at all.
I take a musical theater jazz class in NYC every week with the wonderful Stephen Reed, and sometimes I get to the studio and he warns me that the combo for the day is "short people dance" -- that is, choreography created for people of short stature. I got to thinking: What would "tall people dance" look like? Does it exist?
Tommy Tune is one answer, although I think he's regarded more as an all-around entertainer than specifically as a tap dancer. Michelle Dorrance, whose company I'm in, created a kind of tall people dance when she choreographed a duet, "The Rag," for me and Elena Steponaitis, another lanky dancer who I'm performing with in the festival. She opened up a new vocabulary for me and embraced my physicality rather than telling me it wasn't going to work.
With my height, it's not so much the weight shifting that's tricky as it is controlling my limbs and my entire body at once -- and I am definitely a full-body dancer. I look back at videos of myself even from high school and am embarrassed to see how much I was flailing around. I like to think that at some point, with a lot of work in other disciplines, I got myself together, but it's definitely something I have to keep working on. I'm in jazz classes every week so I can keep my lines straight and clean.
Kendra: Do you have a "lucky" pair of tap shoes?
Ryan: Haha, no, I can't say that I do! I do reserve my white pair for certain performances, though. It was -- and still is, I think -- a big deal as a tap dancer to get a pair of white shoes. It's a kind of status symbol that you earn. I got them my senior year of high school and I love them; I can slip into them like a favorite pair of slippers and I love how they feel and how they sound. But they're scuffed up at this point, and I want to preserve them just a little longer, so I only dance in them every once in a while.
Kendra: Is your choreography influenced by improvisation or music? I'm not a tap dancer, but I'm so jealous of tap dancers that get to 'jam'. How much do you depend on sound exploration before settling into a choreographed piece?
Ryan: I think that's the first step for a lot of tap choreographers, and certainly for myself: I always improvise to a tune before I really start choreographing, just to see what happens and what immediately inspires me. After I jam for a while to a song, I've locked into some ideas for rhythms or movement patterns that I can use later on. The music tells me, "This part is a time step" or "This should be a counterpoint," for example.
I work rhythmically, meaning that when I'm choreographing, I listen to the music and say, "What do I want to hear here?" And I play around with rhythms, scatting to myself, until I find the one that I think fits best. Then I come up with a step that best fits the rhythm -- playing around with tone, shading, speed, etc. It's like a musical puzzle.
Kendra: Your choreography has such an amazing pulse to it. So many tap pieces become dominantly focused on the sound, but yours also has a large emphasis on the bodies as well. If you could give your audience members a 'take-away' when they watch your work, what would it be?
Ryan: I was trained to be a full-body rhythm-maker, so I'm glad you pointed that out. I think it's important that the physicality of the art form be prominent; indeed, one of the cool things about tap, as so many tappers like to point out, is that you can embody through both movement AND sound the music that you're dancing to. You can BE the blues; you can BE one of Brubeck's odd time signatures.
Honestly, I've been thinking a lot lately about the question of the take-away in dance. I think it's obvious in other forms of art: Novels and films make us identify with fictional characters and get caught up in long-form narratives; music is supposed to fill your heart with an emotional experience and your head with catchy lyrics; art has something you can literally take away, if you purchase it. What, then, are we supposed to take away from dance? What does it mean that some people are watching modern dance and saying "I don't get it" and potentially not taking away anything other than confusion and frustration?
I believe in dance that is rhythmic and engaging. I hope people come away from my work at "Against the Odds" enjoying themselves -- hopefully laughing a bit! -- but also thinking about the larger questions I'm asking about fitting in, judging appearances, and maintaining one's sense of self, for example. Hopefully they'll see that tap, as you said, is just as much about the body as it is about the sounds.
And, most importantly, I hope they leave wanting to learn how to tap dance!
Do you have a question for Ryan that Kendra didn't ask? Well then, why don't you ask him here!? All of the Against the Odds artists and everyone at Monkeyhouse wants to know what YOU are thinking, so let's keep the conversation going!