Getting to Know Lisa La Touche

by Danny Foner

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Lisa La Touche, an internationally renowned tap dancer. Her career highlights, as she writes on her website, include "New York and North American touring casts of STOMP, the Sophisticated Ladies at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club with Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, A.C.G.I with Emmy Award winner Jason Samuels-Smith, Rumba Tap with Max Pollak, Co-Director and guest artist with the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, faculty member of the School at Jacob's Pillow, and guest artist at The American Tap Dance Foundation and The Vancouver Tap Dance Society." If you're interested in learning more, you can visit her website.

DF: How did you start learning tap? What about it made it so interesting to you?

LLT: I started taking tap lessons when I was 8 years old. I had amazing parents, dedicated to finding me a fun extra-curricular activity as a kid. After soccer and piano and gymnastics, which I didn't love, tap dance stuck. My mom also took lessons as a kid, and would sometimes show me steps and I always got a kick out of it. So upon my first class on my own, I was hooked immediately. The fact that I could make sounds and music with my feet thrilled me, while also being able to dance and express myself.

DF: Many dancers and other artists are inspired by their predecessors. Are there any tappers that inspired you to pursue your passion? What do you admire about them?

LLT: Oh man... there are so many that it's hard to narrow down. I've been really blessed and honored to have many mentors and their inspiration and wisdom is timeless and endless. Some to mention: Jason Samuels Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Max Pollak, Barbara Duffy, Martin "Tre" Dumas III, Brenda Bufalino, Dianne "Lady Di" Walker... they are all such lions and lionesses in their craft. They all, to this day, dedicate themselves deeper daily in their contributions to the art form and the community. They teach me so much about what honoring your craft means and what transpires from staying focused and connected to your own passion. Jason Samuel Smiths inspires me always to see how the level of execution can always increase, and to never get comfortable. I'm always hearing "reach" when I think of him. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards... I never have words... not only the execution but profound wisdom and grace in her dancing and teaching, and also a truly resilient woman and a divine lady always on and off stage. Max Pollak... a prime example of the possibilities of what one can achieve while branching out and simply staying true to investing in what inspires you. He's the pioneer in incorporating Afro-Cuban music and it's legacy as a tap dancer. He has created and mastered his own technique with his in-depth endeavors to study and hone the Afro-Cuban music and culture and earn respect from its homegrown artists.

DF: On your website, you write that you like to stay connected in the NYC jazz music scene. How does your experience with tap dancing influence your appreciation for jazz? Are the two connected in any way?

LLT: To me tap dance is another component of jazz. It's the same language, but different instrument. Tap is to dance as sound is to movement. It goes hand and hand to me. You have to learn how to dance and you have to learn how to play music. I've had the honor of working with some incredible musicians and they have influenced me deeply as much as my dance mentors have. Sometimes it can be a barrier to break through to have musicians be open enough to really work with a tap dancer and respect them on the same level as a musician. But upon meeting those that really do that, it's really fun from both parties to see that we really do walk the same walk... Jazz to me means a freedom to improvise and to push boundaries always in the "music," so to speak. We are composers as well - that would be the musician's term for us as "choreographers". One of the biggest highlights of my performing experiences: being on the band stand as a tap dancer with the Revive Da Live big band directed by Megan Stabile and Igmar Thomas. Having Igmar compose and arrange a song for us tap dancers with a 22-piece big band and then coming up with our own choreography composition within it was the best. And the reaction from the crowd felt like we were rock stars. This craft is truly so powerful and the advantage we have, so to speak, is the fact that we do get to dance while making our music, so music lovers always lose their minds.

DF: You belong to a tap group in New York called Tap Phonics. Can you tell me a little more about that? In other words, what does Tap Phonics do?

LLT: Tap Phonics started as my own "pick-up" company. Right now pick up companies are mostly how dancers function with their own groups. We get dancers together that we like working with on a project basis. This started for me with moving to New York in 2008. I met Brooklyn singer-songwriter Maya Azucena and she invited me to present my own group and open for one of her concerts. So I had to come up with a name, and [Tap Phonics] stuck. From then on, as different gigs came up, I pulled dancers together that I needed and it grew from there. Tap Phonics now, to me, is more of a project than a group.

I'm focusing on new arrangements and compositions and always collaborating with other artists or musicians. I think of it as "phonetically speaking." We are a group that can represent essences of the tradition and legacy of the tap dance art from, yet push past the "straight ahead" regime and find new ways to keep it contemporary. I've worked with spoken word artists, R&B musicians, MCs and electronic sounds in my projects. I'm currently working on curating a show while I'm here temporarily in Vancouver in support by the Vancouver Tap Dance Society. New works are being created as we speak which will funnel into the next Vancouver International Tap festival and I'm really excited about it!

DF: You've performed in dance festivals and on tours all across the world. What's next?

LLT: Next is working on my own conceptualized show as I mentioned before. Taking time to "be still and create." I'm very inspired lately and am composing more than I have in a while and it feels good. I've worked with so many amazing artists worldwide and only hope this will continue. In the meantime it really does feel good to take the time to work out my own ideas and build new platforms for myself and for others as well. I'm working more in Canada as of recently and am trying to bridge more of the gap between my home country, its dancers and the American tap dance scene. New York still resonates as home to me, and my roots ignited also in Chicago. It means more to me than I can express to be considered a contributor and to be respected by my American peers.

DF: And one just for fun: if you could do just one step for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

LLT: Funny as it sounds, you'll find cramp rolls and 5 count riffs in so many of my phrases. But all in all, I think in terms of musical patterns and then let that determine what vocabulary I should use.

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