From Tap Dancing to Responsible Fusion

Suhaila, 1978. Photo by Romaine Photography, San Francisco.

Suhaila performing her “chair drum” tap dancing routine at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, CA when she was 10, the same year she began teaching tap.

Last year, I wrote about my pop and locking work with Walter Freeman who went on to perform on Broadway for 10 years as an American tap dancer in Riverdance.  Walter and I attended many of the same tap classes when I was in high school.

But my introduction to tap began much earlier.  My mother enrolled me in ballet, jazz and tap when I was a toddler, probably around 2 or 3 years of age.  I continued tap dancing with regular lessons and training well into my late 20s.  When I moved to Los Angeles after high school, I was fortunate to study tap with Hinton Battle, who won his second of three Tony Awards for his role in The Tap Dance Kid.

When I was about 22 or 23, Mahmoud Reda visited California on a workshop tour.  In addition to his folkloric work, Mahmoud starred, choreographed and performed in several popular Egyptian movies; he was very much an Egyptian Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire.  One of my favorite memories of Mahmoud’s visit was attending a tap class together at the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio in North Hollywood.

Later, when I performed in the Middle East, the club owners were thrilled when they found out I could tap dance and insisted that I perform.  Tap dancing was incredibly popular, especially from the classic Egyptian and Hollywood movies that featured grand dance and musical numbers.  And I actually had my tap shoes and drum sticks (from my “chair drum” performance) with me, as I had packed them in my suitcase.

Rather than featuring tap dancing as a completely different act, I wanted to incorporate it into my regular dance set.   I developed a duet with the drummer.  I would tap, then add finger cymbals, then the drummer and I would question and answer back and forth, and then we would wind up to a big finale.  The audiences loved the act.

Students have asked me why they thought my tap dancing fusion was so well received by Middle Eastern audiences.  I had well over two decades of experience in both belly dance and tap by the time I performed the fusion of the two in the Middle East.  I was a teacher of both with extensive performance experience in both.  I knew the music and rhythms for both the Middle Eastern and jazz genres.  It was a “responsible fusion”.  That responsibility included knowing and respecting the technique, music, and culture of both dance forms.

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