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Andrew Nemr meets Gregory Hines & Savion Glover. Part 4 of series

Improvisation contains a series of guesses and surprises. The result is living your dreams as they emerge. Be surprised!

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Andrew Nemr. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

A year into the youth rhythm tap ensemble, his teacher handed Nemr a flyer that proclaimed, “Gregory Hines! Savion Glover! Teaching in New York City!” Nemr’s jaw dropped. He was astonished that his idols lived not just on the silver screen but in the real world! He hadn’t expected that such prominent dancers would be publicly accessible. It was like the dancing spirits coming down to earth.

Nemr took the paper straight to his parents and asked, “Is this possible?” The young dancer became the young dreamer, but like Dorothy going to Oz, he didn’t know how to get to Manhattan. “I don’t even know how far New York is from here!” he exclaimed.

Surprisingly, his parents didn’t hesitate. They too were improvisers with a “let’s do it attitude.” Marlene looked at Joseph and said, “Yes, I think that’s possible.”

On the weekend of the workshop, the whole family woke up before dawn, loaded up the car, and drove from Alexandria to Manhattan, a four-hour trip.

Nemr thinks back that his parents were determined that he have a chance to explore his own dreams because their own dreams had to be deferred. He recalls, “My dad wanted to be a fighter or airplane pilot and his folks said no, definitely not. Yet, he had a friend who was a pilot who would’ve mentored him.” The father lived with this regretful lesson. “So, for him it was really important that I was able to do whatever it is that I wanted and that he was able to support me in it. Both those things were very much part of his ethos.”

The day-long workshop consisted of back-to-back lessons from Gregory Hines and the 18-year-old Savion Glover. Hines was the pied piper of the whole rhythm tap world, and Glover was his lead follower. Their dancing was magical, almost too lyrical and expert to be earthly. They were twin dancing stars in the heavens to someone like Nemr.

 

 

In the room of about 30 people of varying age and experience, Nemr was a young 11 years old, but he pushed forward and positioned himself front and center.

As the class started up, he realized that he could barely keep up. The lessons flew by. Savion taught in real time, counting off the tempo of the step, demonstrating it, and having the students parrot his motions. The demonstrations looked amazing to Nemr, though he didn’t quite follow what was going on. He managed to stay on top of Hines’ slower demonstrations.

Then, Hines instructed the entire class to sit down and opened the floor to anyone who wanted to improvise. Nemr sat in shock as he watched fellow students boldly stand up and tap a few bars of their own creation. It was pretty scary for an eleven-year old who felt like such a “newbie.” As he watched, he imagined what he might do if only he had the gumption.

Improvisation and the readiness to move that comes with it excited Nemr’s imagination. From then on, Nemr aspired “to find the kind of movement that seems most pre-ingrained in my body given the kind of dancing that I do.” Though rhythm tap had captivated Nemr because of it organic movement style, he was surprised to find that it felt uncomfortable for his trained dancer’s body.

Six months later, Andrew heard that Savion was running a series of residencies in the D.C. area. Nothing could keep Andrew from attending. At those classes, the two boys hit it off though they were seven years apart in age. Savion formed an all-male troupe called Real Tap Skills consisting of himself and four boys from the metro D.C. area and invited Nemr to join. Nemr developed the devotion of a younger brother. He took every chance to see Savion like the time when Savion’s mother Yvette invited the Nemrs to join the family for Savion’s appearances around the country.

 

Savion Glover

One day, Savion’s mom called to say, “Savion’s performing at Lincoln Center. Does Andrew want to come up and dance with him?” On the day of the performance, the Nemr family would be in the car by 3 o’clock in the morning to make an 8 o’clock matinee. When the day of performances was done, the Nemrs loaded up the car again and head back down to Alexandria.  Nemr slept in the back seat so that he would be able to get up for school the next day.

Another time, Savion invited Nemr to meet him at the Jerry Lewis telethon in Las Vegas. That year, the telethon was honoring Sammy Davis, Jr., who had died the year prior. While Savion performed with Hines, Nemr—“a short, pudgy kid in a vest and a bowtie” as he describes himself—and his mother hung out backstage.

There, Nemr met the inner circle of dancers and performers that Savion knew through his mentorship under Hines. Imagine this: all of the dancers Nemr had idolized from the movie Tap were backstage for the memorial show. “Sandman” Sims showed Nemr magic tricks like how to hide and flip a quarter between his fingers. Others like Henry LeTang and Bunny Briggs sat down with the boy and shared stories of their travels and performances. Other entertainers, like Liza Minelli and Mel Torme, passed with a hello. The atmosphere was casual. Introductions were made, and tricks of the trade passed from mouth to foot. Nemr began to build his own network of mentors, many of whom he kept in touch with even into his college years and traveled to dance with in the same manner he tailed Savion.

Still, Andrew was awed by Savion’s attitude towards tap dancing. If you want to do this, the older boy repeatedly taught, you have to live it. It’s not “a pursuit of study,” and it’s not something separate from what you do on a day-to-day basis. It’s got to be a part of the way your body functions, from here on out, Glover emphasized.

The Nemrs put 150,000 miles on the car to support their son’s dance life. But it was pricey. The family decided to explore a move for the whole family. Joseph began exploring work opportunities in New Jersey and in 1992 the Nemrs moved to Lyndhurst.

 

Improv-ing a career

As Andrew got older and more involved in his tap, his parents saw that tap was fulfilling. But they were concerned that their son needed a backup plan. So, they sent Nemr off to the Academy for the Advancement of Science and Technology in Hackensack, New Jersey. He followed that up with studies in computer animation at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. During his program, he began an internship at the animation company Blue Skies Studios, “right when they were prepping for the first Ice Age movie,” he points out.

Nemr still found time to dance by working around his classwork. Every Sunday night, Buster Brown hosted a tap jam at a dance club called Swing 46 in Hell’s Kitchen. Nemr attended “like clockwork.” He also continued to dance gigs with Savion whenever he could. And two or three times he would fly out to Las Vegas to visit the old timers out there.

The time was fast coming when Nemr would have to choose which path he would go. Blue Skies was ramping up to an offer to Nemr in the winter of his senior year. Just as that opportunity was budding, Savion called to offer him a gig over winter break. What could a young man do with his college education about to launch him into a successful career?

No doubt where Nemr’s heart was! He responded, I’d love to do the show.

After figuring out Nemr’s frame of mind , Savion mentioned a May opportunity to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. The timing meant Nemr had to make a life-decision.

Nemr checked his calendar. He could finish his classes and make it to graduation. But he would miss SVA’s Portfolio Night where the animation companies would be searching for new talent. Which career did he want to invest in?

Actually, the student hardly glanced at his calendar. Nemr immediately responded, “Savion, I can do that!”

The Cannes Film Festival was the premier of Savion’s new group, Ti Dii, pronounced Tie Dye for its co-ed makeup with multiple ethnicities. Nemr became a core member while also teaching at the Broadway Dance Center. Savion encouraged each of the eight dancers to let their tap patois to bleed through the choreography.

Savion also discarded a lot of the rules of classical performance. Savion directed his dancers, “Don’t use your arms!” This was unusual. Most dancers use their hands as extensions of their personality. How lackluster Shirley Temple’s routines would appear if she did not jazzily wave her hands while flaunting  a smile? Also, Temple’s tapping had a mature appearance by her use of precise upper body movements that were akin to classical dance forms.

 

Andrew Nemr dances with arms loose and free. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Even Hines hadn’t gone so far to completely abandon the classical geometry of ballet. He kept his torso poised when dancing his rhythms. But Savion wanted to change the focus. The audience’s eyes and ears would be on the feet with their percussive solos. For a change, the upper body just tagged along in the background.

The group danced just blasted apart Nemr’s trained disciplined geometry of dancing. It took him a long time to get used to Savion’s style of improvisational dancing. In fact Nemr admits that he didn’t feel comfortable until he was in his 30s!

Nemr says that traditional tap classes were “incredibly rigid in terms of physical style” and had taught that the steps should be executed exactly as the teachers designed. Years and years of training take hold of your body so that the crispness and speed of motions have an awesome clarity. A kaleidoscope of fluid mix and match is just not part of the design.

Yet, the young man had been first attracted as a boy to this fluid variety  as he watched the dancers in the movie Tap. They were able to respond to musical and intuitive cues as if in a fast-moving conversation. Nemr saw how this type of movement was like inhabiting natural life with dancing. Savion showed him a liberation by  discarding the ironclad rules.

Nemr no longer was constantly thinking about where to place his arms as he tapped. The dancer became more aware that his body would naturally do something in the context if he just let it go. Ti Dii “was the starting point for me to figure out how I wanted to use my own body,” and the beginning of his understanding of pure improvisation as continuous reconciliation of life and art. Later, Nemr saw that this dance style had an affinity with the leading of the Holy Spirit in reconciling people to each other.

 

The difference between perfection and reconciliation

Perfection is moralistic – obey the rules, stay between the lines, hold your body just so. Savion’s preaching of the new way was like a dancing John the Baptist turning over the rules and proclaiming a freedom never seen before.

Dance would be about a reconciliation of the limits of your body to freedom, your rationality to your emotions, the clockwork geometry of settled social relations to an attentive spontaneity.

Sometimes this reconciliation comes as a smooth melody guiding the dancer into his next move. Sometimes it comes as a jolt, a mistake, a sour note, a bad tap, a sequence that didn’t come out the way the dancer intended. Both, argues Nemr, lead a person to a peace with himself. First, the dancer needs to be willing to let go of the pursuit of perfection and appreciate what comes out of the moment.

Now, Savion was reminding Nemr about an incident years earlier with Ted Levy, “a very key individual in the lineage” of the new style of tap dancing. Levy had challenged Nemr with the proverb, “Perfection is not an option.”

Nemr remembers that he blurted, “Excuse me? What do you mean?”

Nemr had worked almost his entire life to get tap moves down. At age 17, when Nemr encountered the notoriously difficult five-count wing tap move, he spent six months repeating and repeating the jumping motion until he could barely stammer out the step.

 

Nemr performs traditional 3-count wing. Photos & gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

He spent six months repeating and repeating the jumping motion until he could stammer out the step. The difficulty comes from having to jump off of two feet, fling them both out to either side, so the taps on the toes of the shoes catch the floor not once -- but four times -- before both feet come back to center and land again. The pattern is a bit like skipping a stone out to the center of a lake and then having it skip back to your hand again. The five-count wing tap is seemingly just as impossible.

 

Nemr demonstrates 4-count wing. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Au contraire, he wanted to say; perfection is the whole goal, isn’t it?

 

Nemr tops with a 5-count wing. Photos and gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

“No,” Levy replied to the dancer’s unspoken question. Instead, he offered Nemr a new frame through which to view his practice: the freedom to play with options. What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? How do you find the things that you want to say, and how do you find your own choices?

“It took me two weeks to come to grips with the fact that if I wanted him to teach me, I would have to agree with him,” Nemr now laughs. “So I let it sit, because I wasn’t ready to concede the fact—but I knew he knew more than I did.”

After stewing a bit, Nemr came to understand Levy’s point. “In order for me to discover or have the space to discover who I was going to be in this craftwork, perfection couldn’t be the option because perfection limits choice,” he realized. A dancer who aiming to be perfect is shooting for a standard that he or she has seen somewhere else. It is like living someone else’s dream.  This does not allow them the freedom to try new things or create new combinations.

Savion was reinforcing Levy’s point. Improvisation contains a series of guesses and surprises.  The result is living your dreams as they emerge. Be surprised; it will all work out!

When things work the way the dancer wants, the response is “That’s amazing! Thank God!” Or when they don’t, the dancer is relieved of guilt and freed to cherish his daring mistake at the moment. Later, he can recognize what went wrong and change that for next time. The dance is only complete when the successes are mixed with instructive failures. Nemr now compares this process to the Christian practice of “confession, forgiveness and repentance.”

Lest a dancer take improvisation as a free card to slack off, Nemr appends that improv still requires discipline. The difference is that one trains a body in sets of moves, gestures, and steps that one can play, change or mix in ways never preordained.

In some ways the improvisational tap performance is like a Merce Cunningham dance in which the dancers are trained in eighteen or so sequences of moves that they can then mix and match at their own inspiration on the stage. However, Cunningham’s dancers were constrained to the “sentences,” the sequences of moves. Also, the fluid conversation of the dancers’ moves was minimized. Each dancer could inhabit his or own dance world with just enough interaction to avoid colliding. In fact, the dancers do decide to play off each other.

Practicing the steps helps a dancer become “more confident in the choices that you make” and leads to a smoother improvising. The end result is that “you end up having a perception of perfection to anyone around you,” even if you are working out the steps as you go along.

Nemr is wary that it is easy to slide from training for improvisation into a sort of determinism. The difference is between “training and disciplining your body” versus “training and disciplining your choices.” The first leads to freedom and a more ready response to internal cues. The second limits choice and leads to stale, repetitive improvisation. The first type of training leads you to be able to find new creative paths in your mistakes while the second narrows creativity for fear of making mistakes.

One loud, clanging, sour note was about to cue Nemr himself into a new creative path.

 

Unexpected turning point for Andrew Nemr. Photo by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 


 

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