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Andrew Nemr’s improvisational living in the United States

The beginnings of Nemr’s tap dancing. Part 3 of series

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Andrew Nemr backlighted

Andrew Nemr. Photo: Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Living in Lebanon, a country that was ravaged by enemies around every corner, the Nemr family had survived by improvising ways around fierce sectarian and ethnic boundaries. They built a Christian life-style that lived outside of the stereotypes and hostilities, a neutrality that actually was none too safe. Later, when the son discovered improvisational tap dancing, he came to see it as an extension of his family’s culture of avoiding social rigidities and conflicts.

His parents’ household was one in which “faith was just the context in which everything happened,” Nemr recalls. “There wasn’t a division between, ‘We do this work over here, and we go to church over here,’ or any of those lines.” Instead, the approach was that “who you are, and what you do should be enough to let other people know that you’re a Christian.” That is what the parents learned in their Lebanese youth group.

Moving with Christ then is like shining a lantern to illuminate your way through daily life, not a candelabra under which to passively sit and listen to a sermon nor neon lights advertising the verse of the day.

So, as they raised their son Andrew, they also taught him how God’s rule and His love extended over everyday actions. To them, every moment was an opportunity to respond to God’s promptings.

To mirror this every-present sense of grace in their own household, they gave the young boy autonomy over his own actions early on. Rules did not preside in the Nemr home, and he did not have chores. Instead, his father told him, ‘If you see the trash can full, empty it! If you see plates on the table, take them to the kitchen! I don’t have to tell you what needs to be done; you already know. So, just do that.” In this way they hoped that their son would develop an internal intuition of what needed to be done, a “continual dialogue with yourself,” asking, “Okay, what should I do next? Or, what needs to be done here?”

Though Christians, the Nemrs did not keep a Bible in the house. Instead, Nemr’s parents taught him by reciting Biblical parables and stories. They described God’s character and encouraged regular conversations about God and Jesus Christ. Nemr now notes that they didn’t use the same liturgical vocabulary that one might hear in a church, but they described the same concepts in everyday  language.

In the States, the Nemrs never became members of a church. Nemr remembers, “My folks tried to find a place that fit their sensibilities in terms of what the culture of the church should be, and we couldn’t find it.” Each congregation seemed to categorize and compartmentalize the visitors one way or another. Looking for a church that emphasized its unity, they would visit a church and find that the congregation sought to divide people into male and female Sunday school classes, men’s breakfast or women’s Bible study. Someone would greet them enthusiastically about their Lebanese origins and say, “Oh, you’re from Lebanon! We’ll sit you with all the Arab people.”  Coming from a country that had been ravaged by civil war, the Nemrs were uneasy with this emphasis on social divisions and labeling.

After a couple weeks at a church, they would begin looking for new options, looking for one that fit. But churches are standardized like shoe factories, dividing along “people groups,” age groups, and the like for the purpose of efficient church growth.

The family also followed Joseph’s job moves from Edmonton, Canada to cities in the United States, which made settling into a church even more difficult. Still, every Easter and Christmas, the Nemr family would find a church to celebrate the holidays with fellow Christians. His Mom Marlene especially had a penchant for candlelight services. The family ultimately settled in Alexandria, Virginia, which turned out to be a spiritual coming home for the son.

The family had lived a nomadic life as Joseph moved around for his job. They moved from Edmonton, Canada and then to Minnesota and Virginia in the United States. Joseph and Marlene grew worried that the moving around was causing their three-year-old son, an only child, to miss out on learning how to interact with other kids. They also feared that he might be lonely.

So, they explained to young Nemr that they were signing him up for lessons and offered him a choice: he could take karate or dance. Nemr chose dance and began classes of traditional tap, jazz, and ballet dancing at the Chris Collins Dance Studio in Alexandria, Virginia. Nemr has tapped for nearly as long as he has walked.

When Nemr was nine years old in 1989, he attended with his family a Christmas service at a small country church outside of Alexandria. The young boy didn’t know the name of the church, nor does he now even know exactly where it was. Except, out of the darkness, destiny came to meet Nemr. The country preacher ended the service with an altar call, inviting anyone in the congregation who was not a Christian to stand up and walk to the front to signal his decision to follow Jesus Christ.

In the same way that Nemr had been taught to intuit the next task that needed to be done around the house, Nemr then and there wondered if the next step as a Christian was to make his public declaration of faith. “Oh, okay…that’s the next thing that you do?” he asked himself. Then,as he made his way up to the front, Nemr found the answer, “That’s what we do. Yeah!”

 

Tapping

What began as a social activity became a life changer when Andrew saw the movie Tap in 1989. Sitting in the movie theater, Andrew caught a glimpse of a type of tap dance completely different from any that he had been taught.

 

Movie poster of Gregory Hines in "Tap"

 

In the movie, Gregory Hines played Max Washington, a young dancer who also had a history as a burglar. Newly released from jail, Max visited a tap studio run by Little Mo, an old-time tapper, played by the entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. Little Mo wanted Max to help revive the studio and bring tap dance into the limelight for a younger generation.

Hines was a strikingly charismatic dancer, singer and actor. His lithe profile and effortless weight-shifting made him the tap icon in the 1970s and 1980s. His theatrical ability also made him a star in shows such as Eubie (1978), Comin’ Uptown (1980), and Jelly’s Last Jam (1992). Nemr felt a kinship with Hines’ life and art.

From the time that Hines was a young kid, Hines was seen as something special. In fact , he couldn’t remember a time that he wasn’t dancing. He grew up on West 150th Street, Harlem’s Sugar Hill district, where entertainers lived up and down the street. His grandmother danced in the Cotton Club in the 1920s, and his father was a popular drummer. His brother Maurice took up dancing at age four, and Hines eagerly followed.

The brothers trained with Henry LeTang and performed together act at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Hines complemented his formal dance training with lessons from the older tap legends that he met backstage.

Fusing cues from free jazz composition and traditional rhythm tap, Hines was especially noted for his “improvography,” a phrase he coined to describe the union of “doing things that I know and things I discover” in the course of the dance.

The movie also featured performances by various dancers from the older generation of tap, including Arthur Duncan, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Harold Nicholas, Howard “Sandman” Slims, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Gregory Hines. One scene about halfway through the film captured Nemr’s imagination. This scene is colloquially known as the “Challenge Scene,” and is so important to Nemr and other contemporary  tap dancers that it deserves careful attention.

 

 

The Challenge

The idea of a ‘challenge’ is integral to the way tap dance has developed. In the 2010 baedeker of tap history, Tap Dancing America: A cultural history, Constance Valis Hill writes, “Unlike ballet with its codification of formal technique, tap dance developed from people listening to and watching each other dance in the street, dance hall, or social club, where steps were shared, stolen, and reinvented.” “Challenges” are like the marketplace for tap dance styles.

As Max (Hines) was practicing rhythm rudiments in front of a mirror, Little Mo (Davis, Jr) entered the room and began to correct his form. Peeved, Max retorted, “I know you guys were good in your day, but since you got no legs anymore—“

Little Mo cut Max off. He called out to the old timers who were eavesdropping in the hallway, “What does that sound like to you?” They excitedly crowed back, “A challenge!”

They gathered round in a circle. In a six-minute sequence, each veteran tap took the floor and showed off the style that made him famous.

Arthur Duncan opened with the delicate theatrical style that he showcased on the weekly musical variety television feature The Lawrence Welk Show through the 1980s. High knees and poised arms, Duncan balanced his weight forward and perched his moves on his toes.

 

Arthur Duncan's delicate style. Gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Bunny Briggs took over sounding like a speedy typewriter. He appeared to float in the center of the circle as his main tapping motion was done at his ankles. The camera zoomed onto his feet as he hopped from standing as if though strings were hoisting him from above in order to tap his shoes together. Briggs alternated light taps with heavy downbeats in a conversation with backing piano.

 

Bunny Briggs at center, Jimmy Slyde on right, Howard "Sandman" Sims on left. Gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

As Briggs made his way off screen, Jimmy Slyde launched himself across the room and began a slippery, drifting routine. His taps were crisp and distinct as his upper body twisted and leaned. His feet carried him around the circle. The other tappers hurriedly backed up to give his moves space. Almost figure skating on the wooden floor, Slyde always looked to be tipping slightly off balance as he slid and lurched in every direction before he caught himself and proved his impeccable control by never missing a beat.

The scene continued with the crackerjack Steve Condos, the matador-like Harold Nicholas, a playing-to-win Howard “Sandman” Sims, and finally a dance-off between Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr. The variety of the dancing and the joyful, playful exchange of the ‘challenge’ and the “unique voices all in the same room, all having fun together” delighted Nemr. He had never seen this kind of tapping before!

 

The Condos brothers do the difficult five-wing tap together. Gif by Pauline Dolle/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Nemr saw that each tap dancer seemed like he was dancing “without a sense of imposed physical action.” In contrast, classical training focuses on making one’s body fit established standards. Choreographers used each dancer’s body in a dance like a glass piece in a mosaic. They all had to fit tightly together on stage to form a clear picture for the audience. The dance announced by its form that this was “art” and not just some natural moving around.

The dancer then had to learn how to contort his or her body to fit into the artistic picture in the choreographer’s mind. Every genre of dance had its own rules. A ballerina learned to align his or her shoulders and hips and to keep their feet turned out so that the inside of the heels face forward. A jazz dancer learned to isolate muscles and moved limbs independently of other body parts. A theatrical tap dancer had fixed positions for their heads and arms even as the feet did the dancing.

Tap added the challenge that it is not derivative from any natural movement. All the movement happens from the same place that holds the body’s weight! So switching from foot to foot requires shifting the load of the entire body, and quicker steps require a core strength that balances the whole figure. This makes extended step motions like the 5-count wing tap step excruciating difficult.

In the Challenge Scene, Nemr found a completely new way of looking at tap dancing. It wasn’t theatrical tap with all its formal structures. The tapping in the movie was completely organic. The dancers “didn’t feel like they were doing anything that didn’t come organically through their body.” Each dancer was allowed his own style even while all being masters of tap.

Nemr learned that this technique of tap dancing, different than the theatrical technique he was learning, was called rhythm or improvisational tap. After taking back his excitement to his supportive parents, they rallied to find an outlet where he could practice on this new frontier. In the newspaper, they found an audition for a youth rhythm tap ensemble that was starting in Washington, D.C. Nemr was accepted and began to learn about the fine art of improvisation.

He knew very little to begin with. “I knew what I liked. I knew what I didn’t like. I knew what felt good, or felt natural to my body. And I knew when it felt like, okay, we’re making it do something right now.”

 

Discovery. Photo illustration by Pauline Dolle & Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Part 1: Andrew Nemr tap dancing New York City

 

Part 2: Andrew Nemr’s tap dance to faith

 

Tomorrow: Andrew Nemr meets the masters of tap dance

Photos and gifs by Pauline Dolle

 

 

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