If you thought tap dance is a dying art form, Tap World will prove you wrong. A feature-length documentary film produced by sisters and professional tap dancers Chloe and Maud Arnold, Tap World tells the stories of tap dancers from around the globe who are continuing to innovate in their art form while paying respect to its origins.
I caught up with Chloe Arnold, best known for her tap group, Syncopated Ladies, who shared her passion for producing this project and the journey of creating Tap World, the film.
Tell us about Tap World. What is the film about?
“Tap World is a feature-length documentary that follows the story of tap dancers around the globe.”
What countries are featured in the film?
“In the film, we have the USA, Spain, France, Russia, England, Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, Spain, South Africa, Taiwan and Croatia… a lot of countries! There are snippets from even more countries with special features on the DVD, including places not seen in the film.”
Who are some of the tap dancers who we get to know in the film?
“Some of the featured artists who we get to know include Evan Ruggiero. His story is really compelling because he is someone who overcame a major adversity in his life, losing his leg to cancer and triumphing by taking inspiration from tap master Peg Leg Bates and pushing past this adversity to create a career in tap. Also, we have Joshua Johnson, who is a New York tap dancer who street performed to finance his college education.
Also, (the late) Harold Cromer is in the film. His moment is so touching; you just feel his soul and know how much this art form meant to him. There are artists like Michelle Dorrance, Sarah Reich, Melinda Sullivan, myself, my sister (Maud Arnold), Derick Grant, Jared Grimes, Jason Samuels Smith, Jason Janas, Ted Louis Levy, Alamon Diadhiou, Dianne Walker…. There are literally hundreds of tap dancers in this film. It’s a celebration of love. Everyone in the film loves what they are doing, and that is a unifying factor.”
Can you tell me about the process of recruiting tap dancers for the film?
“In order to audition for the film, people had to send in filmed submissions that were under 15 minutes, and we gave a specific criteria of what we were looking for: the set-up interview questions, what kind of dancing we wanted to see and on-location performances in front of something that distinguishes their country, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was really wonderful that there were so many people who submitted and specifically wanted a chance to be in the film and did the necessary work to audition.
A lot of times with films, only the people who are ‘connected’ get a shot but because we did this through the internet, everybody had a shot. It’s one of the things that makes us most proud because when we were growing up, we didn’t have the opportunity to do a tap dance audition for a film, so it’s fun to see this dream realized for my sister and I, Dean Hargrove (director/executive producer), and Kaleena Rallis (associate producer). We all have a strong dream and desire to put tap dance on film and to keep it there.”
So, how long was the process to create the film?
“The editing process took two years. We accepted audition submissions for six months, as it takes time for people to do what we were asking. It started with the DC Tap Festival, and then we shot in Tokyo and Shanghai, and then it propelled. There was a nice amount of footage that covered some of the major tap dance artists in the field combined with submissions received.”
Why is it important to tell the stories of tap dancers around the world?
“Because you realize that tap dance has a language by way of movement and sound. You have artists who are musicians and dancers, and you are able to connect on so many non-verbal ways that bring people together. When you see these stories, you learn that there is an enormous diversity of people who enjoy the same activity, which is really awesome, and all of these people are finding joy in the same thing whether they have come from really tough beginnings or not, whether they are older or younger, regardless of race and gender. You are able to see that by way of this art form people are finding their voice. It is very freeing and inspiring to people who don’t know much about tap to know that this art form exists, and it transcends barriers and unites people. I think that most people are unaware of it, but the great thing about tap is that it is really accessible to all people.
It is hurtful to hear that people think what you do every day is dying, but what I’ve learned in life is that you have one of two choices: to either be a victim of your circumstances, or find and create a solution and continue to stay open-minded, understanding that it is a process to introduce people to what you love. You have to do it with love so that people can receive it, understand it and connect to the human element, and I think that’s what Tap World really does so well. It shows the human element of tap dancing, so you connect so much to the stories that you forget it is tap dancing because you’ve fallen into this language and you’re understanding it and hearing it, and when you’re done with the film you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I just saw a tap film.’ You now have a different perspective and appreciation for an art form that most people just don’t know about.”
Was there any one story from the film that inspired you most?
“Everybody connects to Evan Ruggiero’s story of no matter how hard life gets, you’ve got to wake up, you’ve got to smile, and you’ve got to go for it. He’s so incredible and awe-inspiring. Also, for me it’s Luyz Baldijão’s story because I love Brazil, and I love that tap can be utilised as a social platform to evoke change, help underserved communities, and to educate and provide a necessary outlet to get kids educated and give them a dream. When I watched that part of the film, I was very touched, as I’ve been going to Brazil for 10 years, and in that time I’ve been able to help a lot of young people find their voice and really pursue tap dance as a career.
One of my Syncopated Ladies is from Brazil — Melissa Tannús — and Chloe & Maud Productions also sponsor two students with artist visas who I’ve known from when they were young (They are now professional artists.), and they are from Brazil. I hear Luyz’s story, and I know for a fact that those little kids he is helping could become professional tap dancers because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen the film now a million times, and every time I see it I’m still touched and re-inspired. I’m proud that we’ve created something that is heartfelt and meaningful, and we’ve had all kinds of people come see the film and walk away feeling inspired. From politicians to club promoters to dancers, business people, entrepreneurs, technology CEOs — literally a whole spectrum of people.
One of the coolest after-screening moments were these little girls who came to the film, and when the film was over, they threw on their tap shoes. They were, like, five years old and in the lobby dancing. Then, one of the tap dancers put a hat down and at the let out of the film they were earning money street performing in the lobby of the film theatre. It was amazing! The responses have been so wonderful; it just feels so good.”
What was it like working with your sister, Maud?
“We love working together! We have normal sister banter, which is pretty amusing. It keeps us sharp and keeps us on our toes, as there is always someone who is honest with you. One of our tag lines is ‘two sisters, one dream’. We have our own approaches, our own personalities and skills we bring to the table, and at the end of the day our vision and our dream is very unified, and so we really are working together to make it happen. I don’t think we would have the same level of success without the team work element. Not any one person can do everything alone, and a team you can trust that is joyful and positive is one that I think flourishes. Our other slogan is ‘team work makes the dream work’. We really believe that.”
You’re known as a choreographer, performer, dance company director and now producer. Why did you decide to produce this film, and what part of the process did you enjoy the most?
“This has been a dream of mine for 15 years. When I was in film school at Columbia University, all I could think about was putting tap on film, so the fact that we have a documentary that had a theatrical release is unbelievable. Dean Hargrove, director/executive producer, is the most genuine, experienced, successful, altruistic tap advocate, and he really has given his life to helping us share our stories. When we first met with him and he told us he wanted to take these stories and make a film, we were through the roof! Fortunately, he brought us on as producers, which we took very seriously.
The hardest part was definitely that feeling of ‘who do we pick for the film?’, because I’m an artist and a lot of these people are my colleagues and friends, so who makes the cut and who doesn’t? That’s why we had Dean at the helm of things. I was able to get all of the talent to submit and be filmed. We all dwindled it down together, and he had to make the hard decisions.
As a director, that is what you have to do. I love everybody, and we could probably do a trilogy based upon how much footage we have and how the stories continue to grow and evolve. I’m very happy with how it turned out, and I’m just very thankful, as it’s so important to me that dancers get to take control of how their voice is heard and not always be for hire. I want to create projects to facilitate the visibility of all of these incredible artists.”
Which cities has the film opened in, and what feedback have you received?
“It opened in D.C., Virginia, New York and L.A. New York was phenomenal; it did really well our opening weekend, which got us extended another week. So what was supposed to be only a one-week run ended up being a two-week run, which was good news for everybody.
At a film, everyone sits and watches a done product, unlike a live performance — that’s when you see things aren’t going well and you can switch it up, try to get people to laugh, whatever it may be. When you are doing live work, you can direct your audience’s emotions and shift them to stay present and improvise. So it’s really nerve-wracking to wait and see how people respond and what they think. It’s just really exciting to know that people have been touched by the film.”
Are the Syncopated Ladies featured in the film?
“Many of the ladies are in the film but all as individuals. It’s cool from the standpoint that we launched a project (Tap World) and it’s gone really well, and while that’s out in the world we’ve been able to launch other things like the Syncopated Ladies tour, so it will allow us to create another film, update the stories and see where are they now, because just in that little bit of time since doing the film there have been some major strides in our careers. You definitely get a taste of the Syncopated Ladies, but what we are doing now came after we finished the film.”
What is your overall goal for Tap World?
“The goal is for this film to be seen by as many people as possible around the world. We have South Africa represented in the film, far ends of the world are represented in the film, so I hope it’s not just the places that are in the film but the surrounding areas that get to see how their stories can make it to the silver screen. I think that’s really powerful if you’re a dancer in South Africa or anywhere, and you know that there are these dancers in a remote part of Africa who are now in this film. It’s inspiring, and you really know that there is a possibility that your art can reach the masses, and that’s what we want to do. We want as many people to see it as possible.”
What projects are next for you?
“The next thing I’d like to do is sell a TV show. My sister and I are working on it, and we really want to see that happen. We want to put tap on TV now on a weekly basis. This is the next feat. We are excited and confident and know it won’t be easy, but we will make it happen.”
By Nicole Saleh of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): ‘Tap World’. Photo courtesy of ‘Tap World’.