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The Big Apple Tap Festival reunites the global tap family

Photo courtesy of The Big Apple Tap Festival.

Tap dancers from all over the world will once again flock to New York City from November 10-12, to sharpen their skills, honor the tap masters who have gone before and live the dream of being taught by some of the best names in tap dance.

You could call The Big Apple Tap Festival a reunion of the global tap dance family. Many tap dancers, from teenagers to adults, travel across the world to New York City year after year to be immersed in this joyful art form. The students follow a carefully curated program tailored to their level, and with a diverse range of 30 professional tap teachers on faculty, they are given the opportunity to learn a variety of tap dance styles, which makes this festival unique.

Avi Miller and Ofer Ben. Photo by Larry Giasi:American Dance Portraits.

Avi Miller and Ofer Ben. Photo by Larry Giasi:American Dance Portraits.

Devised by Avi Miller, artistic director and Ofer Ben, executive producer, the story behind The Big Apple Tap Festival started with the unlikely journey of these two Israelis who have made tap dancing their lifelong career.

Miller was 12 years old and started tap dancing as a hobby. He was an actor, and his doctor told him he needed to lose weight. Not liking sports, he chose tap dancing. “I didn’t know that this was going to be my profession,” Miller tells Dance Informa. “It’s not that we are choosing this profession; the profession chooses you.”

Ben was introduced to tap dance when he met Miller at age 17. “My family are Orthodox Jews, so tap dance was completely alien to them,” he shares.

With a thriving tap scene in Tel Aviv, they weren’t content with what they had achieved in their homeland as professional tap dancers, and in 1999, Miller and Ben made a big decision to relocate to the USA to learn this American art form straight from the tap masters. This is what inspired them in 2002 to start their first project developing a tap workshop called Tradition in Tap that has now grown into The Big Apple Tap Festival, operating under this name for the last five years.

When explaining his vision for The Big Apple Tap Festival, Miller is focused and forthright. He sees tap dancing within the dance community as an “endangered species”, as it’s not an easy dance style, and it doesn’t have the popularity it once did back in the 1920s and 1930s. Miller sees New York City as the center of tap dance and a place that needs to be “a beacon for tap and influence tap all over the world.” He goes on to say, “my vision in creating The Big Apple Tap Festival was to have the community come together as a family reunion. We are not a competition; we do not compete with each other. It’s a gathering of the family to enjoy tap dancing.” Ben loves seeing people return each year and bring others with them to the festival. “I get to see all the people who sign up to the tap festival, and some of them are such devoted tappers to our festival they come every year! They bring their students, kids and families to see the show.”

Both Miller and Ben understand that it is a commitment for students to return to the festival year after year, and so as the festival continues to grow, they want to ensure that the quality and experience each student receives is not compromised. This year, to accommodate for the growth in registrations, they have added more programs. “We have seven programs in the festival because we found that the teen group is so big and enthusiastic we didn’t want to overcrowd the rooms for them,” Miller explains. “This is something that is very unique to our festival, where we take huge rooms but we do not fill them up. There is a limit of how many we put in a group so every individual in the group can experience the teachers in a more intimate way.”

With great respect for the tap masters who have gone before, Miller and Ben honor tap masters at each festival who have largely contributed to the art form we get to enjoy today. Ben shares that “the festival will be a mix of joy celebrating Dianne ‘Lady Di’ Walker and honoring her, but we also lost in the past few months two of our tap masters whom Avi and I have honored.” The two tap masters are Danny Daniels, a tap dancer, teacher and choreographer of several Broadway shows who received a Tony Award for the musical, The Tap Dance Kid. The other is Bob Audy, a tap teacher and director/choreographer for Broadway, television and movies.

Dianne Walker in class. Photo courtesy of The Big Apple Tap Festival.

Dianne Walker in class. Photo courtesy of The Big Apple Tap Festival.

“Jimmy Tate (from the original cast of The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway) will be teaching for us at the upcoming festival, and his class will be dedicated to Danny Daniels,” says Ben. Audy was a regular teacher at both The Tradition in Tap and The Big Apple Tap Festival. “We honored him at one of The Tradition in Tap festivals about nine years ago, and since then, every year he came back and taught for us,” shares Ben.

Miller adds, “At the last festival, he was teaching with a cane. We went to visit him on his death bed, and the only thing he wanted to speak to us about was this November’s festival, and we said, ‘Of course you are invited to the festival.'” 

Both Miller and Ben are extremely passionate about tap history, the contribution that the tap masters have made to tap dancing and the importance of sharing this with students at the festival. They talk excitedly and passionately about this topic, which Miller holds very close to his heart. “There is some kind of a need in tap to reinvent the wheel every time from scratch, which really irritates me on a very deep professional level,” says Miller. “There are so many gems of history that are available for people to study the original choreography and use it on stage. Why aren’t we doing it more? Ofer and I, whenever we travel the world, we never teach our own material because our own material is not important. For me, it is more important to teach historical material.”

With a focus to educate students, the festival has two sessions dedicated to these topics. The first session, Tap History, will be run by Debbi Dee, who will interview Dianne ‘Lady Di’ Walker and members of the teaching faculty about their connection to the great masters. “Dianne was with Dr. Jimmy Slyde for over 20 years as his partner,” Miller says. “She performed and taught with him all over the world. Before that, she was running Leon Collins’ studio in Boston, Massachusetts. For eight years, she was with him, so she has so much history. Just listening to her talk will you get inspired.” 

The second session is curated by Germaine Salsberg and Miller. “We are going to present a whole hour of historic video clips. You know what, people don’t know anything about our masters, and it’s just amazing!” Miller exclaims. “We need to educate the public about our history.” 

This year at The Big Apple Tap Festival, Walker is being honoured for Outstanding Achievements and Significant Contribution to the Tradition and Art of Tap Dance. Miller explains that they chose to honor her, as she is a “ground-breaking tap dancer with a unique style.” As a professional tap dancer, she became a soloist with the male tap dancers while retaining her femininity. This was unusual for a female tap dancer who typically would be relegated to the female chorus line behind the male dancers. She is a “prominent pillar in the tap community,” Miller describes. “Dianne was on our board from day one in Tradition in Tap.” He goes on to explain the impact Walker has had on Ben and himself. “‘Mentsh’ in Yiddish means ‘a person you can go to when you need consultation, help and advice’. It is somebody with a lot of depth in their thinking. They can advise you, and you highly respect their opinion. Dianne is this person who can always gently give you helpful advice professionally or on a personal level, connected, of course, to tap dancing.”

Another highlight of the festival is the showcase performance where some of the 30 strong professional faculty take to the stage, and students also have the opportunity to perform. Ben explains, “Having the master faculty and the students on the same stage is not about lifting the level, as the level can be amazing among the students as well. It’s to see the professionals, those who are making a living out of tap dance and where [the students] can get to with hard work if they continue their education and the path of tap dancing.” It’s another way that Miller and Ben, through their festival, inspire students in their tap dance journey.

Avi Miller and Ofer Ben in class. Photo courtesy of The Big Apple Tap Festival.

Avi Miller and Ofer Ben in class. Photo courtesy of The Big Apple Tap Festival.

Miller and Ben’s entrepreneurial drive extends beyond the festival. Many tap dancers would be very familiar with their range of custom tap shoes, which are named after themselves: Miller and Ben. Miller explains, “When we started to make the shoes, the main idea other than the fact that we could not afford bringing shoes from abroad was that we wanted to create a musical instrument, so we looked at the choice of material that could make the best sound.”

They now have 10 completely different unique models that cater to the needs of the market. “The dancers can choose their own color combinations, and we advise them about the different styles and leathers,” Ben explains. “Dancers should not be surprised if they get to speak to Avi or myself when they order shoes.”

Not content with just tap shoes, they are expanding their product range to include portable tap floors called tap mats. “We are spending a lot of time in research and development, so once we launch the product, it will be of the highest level, and we will be very proud of what we have created,” says Miller. Made from American wood, the tap mat is designed to be neatly rolled and easily transportable and is due to be launched at the beginning of 2018.

So, with The Big Apple Tap Festival soon approaching, what do Miller and Ben hope the students will take away with them from the three days? “This is an experience,” Miller says. “We would like people to go out with a feeling of being inspired and that they have learned something they can digest. I always tell people that when you come, if you get five percent of the material that was thrown at you, you are a genius. Go home, let it sink in and influence you in your own way, digest it through the year and come back again inspired. We would like everyone to feel that they are ambassadors of tap. We need as many ambassadors lifting, promoting and inspiring, otherwise who is going to do The Big Apple Tap Festival 50, 60 or 100 years from now? We need people who are going to keep the torch going.”

For more information or to register for The Big Apple Tap Festival, taking place November 10-12, visit thebigappletapfestival.com.

By Nicole Saleh of Dance Informa.

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