How did you start dancing?
I was three and a half years old. My parents were immigrants. They came from Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually landed in Alexandria, VA. I am an only child. So they thought it would be a good idea for me to do something with other kids. And the dance school was right by the house. That’s how it started.
How did you grow up as a dancer from there?
When I was nine, I saw the movie Tap, starring Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, and a ton of the older guys. There’s a very particular scene in that movie called the challenge scene in which all the old guys dance back to back. They’re basically showing Gregory that they still have legs and still can dance. That was the first time that I had seen tap dancing as a form of individual self-expression. Every one of them was different, and their dancing was very much a part of their personality. And I was hooked. That was the moment.
Did you take tap when you first started?
Yeah. When I was three and a half, it was tap, jazz, and ballet, which is like—ballet is kind of creative movement at that age. It wasn’t jazz. It was gymnastics. Gymnastics was rolling around the floor. Tap dancing was making noise.
And at nine, it got a little more serious from there?
Yeah, I mean, I went through dance school and got progressively more intense. I wanted to do it well if I was going to do it. That went for all the dancing I was doing. When I was nine, seeing the movie became like a personal life goal to become a tap dancer.
That’s awesome. That’s at a very young age.
So you had this goal. What did you do to achieve that?
So the kind of dancing that I saw on the movie, I learned, was called rhythm tap. That was the term for it at the time. My parents and I started looking through the newspaper for anything that had to do with rhythm tap. We knew that what I was learning in my dance school was not what was happening in the movie. There was a marked difference.
I found an audition for a youth ensemble. I went out for it and got in. And then a couple of months later, the artistic director of the youth ensemble showed me a flyer that said Gregory Hines and Savion Glover were teaching in New York City. After I had seen the movie, I set a life goal of meeting Gregory Hines. That was all I wanted to do. I figured it’d take me about 30 years to achieve it—because I would have to have a career, get to a certain level of stature to get to meet the guy. And once I met him, I had this dream of me being able to recount the past 30 years back to watching the movie. And hopefully he would’ve gotten a kick out of it. But that dream never happened. I ended up meeting him about a year after I saw the film. It was because the artistic director gave me this flyer that said Gregory was teaching in New York. I snatched the flyer up. I ran to my parents and said, “Can we do this?” They kinda looked at each other and said, “Yeah. I think we can.” So we hopped in the car and drove up to the city.
So your parents were very supportive of you.
Yeah. From the beginning, they always wanted me to do something that I loved. Being a tap dancer is not an easy pursuit--sometimes harder than others. But when the going got tough, my parents would always ask me, “Do you still enjoy it? Do you still enjoy what it is that you are doing?” And if the answer was yes, they would continue to encourage me.
This is me speaking from my Korean cultural background. Pursuing fine arts as a hobby is okay. But once you start thinking about pursuing arts as a career, most parents will say that you should have a practical career. Is that a thing with Lebanese culture?
Culturally speaking, in Lebanon, from my understanding—because I’ve never actually been back to the country— the cultural stereotype is that it’s really nice that you enjoy being an artist, but culturally, you’re not really respected until you’re famous. Until you’re already respected. I mean, it took years for my parents’ parents—my dad’s parents specifically—to acknowledge the fact that this could be a professional pursuit. But they came around, which is nice to see. Super cool.
So you finally met Gregory Hines—What happened there?
Met Gregory Hines. Met Savion Glover on the same day. About six months later, Savion came down to DC for a series of residencies. I ended up being in those residencies. From those residencies, he started a group called Real Tap Skillz. Just five guys including himself. Myself and three other cats—Baakari Wilder, Vincent Bingham, and Joe Webb. All from the metro DC area. So it was really quick for me to go from watching the movie to accomplishing this life goal to being kind of inside the deepest ring of the tap dance family. And through Gregory and Savion over the course of the next 10-15 years, I met the old guys. Many of them who were in the film. It was those relationships that really began to teach me what it was to be a tap dancer. Old guys—and old women too, but those guys in our profession have such unique experience being dancers in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. It’s definitely not the same anymore. To be able to have heartfelt interactions with them and learn about what the craft was when they were doing it still marks as one of the special experiences in my life. Because that’s where the secrets are. Imagine if as a painter, you got to hang out with like Picasso and Monet. Before the painting industry changed.
So when you were 10-11 years old, you got to be with these superstars of tap. That must’ve been amazing. I am not very familiar with the history of tap dance / what it is now--Could you talk about that a little?
I guess over the past, say, 100+ years—there’s more than a hundred years of history for the craftwork itself. And that’s if you mark it from American tap dancing. There are multiple expressions of this percussive dance. It jumped from just a cultural form where people are hitting the floor with their feet to a theatrical form very, very early on. It moved from the solo improvisational expression to corporate ensemble expressions in the chorus lines of early American theatre. I think, by making that jump so soon, the breadth of the work has specialized in every one of these areas and has differentiated in those areas.
You have strains of highly improvisational, live music collaborative tap dancing. You have strains of musical theatre novelty—very, very interested in unison dancing, highly presentational dancers in theatre. And then you have even more unison, picturesque dancing, if you’re talking just about the chorus lines. The Rockettes being the epitome of that idea. So it has cycled in terms of what’s been most popular.
I think the improvisational form, the solo expression in improvisation, was or has been the least noticed in terms of wide popular culture, but has had some key individuals like Gregory Hines—that was his thing. Savion Glover, that’s his thing. A lot of the people in my generation, that’s our thing. And that strain seems to be closest to the cultural root of the craft. It’s like, “Why would somebody hit the floor with their feet in the first place?” But it also lives in the world of theatrical, presentational, jazz club, some sort of professional setting.
For me, I am interested in different ways that the craftwork gets reconciled in the presentation of it. “How many different ways can we do this? Where are the edges for me, as an artist, before it starts turning into something else, before the fruit drops from its tree?” That’s legit too. You came from this tree, and you got the fruit, and then you dropped and then you’re the new seed with the new tree. That’s cool. That’s just not my interest. I tend to be the guy that’s “You know where this came from? This came from all the way from here. And how do we keep that through line so we never forget where we came from?”
Where do you think tap dancing is heading towards?
I think it’s heading everywhere. It’s a really exciting time because I came up in the 90’s. There’s an entire generation of tap dancers who are highly affected by not only the movie Tap specifically, but Gregory’s work and Savion’s work. We all had our own experiences often times intersecting with a project that Savion was doing. Now, most of us are not working with him, and the projects that we’ve started are coming to some sort of maturity. So you see a ton of new voices. The diversity is exciting. It’s really, really nice to see. Whether it’s Jason Samuels Smith, or Michelle Dorrance or Nicholas Young or Jared Grimes, there are a ton of dancers that it’s just exciting to see. I mean, when I was coming up in the 90’s, the word was: “If you want to work, you’re going to have to make your own work because nobody is going to hire you.” Now, the work is happening because a lot of people have been making their work. Hopefully—my hope is that means there’s more points of inspiration for other dancers to say, “This doesn’t get me, but that does.” And they’re still talking about tap dancing.
From conversations I’ve had with people, the phrase “Tap is a dying art” comes up a lot. What’s your opinion on that sentiment?
It’s not dying. It never was dead. The perspective is how much has tap form been visible in popular media. Not even popular culture. Just popular media. If you measure an art form by that, there are a lot of things that are dying. Tap dance’s prime exposure was at a time you didn’t have YouTube, you didn’t have television—or television was just starting. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a place where the imaginary idea of what the 1920’s were like would happen again for tap dancers. But, I mean, if we track back to like the 1970’s where you said tap dancing and people were like, “No,” we’re in a place where there’s tons more available. There’s tons more opportunity. If it was dying in the 70’s, it’s definitely not now. It’s just a perspective issue. I can walk somebody into a tap dance event that has hundreds of people. And the energy in that space would be something that—unless you’ve been around percussive dance—you would have never felt before.
But as with anything, there are always pockets of interest. From those pockets, you normally get some expression that lands in mass media and that permeates the culture, and everybody’s like, “Oh, that’s super cool to see! Let’s go do that!” But you’re like, “But it’s been going on for how many years now?” And when that expression in media ceases, everybody is going to say that it’s done. But it’s not. It just forms another expression somewhere else or has to go somewhere else to be expressed. The challenging thing with tap dancing is that it is considered like a professional form and it is not a social dance. But same thing happened in Lindy Hop. Swing Dancing. Social dance in the 1920’s. It got super popular in the 90’s with a Gap ad. You could say, “I haven’t seen that in a while, and we thought that was gone and done for.” But there are pockets around the globe that people go and do that and that’s their thing. It’s the same with tap dancing.
I think it’s the same thing with painting where it’s not necessarily visible in the mass media, but it is very much an existing art form.
I think the only difference for us is we don’t have the spaces dedicated like the fine arts world does. To insure that there is an infrastructure that mandates tap dancers. You have the entire Chelsea Gallery system and museum world where you got a track. You want to become a tap dancer; there’s no predefined line, which is amazing and amazingly terrifying. It’s amazing because now you have all the options. It’s amazingly terrifying, because you have to make a choice. That’s where practice of being a tap dancer is helpful, especially if you’re an improviser. You learn that if you keep moving, you have a better chance of making the right choice than if you’re stopping.
That’s very true. I think tap dancing could become like a cappella music, where in its early days it wasn’t a form of popular music, but now with Pentatonix, it has gotten huge.
Sure. We don’t know how and we don’t know with who, but I think we’re closer to that happening than anytime prior. Especially since 1989.
What is it like to be a tap dancer?
I came up wanting to become a tap dancer. What I’ve learned over the course of my years is that, at least for me, what I’ve learned from tap dancing has been more beneficial than whatever the idea of becoming a tap dancer was going to be. The value of intergenerational relationships. The amount of time and dedication that I’ve found I’d be willing to put into something that I care for. And what it takes to actually sit with something and learn it and have it become a part of who you are.
For me, the art is more valuable as it applies to my life than vice-versa. I think that’s something artists might lose—it’s easy to lose sight of in a world that’s like, “You have to work, and you have to get work, and you’re going to have to use your art to do that.” But there are things that we’re learning and sensitivities that we have as artists that are special. There is purpose for all of us. Those things have been good.
What are some of your projects to grow the next generation of tap dancers?
So there are two projects that I have that are specifically geared towards that. One is called Tap Into Freedom. It’s a tap dance educational platform. We run online coaching sessions and one week intensive in New York. The idea being: there are tap festivals that go on around the globe, but after those events, people go back to their hometowns, and training in their hometown is not up to the level they’re at now. So trying to fill in that gap and allowing them to have space to come and get continuing training and continuing help as they self-direct. It’s their learning and their journey, but you want to be able to pick up the phone and ask somebody who has more experience about what they think and how did they get around this particular obstacle that they’re being challenged with. This is the place they can go. The one week intensive provides a kind of foundational tool kit for that kind of learning in regards to tap dancing specifically.
The other project is my tap dance company, Cats Paying Dues. We just celebrated 10 years. Founded in 2005. That’s really been a place for me to learn about my own artistic voice, but also bring together a group of dancers that would be interested in exploring that journey alongside me. So all the creation happens in the room with the dancers. They’re a part of experiencing that process and seeing where all the choices are made and how the choices are made. That was a part of my growing up. I was in a company that Savion ran later from 2001 to 2003 called TiDii. And for me, experiential learning is really, really important. So for dancers, it’s not only about class and getting the technique that you need. If you want to work with someone and you want to learn about somebody’s process, literally work with them and see how they make their choices and why they make their choices. Even if they’re not explaining it to you, you’re in the room while it’s going on. You can infer by what’s going on how things are being managed. Even inside the craft. It’s not like the business stuff, but like “Why did he decide to put that step in there?” Those two things are really the places where I am happy to pour into the generation of dancers.
I read that you studied computers in college.
Computer animation. Yeah. Two blocks down from here. My parents, being mindful of the fact that their son wanted to become a tap dancer, we had a conversation. They said, “We think you should go to college. That would be a good thing.” I was like, “Yeah, that would be a good thing.” Sure, it made sense. Once we started talking about what I wanted to study, the question was: “Well, what do you enjoy other than tap dancing?” The two things that were on the list at the time were automobile design and computer animation. We started looking at schools and the best school for automobile design was in the west coast. I didn’t know if I wanted to move away from New York. New York is like a hot bed for tap dancing. West coast is an odd scene for me. Been over there a couple times. Just didn’t sit well. So we started looking at computer animation schools, and School of Visual Arts came up. And they were the only school that let me sit in on the junior and senior level computer classes early on. That was a dealmaker. I went to a science and tech high school, and I was already working on graphics and 3D animations in high school in 1996. I was probably one of the few kids who had a VHS reel when I went to college. I had the drawing pad, had a portfolio, and a little reel. And they were like, “We haven’t seen a lot of this yet.” So that was pretty big deal for me.
But your goal was always to be a tap dancer.
Oh, yeah. It’s interesting. I never thought of it priority wise or primarily as a career. It’s always been the thing that I enjoy. So how do you pursue that, what does it mean to do that, and then the next question is how do you make your money? My concern as I’ve grown as an artist has been: I am going to have to sacrifice my own choice somewhere. So what am I comfortable sacrificing? Do I sacrifice my choice if I am going to be a tap dancer and make money that way, or do something else, make money, and then just tap dance when I want to? I’ve been very, very blessed with supportive parents and a really broad skill set. I’ve never felt that I had to make money as a tap dancer. Even though that’s kind of what I am doing [laughs]. The pressure just isn’t there to say, “If this doesn’t work, I am shot.” If this doesn’t work, go to the Apple store and get a gig. Go up the ranks that way. Or graphic design. There’s always something else that I feel I am able to flip my skill set into and apply it in a different space. The pressure was in doing good work. I’d be harder on myself for doing good work or being a person of integrity while I work than not having a paycheck.
That’s something I struggle with as a photographer in the city. You have to pay your rent.
I think that’s one of the reasons why the city is hard. If you solve that question really early, then the tension in the choice-making isn’t there. It has taken me a really long time to solve that question.
What happened when you graduated from school?
Before I graduated, Savion gave me a call. I hadn’t been in touch with him for a number of years. After my time with him in DC, we moved up here, he ended up doing Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. While that show was going on, I really just wasn’t in touch with him. The show lasted a while. The lack of contact lasted a little longer. But in the winter of my senior year in December, he gives me a call:
Savion: “So what are you up to?”
Savion: “You want to do this gig in January?”
Because for the past five years, all I wanted to do was dance with him again. He was like, “Alright, cool.” “Okay.” “I’ll call you back for when we have rehearsals.” “Okay.” And that was kind of it. We had this gig in January, and next thing you know, he’s putting a company together, and we’re on the road for three years.
Yeah. By the time I was out of school, Broadway Dance Center, one of the number one dance education institutions in the city, called me to teach. They sent me an email, “We have a slot opening. You want to come in and teach tap?”
For me, it really boils down to this idea that I don’t know how any of this happens. You do the thing that you’re called to do and then everything else happens around you to put you where you need to be. As long as you are listening, it’s not that tenuous of a space.
And keeping the integrity of your work, right?
Keeping the integrity of your person. And then the work comes next. It’s kind of like, if I was a farmer, then the integrity of my fruit is like quality control. I can’t maintain the integrity of the land necessarily. I have to manage that. My word as a person is more powerful than my fruit; it’s reflective of it. There’s a relationship there, but I don’t think it’s one and not the other. It’s one before the other.
What’s the toughest time you’ve had as an artist?
There are two that come to mind. One is when I was 16 years old. I’d been around Savion, being taught by him, mentored by him for about six years. And then without necessarily any kind of communication, there’s no communication. For me, my dancing always had revolved around relationships with the people I danced with. I am an only child, and there’s this idea that I was able to find a community of likeminded people who enjoyed this craft by doing this craft. And by doing this craft well, I was able to be around the respected members of this community. So being separated by the one person that I wanted to dance with was really, really, really hard. It was a combination of feelings: I lost my friend; life goal is shot; Will I have another chance? Did I do something wrong? I went through five years of those questions. If it weren’t for my faith in this idea that I think I am supposed to be doing this and the support of my parents who also had this thing “I think you’re suppose to be doing this thing too.’ There were many a day I thought, “I am done [dusting off his hands].” So that was a really tough time. Interesting enough, I went through this period of learning how to self-express during that time. Anger is a very easy, but very powerful emotion. So I was like, dance it out. I went from being a very good technical dancer to being a very expressive dancer over those five years. Because I was away from the guy who was excessively influential on me. That was one.
The other was during the economic downturn in 2008. I had my company for three years by that time and we had just been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, created a brand new show, signed an exclusive contract with an agent. I was like, “Alright, this is going to be the year, we’re going to get on the road, this is going to happen.” And then boom, the bottom fell out of the market. And instead of getting 20-25 bookings, just for the company, we got like three. It was like saying this is what your work is valued at but not right now. That’s really hard. As an artist, particularly as an artist that has to deal with motion, I think I tend to be highly impatient. It’s like, we go now. I am dancing, so we dance now. And life, I’ve come to realize, operates in a different time scale. Like, “No, we don’t need you to dance right now. You’re going to be in this holding cycle. Then, We need to you to dance a lot right now for these people. Now is the time they need to hear you.” Those are the times that were really, really hard. Being in a crisis scenario when you have people who are relying on you to lead is also a really interesting space and learning experience. You have to be clear and open and tell people what’s going on without expressing every concern. There are some people I was around during that time who still don’t know the depth of everything that happened.
What was the happiest moment?
I think this is the most unfair question [laughs].
The way I measure achievements are impact-based. So, for me, we were at the Joyce for Savion’s company. Opening of the second act of the show is a trio—myself, Savion, and one other dancer. And the format of the trio is that we all dance together and then each dancer takes the solo. And the order of the solo was Savion first, I went second, and third dancer went last. His name was Marshall Davis. Great dancer. About a week into the run, we finish the opening of the song, and we all turn around, walk back upstage, and then I am suppose to turn around and start my solo, and all I feel is this hand in my back. And next thing I know, Savion is six feet downstage starting my solo, which means that now I have to do his. This is live performance. I am trying to remember what his solo was. That for me was somebody saying, “I trust you enough that I am willing to play with you.” In front of other people who I don’t know when my integrity is on the line for the integrity of the show. So that was huge. I think the same way when I run my intensives in the summer, just as somebody paid money to come and study with me is huge. And then to get feedback at the end of the week about how much impact that learning experience had on somebody’s perspective or what they’re expected to do with what they’ve learned. Those moments fuel me. Happy moments. A ton of them like that.
Any advice for dancers?
Take care of yourselves. Rest. Sleep. Eat. Drink water. We train ourselves to be able to take on a lot and to bear a physical burden that may or may not be normal depending on who you talk to. Just to remember that we are still human.
Anything you want to share with the world?
Be kind to one another. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be for any other reason than it’s just a good thing to do be kind to one another. More often you hear in dance world, “Don’t make enemies because the dance world is small.” I think that just fuels this idea of transactional relationships. “I’ll be nice to you because I never know when you’re going to call me for a gig.” It’s like, “No, I’ll be nice to you because I want to be nice to you, and it’s a good thing for me to be nice to you regardless of whether you are nice to me or not.” That would be one thing.