On Winding Paths
- Despite only occasional glimpses of the mainstream, tap dance remains an iconic American art form.
- With custom-composed pieces employing a staggering range of vocal styles, Roomful of Teeth makes music that can be difficult to define.
- After her father George died, Mira Nakashima inherited his shop and set to work continuing the artistic legacy of a master craftsman in wood.
- Art & Design
Nothing exemplifies American multiculturalism (or multi-tasking) like tap. And for dancers, it’s like nothing else.
Pam Hetherington: It’s like an addiction that never dies. There’s always another thing to try, to practice, like another inspiration that you get, and it just takes hold.
Elizabeth Burke: There’s nothing quite like using your body to make music.
Robert Burden: Every time I walk down the street I gotta tun, tun, tun. You know I got something going on in my head.
Michelle Dorrance: That this instrument is on your feet, and that we are so responsible for every single movement. You can hear the nuance of every single one of those moments, it’s exceptional.
Michelle Dorrance is among the most exceptional contemporary exponents of tap. A 2016 MacArthur Genius Award winner, she’s doing things that have never been tried before with this more than century old art form.
Dorrance: I think of the origins of hip-hop, the origins of breaking specifically, are rooted in tap dance, particularly the Nicholas Brothers. A lot of the footwork and a lot of, like, vernacular movement, if you will. So, like, vernacular jazz which is also rooted in tap dance / existed alongside tap dance, played into house and hip-hop and a lot of these cultures that are club and street forms now. So, I love seeing the way the footwork from this form influenced that form and then cycling it back into tap dance, so that you can see this aesthetic that might feel contemporary, or street, or these things. But, really it’s rooted in this form.”
And the roots of tap, like those of the blues, can be traced back to the plantation.
Dorrance: They’re the first American art forms. You know blues as the — or spirituals into blues — and the early percussive dance and then tap dance. So these are the two trajectories of the original american forms.
And just as the blues was an expression of the deepest human angst, tap connected dancers with that most intuitive of percussion instruments, the human body. Robert Burden is a senior statesman of American tap, having been mentored directly by the 20th century master, LaVaughn Robinson. He says that unlike other dancers, whose only concern is movement, tappers are also musicians.
Burden: So you can’t forget about the basic side, you can’t forget about the showing it off side. But, first thing’s first: it better sound good.
Dorrance: This is the dance of the creation of those sounds, and that’s exciting. Like my mentor Gene Medler, from North Carolina, always says, the form follows the function. And I repeat this constantly, because that’s what’s exciting about tap dance. This is the way the dance looks, because this is how you have to articulate it to hear it this way.
Hetherington: You have to push yourself very hard to become a musician, and to be accountable for timing, for tempo, for sound.
Pam Hetherington, having also learned at the feet of LaVaughn Robinson, is acutely aware that, since it’s beginning, tap has endured as one of America’s few truly cross cultural pursuits.
Hetherington: American tap dance, which is an art form comes from a different blend of many cultures, but mainly African American influences and Irish influences.
Dorrance: So Irish indentured servants, and maybe also some Scots, were the only whites quartered with slaves, period. That’s it, that’s one point of origin. And then you have areas like the Five Points neighborhood here in New York where, you know, Irish were called blacks. You know, you look at that cross cultural thing that was happening in the 1800s and you’re like, ‘oh wow.’
Hetherington: So you see a lot of early tap dance was very up on the toes, that comes directly from Irish step dancing influences.
Dorrance: And then you have syncopated African musical sensibility, and movement, and approach to the floor. You also have groups of people who can’t communicate except through this. So you have that immediate blending of culture, and also communication, based around something that doesn’t involve words. So that’s also powerful.
And just as the blues would morph into mainstream popular music, so, too, would tap become a mainstay of popular entertainment. First in clubs and vaudeville shows, later in the movies.
Yet tap’s organic evolution is continuing away from the spotlight on the streets of cities like Philadelphia.
Hetherington: People would compete at different street corners, and you would compete at these various, I guess, like lesser, second tier street corners. And the corner you wanted to get to, to compete was Broad and South Street. And if you got to Broad and South Street, and you won, you were the best hoofer in the city.
And the competitive spirit of these street corners would also define how tap was passed down.
Robert Burden: You had to have the eye and the ear at the same time (snapping), and pick it up quick, and then have the ability to change it a little bit. So if somebody said ‘you stole my step,’ you’d be like, ‘no, your step was like this, this is how I did it.’ That little nuance changed everything.
And even in more formal settings, like the classroom of the late, great LaVaughn Robinson, you had to stay on your toes to pick it up.
Hetherington: He never got up to the front of the room and was like, ‘this is how you do a shuffle.’ He just did it. He was like ‘that’s the sound, that’s what you’re trying to achieve.’
Burden: So he would go, (tapping sound effects and snapping), that would be us. So it was like a call and response.
Hetherington: You know, if you were able to grab that while you were there, good for you, but if you missed it…hope you were listening (laughing).
Throughout its history, tap has been pronounced dead or dying on many occasions. But every generation seems to find a new way to connect with it. Whether it’s Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1960s, Gregory Hines, who would become a bona fide international star in the 1980s, or Stomp, the 1990s Broadway phenomena that featured a young Michelle Dorrance. And now in her mid 30s, she’s at an age when dancers from other genres are facing retirement. But for Dorrance, like for many tap dancers, her best days may well lie ahead.
Dorrance: We die with our shoes on, man. So, you know, people are still tap dancing into their 90s. Yes, your approach will change and shift, and there will be things that I ask someone to do that I won’t necessarily do, or maybe I won’t even want to do them anymore soon, five, ten, how ever many years. But I’ll learn that as it comes.
We’ve never heard music like this before. Perhaps because there’s never really been music like this before, nor a group like Roomful of Teeth, which almost defies definition.
Estelí Gomez: It’s this band, it’s this vocal ensemble, octet.
It’s actually an eight member vocal ensemble, founded in 2009 by conductor, singer, and composer, Brad Wells. Every year since then, they’ve met here at MASS MoCA, in the small town of North Adams, Massachusetts, to learn new vocal techniques. and to collaborate with composers. This is a room full of talented musicians, but what is a Roomful of Teeth?
Brad Wells: I was looking for a less sort of highbrow term for chamber music, ’cause we’re vocal chamber music. So I’m thinking chamber, room, vocal, mouth, teeth. I like how relatively permanent teeth are, right up against this breath and voice that disappears as soon as we say or sing.
AJC: You wanted to put together a small group of very talented musicians, to do what?
Wells: To explore what the voice could do in an unapologetic way. The definition of musical sounds for the voice is a very generous one.
Virginia Warnken Kelsey: Within one Roomful of Teeth concert, I will have to sing in my operatic voice, I will have to sing a shredding rock goddess solo. I will have to sing very, very straight tone, high, ethereal. I will have to Tuvan throat sing.
Yes, Tuvan throat singing. It’s just one of the exotic vocal techniques the group has studied with experts brought in from around the world. At the feet of these masters, the group can ask questions that go beyond the practical aspects of creating sounds.
Wells: How does their craft work for them in their culture, in their bodies, in their traditions? And humbly learn what we can, not trying to be Tuvan throat singers, but trying to see how it feels to sing alongside of them. How does your voice shift if you’re trying to approximate what they do, with the hints they give you? What can you do? What’s possible?
Dashon Burton: Trying to see what it is in our own bodies and our own training that can make those beautifully expressive sounds, maybe not well enough to be at the highest levels of each of those individual worlds, but we want to see what that sounds like in our voice, what that journey is like towards that in our own individual bodies and how that can serve the beauty of the music that has been written for us.
The most successful composition written for Room Full of Teeth came from one of its own members. In 2013, Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices” made her the youngest ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The piece, which was also on the group’s Grammy winning debut CD, had its genesis in a typical Room Full of Teeth vocal experiment.
Caroline Shaw: I said okay, can everyone sing this chord (singing), that’s a third of the chord and then go from vocal fry which is (throaty sound), so like we’d go from this group of vocal fry to (singing from the diaphragm), just to see if that would work. And then, from there, found this chord progression that I really identified with and kind of used that to shape it. It came from this place, and these people, and the particular character of those weeks, the conversations that we were having. And even if it didn’t become directly a part of the piece, was a real catalyst for my own thinking, so…
And rather than being an anomaly, the intimate nature of this process is typical for Roomful of Teeth.
Dashon Burton: We’re very lucky to have composers who are writing for us and saying, ‘no I’m interested in that sound specifically in your voice.’
While most classical ensembles have fluid memberships, Roomful of Teeth has, since its inception, been comprised of the same eight singers.
Cameron Beauchamp: We’ve all dedicated ourselves so much to being a band and a family.
AJC: I like that you used the phrase band, ’cause that’s what it really feel like.
Beauchamp: That’s how we feel about ourselves, yeah. We definitely feel like a band, we have our music that’s written for our voices.
Estelí Gomez: It doesn’t say ‘for some soprano,’ it says ‘Estelí’ on the score. And we have this chance to have a say in what works and what doesn’t. That doesn’t happen very often.
Outside of rock, there are few groups whose repertoire is so constantly changing. So, from the get go, flexibility, in voice, and in personality, was a prerequisite for membership, says founder Brad Wells.
Wells: Could I imagine them going from an expert to a beginner and being okay with being a beginner for some length of time?
Virginia Warken Kelsey: We trust each other, I think, more so than you would in another ensemble where you’re coming together as badasses, and ‘we got this.’ It’s different than that. There’s an immediate vulnerability in every year coming together and having to start over from scratch.
Gomez: We come into it, and we say I am open, I am ready to throw my mind and heart and body into this.
The result of this artistic exploration is music that’s constantly surprising to both audiences and artists.
Beauchamp: I’ve never wanted to put myself in a box as far as a musician. I’ve never thought of myself as a classical musician or a jazz musician. I just, I’m always interested in what speaks.
Burton: We’re living in a great time of artistic exploration, one where all you know can be sort of mixed together in the pursuit of artistic beauty.
And the pursuit of artistic beauty is what drives Roomful of Teeth to find the extremes of what is possible in that most organic of instruments, the human voice.
(Voice of George Nakashima):
I feel that there’s a spirit in trees that’s very deep.
I find the spirit just bouncing up and down in the vein of a tree.
John Yarnall: George, he really wanted to be a tree in motion. If you think a tree just grows, well… look what it has to deal with. It’s just sitting there getting pummeled by air, wind, and drought. It’s just tough. It has to be disciplined to survive. This is the human condition, too.
George Nakashima’s route to becoming a legendary 20th-century fine art furniture maker was a circuitous one. The Washington state native graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from MIT, just as the Great Depression hit.
So he headed off around the world. Along the way, he spent time in France, India, and Japan. On his return to the U.S., he set up a workshop in Seattle and was just settling down with his wife and infant daughter, Mira, when his life was upended.
Mira Nakashima: I have a toy box that my dad made for me. And I believe I had that in the camp.
In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Government began rounding up all U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and incarcerating them.
Mira Nakashima: We were all sent to camps on the Idaho desert. It was a very difficult movement. I was six weeks old. In the camps, the buildings themselves were not ready so when we got there, a lot of the incarcerees were actually the ones building the buildings. And Dad was teamed up with this Japanese carpenter named Kentaro Hikogawa and they were given the task of trying to make our barracks more liveable. The materials were what they could find on the properties. Nowadays, it’s trendy to use found materials in your art but that’s all we had, was found materials back then. And so, I think that was the beginning of Dad’s capability of using found materials.
Post-internment, the family located to New Hope, Pennsylvania. There, they began to rebuild their lives. And while many Japanese felt it wiser to willfully disavow their heritage, not so for George Nakashima.
Mira Nakashima: There is a social norm in Japanese culture. It’s called gaman. And you just sort of put up with whatever is given you, no matter what. And there’s also an attitude called shikata ga nai—which you can’t do anything about it anyway so let it go. He said there were wounds, but they healed over and left no scars. Now, I think that’s a cop-out. But my father did kind of overcome it, and his way of overcoming it was through his work. If you work with your hands, and are able to create something beautiful with your heart, it eases the pain. It transforms the pain.
Little by little, what started out as a single workshop grew into a sprawling artistic refuge, each building designed and built by George himself.
Jerry Everett: A lot of the buildings were experimental, and my understanding is a lot of the people told him that they wouldn’t work. That you can’t do that. And he insisted they would and proved it. I worked with George for a little over 20 years. I was 17 when I first started. By that time, he wasn’t the legend he’s built up to now, but you could kind of see it coming.
John Yarnall: The pieces themselves, the way George conceived them, they’re obviously very substantial and very much at rest, but there’s a certain dynamism that is in the tree and in the design where they seem like they’re almost caught in motion. And that, too, is a little confounding because you think it’s just a table, but it looks like it’s alive.
Among George Nakashima’s revolutionary designs, the Conoid chair which, like many of his buildings, seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Mira Nakashima: When it came out in the 1960s, there were people who said, “Well, you gotta take that off the market. It’s dangerous! Everybody will sit on it and break it, and you’ll be sued up and down. What do you think you’re doing? You’re making a two-legged wooden chair.” And Dad knew his structural engineering.
But it wasn’t just about good engineering for George Nakashima.
John Yarnall: Most woodworkers would consider wood just a dead material to do their will, whatever their ego decided. Whereas George, he was standing back and letting the wood come forth with its story.
Kevin Nakashima: Each piece of wood has a purpose, and whether it finds it or not is up to us.
Jerry Everett: George was 65 when I started. Everybody in the shop had—more than a feeling—it was more of a certainty that, when George passed away, we were done. I remember standing at the edge of George’s grave. I was standing next to Mira, and she took me by the hand and said, “Can we do this?” And I said, “Yes we can.” And she went ahead and she did it.
George Nakashima’s legacy continues in a handful of dedicated craftsmen who continue to make furniture in his workshop—most especially in his daughter, Mira.
Mira Nakashima: Dad always said the wood has a story to tell. When I’m drawing a piece of wood, I like to go and stand in front of the piece of wood itself because it speaks to me. It’s almost like a meditation on that board, which guides the pencil and the design itself.
Jerry Everett: Everything on the property has George’s fingerprints all over it.
Mira Nakashima: He’s in the wood that he bought. He’s in the buildings that he built. He’s in the shop where he worked for so many years. Working in his studio, sometimes I feel like he’s still there so I often feel like he’s watching over my shoulder. I better do it right!