BWW Interviews: Cartier Williams
Cartier Williams is a hoofer, choreographer, filmmaker and performer hailing from Washington, D.C. He began his tap dancing career at the age of four and has been active in the tap dance community ever since. Cartier is currently working on a project that will bring the joy of tap dance back into the lives of people across the world. He is the co-founder and artistic director of The Williams Davis Foundation for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing the joy of performing arts into the lives of people worldwide. Throughout his career, Cartier has had the opportunity to dance with a multitude of tap pioneers and masters, including Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, Peg Leg Bates, and the Nicholas Brothers. He has taught at Broadway Dance Center and American Tap Dance Foundation in NYC along with many other cities across the country and the world!
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to interview Mr. Williams.
Q. You've been described as a hoofer, choreographer, filmmaker and performer. Which one suits you best?
A. Choreographer would suit me best. As a choreographer you get the opportunity to see your vision come alive for a totally unknown audience. It allows you to tell a story, and that's what it's all about to me. It's the reason people go the theater, to see these stories performed on stage and to feel a part of them. I want people to flood to the theater to see the stories I want to tell. The feeling is very intense and excites me on so many levels.
Q. When did you first begin your interest in dance?
A. When I was four years old my grandmother began teaching me the basics of tap dancing. She had won numerous "Competition Night" prizes at the famous Howard Theater in Washington D.C.
Learning tap from my grandmother inspired me to attend a summer dance camp that offered classes in various styles, including tap, modern dance, ballet, and African dance. But my interest was focused on tap. On my first day they put me in the beginner's class. The next day I was moved to the intermediate levels classes with the adults. I never took the shoes off after that.
Q. Who did you study with? Any role models?
A. I've been blessed to have studied with the legends of tap, and those opportunities have shaped me into the dancer I am today. It's been a privilege to study with Gregory Hines, Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover, Buster Brown, and Mary Day.
For role models, I've always looked up to Valsav Nijinsky, Wes Craven and Harvey Weinstein. I fell in love with cinema at age six when I saw the horror movie "Scream," which was produced by Harvey Weinstein and directed by Wes Craven. Most of the films I watched over the next few years that became favorites were all produced by Harvey Weinstein or directed by Wes Craven. I'm inspired by their successful filmography, and aspire to have the same kind of track record. Whether it's in dance or film, I want to deliver greatness every time, just like Weinstein and Craven. Their visions, stories, and ideas have shaped me as a director and choreographer.
I find Vaslav Nijinsky an inspiring role model because of his bold choices as an artist and choreographer. He exemplifies dance as an art form. As I continue to grow as a choreographer, I want to challenge the audience with risks and adventurous choreography, just as Nijinsky did for younger generations of choreographers with his forward thinking and risk taking.
Q. You began performing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, when you were six. Can you describe the experience?
A. It was amazing; I remember it like it was yesterday. I was only six and some of the biggest hip-hop legends performed right before me. Talk about nerve racking! It set a high standard for me to match with my own performance; it was definitely one of the toughest audiences I've ever performed for. And don't forget, I followed Notorious B.I.G and Lil Kim. So I had a standard to maintain.
I was in a daze for the first few minutes on stage. I remember Steve Harvey was the host at that time and he thought my red tuxedo was "sharp." We had a funny conversation with him making jokes about my DC accent.
I was recently invited back to the Apollo to attend Maurice Hines's show, "Apollo Club Harlem." The show was phenomenal; Hines grew up on that stage, so it was a treat for me to see a legend performing at the same venue that started it all for me.
Q. What was it about tap that appealed to you?
A. I loved creating to my own rhythmical beats without a machine or from something man made. It was all me, that's organic.
That organic beat is what differentiates tap dancing from any other dance form. Tap dancing speaks for itself, musically and visually, in a way that no other form can.
Q. What do you think sets you apart from other renowned tap dancers?
A. I am a director and a choreographer--there are not many who can incorporate tap. I also choreograph other styles, including ballet, modern, hip-hop, and body percussion. My love for cinema is in my work all the time, it's my trademark.
I'm inspired by dancers before me that worked with film to bring tap into cinema. For instance, Bill Robinson choreographed for Shirley Temple's movies and Gregory Hines choreographed the tap choreography in the Broadway show "Jelly's Last Jam" and the movie "Bojangles". Many people don't know that legends like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers choreographed their own tap numbers in the movies.
Q. How did you get into film making?
A. I was 10 years old and touring with tap legends Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde, and Dianne Walker. I was in Santa Monica and Dule Hill purchased my first portable DVD player for me. After that, I would buy movies at Virgin Records or Tower Records in any city that I toured. I saw a lot of good and bad movies, and by the end of our tour I had over 700 DVDs. I went to film school when I was 18 in Miami, Florida for a year, and then came to New York to go to The New York Film Academy, where I learned how to become an independent filmmaker.
Moving forward with my film career, I aspire to be like Louie B Mayer and bring more movie musicals to the industry. I'd like to make movie musicals that are more hip for the kids of today. I want them to be daring, realistic and bring tap dancing back to the forefront of dance cinema.
Q. Are there any aspects of film that you incorporate into your dancing?
A. Yes, I do it naturally all the time. Most of my choreography has three acts, like any film or story. But I also like twist endings, and I love horror and stage blood! It's theater--it's supposed to be dramatic.
I often find that I incorporate dance into my films seamlessly. The dance ultimately tells a story. It's important to have that story to help relate dance to a film audience. Dance adds a pop and a stand out factor, but it's the stories behind them that keep an audience coming back for more.
Q. You're the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Williams Davis Foundation. Can you explain what the Foundation does?
A. We are a non-profit organization committed to bringing back the art of tap dance into the lives of people across the world through performances and educational workshops. Our ultimate mission is the preservation of the dance art form.
The educational workshops we provide encompass a variety of things. They can range from a lecture on counting, a tap class on musicality, or an informational class on the history of tap dance and legends in the dance form. In the future, we plan to ultimately be able to give out scholarships for the program.
Q. Are you ever a judge at a tap competition? What would make one dancer stand out?
A. Yes, I sometimes judge tap competitions. A dancer that's vulnerable to the audience while maintaining confidence always catches my eye.
I like to see intention and motivation behind every move; there is real beauty to a dancer who has that ability. I think that can be even more important than technique; I connect with dancers who feel the movement from the inside out. I find a technical dancer who just performs the choreography as they were taught without adding any of their own personal style or groove less interesting than a dancer who may not be as well trained, but makes the dance their own.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Right now I am in production for my upcoming shows on November 21-23 at The Egg Performing Arts Center in Albany, New York. I'll be presenting two shows: "Rhythm Refix," a coming to age story of a dancer told through tap, and a new urban adaptation of Prokofiev's "Peter and The Wolf," told through hip-hop, ballet, modern, body percussion and tap.
The idea for "Peter and The Wolf" came about three years ago, and I've been lucky enough to work with amazing talent to bring the show to reality. I am collaborating with T.E McMorrorw, who's writing a new children's book for Harper Collins and is a journalist for the East Hampton Star, and music producer Randy Acker. I wanted to make sure the show related to kids today, so I wanted to make it cool. Having Acker on board has definitely helped achieve my goal; adding hip hop to the mix changed the whole dynamic of the show.
My other show, "Rhythm Refix," came to light in 2011 at Joe's Pub. It was originally a variety show that featured rapper and singer Chew Fu with four tap dancers, including myself. Over time, my choreographer skills have grown, and thus the choreography has evolved and I've added a narrative to the show. I premiered "Rhythm Refix" in Zurich, Switzerland at the Zurich Tap Festival in the spring with all the new material and no Chew Fu. I let the dancing tell the story, but I did get on the mic for a rap or two. This summer I performed the show again in Flint, Michigan at The Flint Local and in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Q. Where do you see tap dancing going?
A. I see tap dancing making a return to popular culture in a big way. I see movies, Broadway shows and many productions across the world, all featuring tap dance. I see tap dancers creating beats for hip hop artists and dancing in music videos.