BWW Interviews: Tony Waag
A conversation with Tony Waag, Executive/Artistic Director of the American Tap Dance Foundation, in anticipation of their upcoming "Rhythm in Motion" contemporary tap dance showcase in New York City, April 22 through April 26. "Rhythm in Motion" presents forward thinking, groundbreaking tap dance choreography, "shaking tap dance to its core." Last year's "Rhythm in Motion" included tap dance with video, computers, sound manipulating machines and electronically rigged platforms.
Where are you from and when did you first become interested in dance?
I was born and raised in Fort Collins, Colorado. My earliest memories of dance are watching old MGM Hollywood musicals late at night and thinking hey, I could do that.
Did you go the usual route-ballet, tap, etc. Or was it pure tap?
I tried a bit of everything. I folk danced during high school, and I was interested in voice, band, theatre, mime, tap, ballet, jazz, modern, drawing, painting, and sculpture! You name it, I tried it. In my first year of college I was a sculpture major and then I switched to dance, and then to theatre.
At the time you were growing up, who were the tap icons, as it were?
Fred Astaire and all his dancing partners, Gene Kelly, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Ruby Keeler, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell. But my favorites were Donald O'Connor and Ray Bolger, the eccentric dancers. Both O'Connor and Bolger were multi-talented. They could sing, dance, and act, and were allowed to play the average kind of guy, but full of surprises and always a bit off center and funny. I guess I related to them because I was always considered the class clown in my circles. I think I got this from my dad. He is still a very fun loving man. You can add Buddy Ebsen and Dick Van Dyke to this list.
When my mother was a young girl she saw the original Rodgers and Hart BABES IN ARMS. The Nicholas Brothers were in that and, as she described it, they moved beyond, below, upwards and through gravity. What do you think of that?
The Nicholas Brothers had class, they could sing and dance, and they were very smooth, but also very physical with the splits and all. They were both what we call a "Class Act" AND a "Flash Act". I got to work with both of them. They were strong, multi-talented gentlemen that went through a lot. In the early days of musicals they were usually cast as waiters, porters and such, and I'm sure this was difficult for them. But instead of showing off their frustration and anger later in life, they embraced the tap community and set a standard of excellence, with a humble attitude that we all have benefited from today. It's one thing to be talented-- it's another thing to be positive, pleasant and supportive.
How did you begin you career?
I was a member of a local dance troupe called the Storm Mountain Folk Dancers throughout high school. Then, even though I started out as an art major during my first year of college, I also began trying every form of dance and took a bunch of dance and theatre classes. In 1977, my soon to become mentor, Brenda Bufalino, came to Fort Collins, along with two of the Copasetics (Charles "Cookie" Cook and Leslie "Bubba" Gaines) and taught a workshop that I attended. That same summer, a friend and I went to see a production of "Bubbling Brown Sugar" in Denver and had dinner with the one and only Charles "Honi" Coles afterwards! The rest is history. I decided to change my college major to dance, and I moved to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah. It had an amazing musical theatre department where you could study dance, theatre, and music, all at the same time. I eventually moved to San Francisco and studied with the late Eddie Brown and the late Tony Wing, the first an amazing rhythm tap dancer and the second an equally amazing Hollywood dancer. I finally moved to New York in 1982 with my equity card in hand in search of Brenda and the Copasetics. I ran into Brenda on 72nd Street within the first week of my arrival.
As you progressed in your career, where was it was it easier to find employment: Broadway, the concert stage?
It wasn't easy to find any employment as a tap dancer. There wasn't much tap dance on Broadway, and it wasn't until I had a knee injury, and a lot of time on my hands, that I realized I would probably have to create my own work. Once more, I tried a bit of everything. I auditioned, I studied, I bartended, I created a cabaret act, I choreographed, I sang back up vocals, I taught classes, I worked in commercials, and in films. But I always thought of myself as a tap dancer first, and that is what I decided to focus on.
What was it about tap that so appealed to you?
Well, it always looked like a lot of fun, and it was fun! The people I met and studied with were all very interesting and talented! We were all allowed to be individuals, with his or her own voice and style. What is so great about the form is that it's very inclusive. You can be any age, size, shape, or color and have a career. I guess I always felt a little different than the rest. Maybe we all do, but tap dance seemed like something that I could fit into and be myself while in it. I am very interested in variety. That is why I am known for producing and presenting a wide spectrum of styles and formats for tap. I like to mix things up. Variety is the spice of life.
You founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra in 1986. How did that come about?
I was studying with Brenda for a couple of years, and then one day she got a gig and decided she wanted to form a dance company. So I volunteered and took on the administrative responsibilities as we formed the American Tap Dance Orchestra, which ultimately provided me with an income both as a dancer and as the Executive Director. Fast forward, the ATDO eventually became the ATDF.
What was, and is, the aim of the Foundation?
Our mission statement is to establish and legitimize tap dance as a vital component of American dance through creation, presentation, education, and preservation-- to perpetuate the art form; to educate the public about this amazing American art form; to move it forward and to preserve it.
I have created dozens of programs through the ATDF that hopefully present the form in a provocative and contemporary light. If you want to just get a bit of exercise and have a little fun, that's ok! If you are curious about tap dance history, then go visit the Gregory Hines Collection of American Tap Dance that we created in partnership with the Lincoln Center Public Library. Or, if you want to experience professionals in action and really get into the musicality and technique behind the form, then you're invited to the party too. If you want to try it yourself, we have year-round training programs with over 600 students at the American Tap Dance Center. Live concerts like "Rhythm in Motion" expose an audience to modern approaches and new voices of the best and brightest tap choreographers and dancers in the world today. Social and political issues are being expressed through tap dance, just like any other art form.
You've performed around the world in such places as Russia, Singapore and Latvia, to name just a few. What was their reaction to tap?
Everyone loves tap dance but has a different relationship to it and perception of it. And that's what makes it so fascinating and challenging. It's interesting how each person or culture approaches tap dance. For example, Brazilians tend to blend in their own music and dance traditions, while Asians are so in love with American music that they are more likely to dance to classical jazz. (This is just a general statement - there are no rules. That's what is so exciting)!
You've worked with a number of tap dance legends. Would you care to tell me about those who you've admired and what it is about their work that so impresses you?
Of course, I am impressed with talent and their personalities. But also with their commitment to the form. And it has usually been against all odds. Look at dancers like Peg Leg Bates! So many of our tap dance legends had to also fight against racism, sexism and ageism. Tap Dance is often a complete parallel to our culture. Today we are still struggling with racism, reverse racism, along with women and gay rights issues. Unfortunately, a large portion of our society perceives tap dance as a straight, black male art form. Since the seventies, women in tap dance have had to be very aggressive and say, "Hello! We are here also." Look at Brenda Bufalino. It took years for the public to understand and embrace the level and complexity of her work as a white female choreographer.
In 2001 you renamed the organization Tap City. How did that come about?
That's not actually true. I renamed the organization the American Tap Dance Foundation. I started Tap City, the New York City Tap Festival that same year as a project of the American Tap Dance Foundation.
Do you think audiences are still receptive to tap, as opposed to ballet and modern dance?
They are definitely more receptive to tap dance now more than ever. And I think it's because they know more about it. How it is more complex. Not just something from the past. A very lively and progressive art form that is growing and expanding.
Where do you see tap going?
It's already very international and blending with other forms of dance and music. Because there are more dancers, there will be more productions, festivals, and workshops. We are exposing the form and a larger variety of modern approaches to an ever growing and super sophisticated audience. There will also be more use of technology and larger audiences asking to see and hear more tap dance on television and in films. With all this, I think that our audiences are now finally seeing "themselves" on stage and in film. "Hey, that 12-year-old Chinese girl up there could be me! I want to tap dance. I can do that! It's a beautiful thing."
What can we expect from you in the future?
More projects that I hope continue to move the form forward in a positive light. Ironically, I am also simultaneously looking back and I want to make sure that our history is not forgotten. I want everyone to remember who Gregory Hines was, Donald O'Connor, Honi Coles, the Copastics. I'm creating a new program called Tap Treasures, a Tap Dance Hunt & Tour. It will be introduced during Tap City in 2016, incorporating much of the history of tap dance and how it relates to famous locations and people that contributed to the evolution of the form right here in New York City, the place where it was actually born.
Photo: Lois Greenfield