The sound of a step moving lightly lifts into a beat. Against a bass strum, it builds in a rapid roll and ripple and drive. Swing is a pulse with accents playing against it, said Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, internationally recognized rhythm tap dancer and choreographer. Swing is a feeling and an interaction. Swing is a glad movement.
Swing is a real complexity and joy, said Pamela Tatge, director at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. And Sumbry-Edwards has invoked it in the world premiere of “And Still You Must Swing,” at the Pillow (July 6 to 10 2016), with rhythm tap masters and choreographers Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith, and with guest artist Camille A. Brown.
“It’s exciting when we can give artists who are masters of their forms, each a virtuoso in their own right, an opportunity to create together — four premiere artists in a room just to make a new work,” Tatge said. “This is being made for us.”
Sumbry-Edwards has taken the lead in this new work, and all four dancers have collaborated on choreography, improvisation and arrangements of contemporary music for live piano, bass, djembe and drums.
“And Still You Must Swing” began in a conversation with Jacob’s Pillow’s former director, Ella Baff, Sumbry-Edwards said by phone after a rehearsal in New York City. She performed in Michelle Dorrance’s Blues Project at the Pillow last summer, and Baff invited her to present her own work this year.
Given this chance to explore, she began to talk with Grant and Smith — longtime colleagues. They have performed together over two decades, since they each had roles in the Tony award-winning Broadway musical “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” in the 1990s.
“We have have worked together, not often but enough,” she said, for a rich conversation to evolve.
She talked with them about what was happening in dance now, in rhythm, in the choices dancers are making, and what is missing. Tap dance is thriving, more than ever before, all over the world, she said. But she feels an element slipping at its center.
“And for me, talking helped me to realize what was missing from the dance of now,” she said ” — that groove we call swing.”
“I feel, and I was taught, these two things grew up together — I want to make tap dance swing again.”
Tap has seen a renaissance recently, Tatge agreed, with tap festivals in the U.S. in the last few years, and she credits Sumbry-Edwards and Dorrance at the front of the movement, bringing the form into concert venues and expanding the form in new directions.
Tap is evolving as a form of music, as percussion, she said. She hears it in Sumbry-Edwards and her colleagues.
“They are not dancing to music — they are the music. That is the core of what is new. She is a jazz musician as much as a dancer.”
What is this swing in dance and in music? Sumbry-Edwards has taken a close look.
“Technically, it accents on 2 and 4, if you’re counting 1-2-3-4,” she said, and it begins before the first beat, “and-a-1,” and her voice relaxes and warms into a rhythm.
“I researched the word ‘swing,’” she said. “Everyone tries to describe it — and they say you have to feel it.”
Here it will appear in the shifting tempos of improvography — a word tap dancer Gregory Hines first used to describe a free experimental movement from one beat to another — and in the music.
Under Allison Miller’s direction, contemporary compositions draw on a long history of tap, swing, percussion and song.
Tap dance evolved from African dance and drumming, as people living in slavery found ways to talk to each other with sound and with their bodies. In the early 20th-century, in the upsurge of the Harlem renaissance, jazz and swing music and tap swept the nation.
Sumbry-Edwards does not want to re-create that time.
“People will dance to the music of now,” she said. “It’s not 1930.”
In “And Still We Must Swing,” new music reaches out to artists in many genres to support the dance, to honor the past and look to the future. Smith honors jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, and Brown offers a tribute to Bessie Jones, who gathered and performed work songs and spirituals from the Georgia barrier islands.
Brown also has a background in tap but has focused more recently on her own contemporary choreography, Tatge said, and they talked as she was developing the choreography for her section here, dancing rhythm in her sneakers.
The music and the movement come together with an immediacy and intimacy Sumbry-Edwards finds increasingly rare.
“Time has changed,” she said. “The music is different. It’s not often live anymore.”
The Internet can give anyone daily news from Caracas or London, but music and conversation has become electronic.
“The way we move is different,” she said. “The way we communicate is different. … And people are just not taught. We were taught in a certain way. I was brought up on swinging.”
Growing up in L.A., she began dancing at the age of 3.
“Our first group dance was to Alley cat,” she said. “It’s a straight jazz song. We warmed up to Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes.”
She wants to bring back to the dance the energy she feels in being able to work with these people now, and in this place.
“Every step is — oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening,” she said. “It’s exciting. It’s fun, it’s grooving, and most of all — it’s swinging.”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle — my thanks to Arts & Entertainment Editor Jeff Borak. Photo at the top: Rhythm tap master Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards performs in ‘And Still You Must Swing.’ Photo by Christopher Duggin, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival